I’m child-phobic, unwilling to spend time with human beings below the age of reason (25 or so). But even I was startled to learn that until the Post Office issued a specific decree in June 1920, it was legal to ship a child from one city to another by Parcel Post.
For seven years starting in 1913, when Parcel Post was inaugurated, parents or grandparents wanting to exile a screaming toddler could consign him or her to the loving care of a postal worker, assuming the tyke didn’t exceed the weight limit.
The postage ranged from a miserly 15 cents to a princely 53 cents, depending on weight. It was cheaper than a train ticket and less bothersome than a fidgeting juvenile in the rumble seat.
I can imagine Jebediah and Rebekah discussing the merits of posting their son the 35 miles to his grandfather’s house or buying him a train ticket. “Ezekiel is a trial, my dear,” Jebediah said. “He’ll endanger the other passengers, and besides, he’ll cost us $1.45 for a ticket. There must be a better way.”
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Rebekah contemplated his proposition for a few seconds before responding, “Well, the Post Office will ship any package less than half a hundredweight for almost nothing.”
And so they took their son to the Parcel Post window, eyed the scale carefully as he stood on it and purchased the postage needed to transport his 43 pounds from Boise to Notus, all under the watchful eye of a postal worker.
“He’ll be totally safe,” Jebediah allowed. “More so than acting the hellion amidst all those strangers. And no one will know he’s ours.”
Rebekah licked the stamps and pressed them on her son’s sleeves. “Grandpa will pick you up at the station,” she said. “Be good and listen to the postal worker.”
Ezekiel nodded somewhat skeptically, amid visions of being entombed in a cardboard box. “Will they leave air holes?” he asked.
Jebediah said, “It’s not like that, lad. You’ll be sitting on a bundle of mail, with an official postal worker to talk to, and plenty of air to breathe, and you can look out the window and see the sights as you travel. No different than passengers, except you can’t go to the smoking car.”
My divorced parents had a similar long-distance phone conversation in preparation for shipping me to stay with my father in Florida for summer vacation. They determined that they could stick me on a cheap flight, from which I couldn’t escape until my arrival.
It was in 1959, when I was barely 13. My mother sent me on a redeye from Newark, New Jersey, to Sarasota on a now-defunct airline. “Your father will be there when you land. Be good,” she said. “And don’t talk to anyone.”
The flight had several legs and I deplaned three times into semi-deserted airports as we made our way south. My only near-disaster came at a stop in Northern Florida. I needed a restroom and was just entering one when an elderly man in a blue uniform grabbed me by the collar.
“Where the hell you goin’? That’s coloreds only,” he said without affection. I slunk away, finally finding the appropriate bathroom, noticing there were also two sets of drinking fountains.
The plane eventually reached Sarasota, engulfed by the haze of a muggy summer morning. My father, either because of a faulty alarm clock or a massive hangover (or both), wasn’t there. The disembarking crew studiously ignored my anxious glances. At least my suitcase had arrived, with a new dent.
Finally, as my desperation moved toward quiet tears, a passenger agent approached and asked where my parents were. “He’s coming soon and my mother’s in Newark,” I answered cryptically.
Simultaneously, my somewhat disheveled father appeared, familiarly irritable. “You finally got here,” he said, and steered me toward his car. Reconsidering his pique, perhaps noticing the agent, he murmured, “I’ll take you to the beach later. They say it’ll be a scorcher.”
Parcel Post would have worked better.
Stuart Grover is a retired consultant residing in Tacoma. He likes dogs and books. He is one of six reader columnists who write for this page, and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org