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What kind of insanity is going on here?

We’re stretching the limits of the post office just to see what happens. As it turns out, interesting things happen when you mail things that are too small, too big, oddly shaped, strangely addressed, unexpected, or just plain funky.

The post office is an amazing organization when you think about it. They can deliver letters from New York to Honolulu for only 39 cents – more than 90% off from UPS rates – and that includes Saturday delivery! It’s one of the few government organizations that generates its own funding. The post office does not rely on tax dollars to operate. It’s also a very old organization, with a complex blend of history, bureaucracy, and modernization.

My study of the post office started when I downloaded a program in the early 90s that printed those short and tall bars on an envelope that encoded the zip code. Most office programs now include this feature, but it was new back then. Back then, they were talking about giving discounts to mailers who pre-code their mail and make it easier for the post office to handle. Discount or not, you still could benefit from faster mail delivery. I wondered how fast it could be.

While trying to learn more about the codes, I discovered the phone book sized Domestic Mail Manual, or DMM. This is the post office’s internal guide to the mail. It covers rules, fees, postage, post office boxes, money orders, hours of operation, uniform requirements, and all sorts of minute details that go into doing something very simple. As a teenager, it was my first real look at what the world was like outside school.

I really got started tinkering, however, when I read an article about mailing strange items. I recalled that the post office once airmailed a person as a demonstration that “you can mail anything.” (The rules have changed a little since that publicity stunt.) I’m also influenced by the Wired Magazine “Return to Sender” contest, whereby readers compete for free t-shirts by mailing the weirdest thing possible to the post office.

Over the years I have performed more than 100 experiments by mailing mis-addressed letters and odd shaped objects. This web site is an attempt to catalog some of the more interesting experiments and results as well as keep my postal-friends up to date on the latest stunts.

While I am interested in creativity, I do operate with a few rules:

  • Don’t steal from the post office. These experiments are not about escaping postage. 39 cents is not worth 10 years in prison to me.
  • Don’t do anything that could harm postal employees or damage other people’s mail. I can’t tell you the number of times people have suggested I send dog shit. Really, what would the point be? Don’t make a postal worker “go postal.” (As it turns out, you can send dog shit – termed “stool samples being sent to the lab for analysis.” Please follow the double packaging guidelines.)
  • Try to stay within the rules, especially when they start making cracking noises as you bend them.

Every postal employee I have encountered has enjoyed, encouraged, or been indifferent to these stunts. Not one employee has ever indicated that I should not have done something or that I should stop. In fact, some of the ideas come from the imaginations of postal employees as they wonder how it all comes together.

Thanks for you hard work! Watch out for the dogs.

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