Blog > Pillar Boxes
If you’ve ever been to the U.K., you may have seen bright red cylindrical objects around town. These pillar boxes are the U.S. equivalent of the free-standing blue arch-like mailboxes (and should not be confused with pillarboxes, which are the black bars that appear to the sides of a movie image that wasn’t formatted for widescreen). Although they’re more common in the U.K. or in former nations of the British empire, versions of this special red post box can also be found in other countries, such as Japan or Portugal.
Pillar boxes started to appear in 1852, twelve years after the first adhesive postage stamp was introduced. Before then, citizens would have to take their outgoing mail to the nearest letter receiving house or post office and personally deliver it to the postmaster after purchasing a stamp. Although they were initially proposed in 1840 by Sir Rowland Hill (who thought they would “add greatly to the public convenience”), it wasn’t until 1852 that the first pillar boxes were erected in the Channel Islands. It was a successful trial, which later spread with their implementation accross the mainland.
The boxes varied slightly from one area to the next, as each District Surveyor gave their own specifications for the design. You can find the most unique-looking ones that were made early on, when they included things like octagonal pillars, fluted columns, vertical slits instead of horizontal ones, and different coloring. The construction of pillar boxes was standardized in 1905, generally made of cast iron and in a cylindrical shape.
There are three distinct parts of a pillar box: the cap, which sits on the carcass and is bolted down from the inside, the door, which is hinged and displays the Royal Cypher of the reigning monarch, and the carcass, the main body that produced down below ground level, giving stability to the pillar box. Over 150 designs and varieties of pillar boxes, and their cousins, wall boxes (mail receptacles that are set into a walls), have emerged, though not all have survived.
Next time you’re in the UK, or any other country that sports these postal beauties, look a little closer and see if you can guess what time period it was erected (check out this page for some clues on the Royal cyphers)!
For a more in depth look into the history of these boxes, check out “Well adapted for a purpose…”, a really neat post from the British Postal Museum’s blog.
Happy pillar box spotting! :)