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Falling like phone booths, blue mailboxes still deliver
By Burt Constable | Daily Herald Columnist

Practically an endangered species in the suburbs, the familiar old blue mailboxes aren't as necessary in our digital age as they were a generation ago. But there really isn't an app for everything an old-fashioned letter provides.


Courtesy U.S. Postal Service

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Published: 7/7/2010 2:02 PM

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From the woolly milkweed and Eastern Prairie Fringed Orchid to Blanding's turtle and the piping plover, the suburbs are home to dozens of endangered species worth protecting. But few are disappearing from the suburban landscape as quickly as the trusty, old blue mailbox.

A U.S. Postal Service blue box on a corner used to be as much a symbol of a happening neighborhood as a Starbucks might be today. College applications, calligraphy wedding invitations, mortgage payments on that new house, birthday cards (with money) from Grandma and everything from surprise party invites to perfumed love letters sprang from that sturdy blue box.

Now those neighborhood mailboxes are dying off at a rate of 100 a year in the suburbs and the rest of northern Illinois. Any box that takes in fewer than 25 pieces of mail a day generally becomes extinct. In 2006, we had slightly more than 2,800 blue boxes in the northern district of our state. Now we are closer to 2,400, says Tim Ratliff, a spokesman for the U.S. Postal Service.

If this decline continues, those blue boxes may soon be as rare as public phone booths.

"It's a combination of several things," Ratliff says, rattling off reasons ranging from the recession to our republic's reliance on text messages, e-mail, online banking and twitter. All those 21st Century forms of communication have taken a bite out of letters, bills, greeting cards and other pieces of first-class mail on which we stick stamps.

"In the last 10 years, first-class mail has declined by 30 percent," Ratliff says. The 177 billion pieces of first-class mail the post office delivered in 2009 is projected to fall to 150 billion by 2020, he adds.

Facing nearly a $7 billion deficit, the postal service, already considering cutting Saturday deliveries as a way to save money, this week proposed a 2-cent hike in the price of a first-class stamp to 46 cents.

Even if the increase is approved, that means my wife and I can hire the post office to deliver 10 handwritten letters to our son in a camp out of state for less than I pay for a single Venti Java Chip Frappuccino.

"It's still a great deal and a valuable service for America," Ratliff says of the mail.

It's more than that. Probably every house in the suburbs has a box somewhere that contains meaningful letters. They have a look and a smell that takes you back to the day they arrived. You know who sent it because you recognize the handwriting that comes from the heart, not picked from a variety of font options. The envelope might have a coffee stain or a smudge of lipstick. Even the stamps tell a story.

"That personal connection lasts a lifetime," says Ratliff, who, as a West Chicago dad with three kids, has compiled his own sentimental collection of correspondence. "People save letters and look back at them."

Letters are so much better than tweets.

"My very dear Sarah: The indications are very strong that we shall move in a few days, perhaps tomorrow. Lest I should not be able to write again, I feel impelled to write a few lines that may fall under your eye when I shall be no more," begins a long letter from Civil War soldier Sullivan Ballou, who would be killed during the Battle of Bull Run. "I have no misgivings, or lack of confidence, in the cause in which I am engaged, and my courage does not halt or falter."

That's so superior to a tweet from #ballou reading "OMG NTE B4 BTTL@BULLRUN 2 TIRED 2B SCARED LOL U DA BEST."

A 2-cent increase in the cost of a stamp will add an average of 13 cents a month to the typical American household budget, Ratliff says.

I'm fine with that. Now, if you'll excuse me, I've got some forever stamps to buy and a handwritten letter for my nearest blue box.