A brief history of the letterbox

Ned Browne 16 June 2022

Did you know letterboxes only started appearing on doors in the 19th century? Ned Browne explores the history of this front door staple

First impressions count, and that’s definitely the case with front doors. Locks, door knockers, latches and hinges have been features of front doors for hundreds of years. Yet, the letterbox is a more recent addition—it only arrived on the scene after the Great Post Office Reform of 1839 and 1840. 

The sender pays

When Henry VIII created the Royal Mail in 1516, it was most common for the recipient to pay for the postage. As such, the person delivering the mail would need to collect the payment upon delivering the item.  

"The Post Office had been incurring ongoing financial losses"

The Great Post Office Reform was championed by Rowland Hill, an English teacher, inventor and social reformer, partly because the Post Office had been incurring ongoing financial losses. One of the changes was to change the way that postage was paid to the “sender pays” principle.  

Rowland Hill is also credited by many as the inventor of the postage stamp, although it’s fair to say that the stamp wasn’t the invention of any one person. 

The emergence of the letterbox

Because the person delivering the mail no longer needed to collect postage costs from the recipient, they could leave the letter or package and depart.  

The Royal Mail soon saw the benefits of this, as it sped up deliveries considerably. And, in 1849, the Royal Mail first encouraged people to install letterboxes.  

red door with letterbox

Nowadays, most front doors have letterboxes

The idea was swiftly adopted as it offered security too, which people valued as letters were, at the time, the only way to communicate privately. 

Vintage letterboxes

Installing a reclaimed letterbox in your front door is an inexpensive way to add character to your property. Head to your local reclamation yard, or search online for a huge range of options.  

Many early letterboxes were made of cast iron, and some are incredibly ornate with, for example, flower motifs. Most letterboxes are horizontal, but some are vertical. These probably came into being due to the limitations and sizes of existing doors. Remember, when the letterbox was first introduced, they all had to be retrofitted. 

"Brass letterboxes come in all shapes, sizes and ages"

Brass letterboxes come in all shapes, sizes and ages—there are elegant solid brass Victorian and Edwardian letterboxes, curvy art nouveau examples and modern oblong letterboxes that often aren’t solid brass. Buyer beware: always read the description carefully!

Stone letterboxes

Built into walls, a stone letterbox offers more security

Although not that common, stone letterboxes are a delight.  

These are built into the walls of a property and, arguably, offer bulletproof security. Installing one is not for the faint-hearted, however. 

Novelty letterboxes

In certain countries around the world, most notably the USA, houses will often have an external box for their letters. These are found at the end of driveways by the road.  

American mailbox

Mailboxes are common in America

They offer a lovely opportunity to create something unique—when I looked online I found lobsters, elephants, airplanes and dinosaurs. 

Make your front door special

The next time you’re in the market for a letterbox, spend time searching for something unique. It will bring you joy each time you arrive home. But don’t forget the draught excluder, or you’ll end up with higher bills and a colder property!

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