Ah, romance: the U.K. letterbox and the U.S. mailbox

Ever since I moved to Cornwall, I’ve been running into people who romanticize the U.S. Maybe it’s because they’ve seen it in movies or on TV. Maybe it’s because they like the music. Maybe it’s for reasons I haven’t even guessed at. I spent most of my life the U.S. That makes it hard for me to see the romance.

During Hollywood’s golden age (when that was that? you should know better than to trust me with numbers, so let’s acknowledge the question and skip right on over it), photographers smeared their lenses with vaseline in order to give actresses a golden glow. Or, if you prefer, a nice blurry look. Let that stand as an example of how to romanticize something. You need distance. You need blur. You need vaseline.

I don’t know how they cleaned their lenses, but that’s a different issue.

Vaguely relevant photo: The view from St. Materiana Church. If you know where to look, there's a castle out there. What's more romantic than that? Photo by Ida Swearingen

Vaguely relevant photo: The view from St. Materiana Church. There’s a castle just out of sight on the right. What’s more romantic than that? Photo by Ida Swearingen.

I don’t know how many people in Britain romanticize the U.S., only that some do. Hawley’s Small and Unscientific Survey, which is as random as it is unscientific, has never tackled the subject because Hawley can’t figure out what question to ask. Every so often I hear something that files itself under Romanticizing America. That’s the best the survey and I can do.

I do know that people have odd impressions of the U.S. The most common one is that we all live in big houses—either McMansions or the kind of apartments you’d see in a Woody Allen film.

Stop laughing, you Americans, because our images of the U.K. are just as out of kilter. In a letter once, I told a well-read friend in northern Minnesota that a nearby town drew a lot of surfers.

“Surfers?”  she wrote back. Her images of England, she said, came out of Dickens. None of Dickens’ characters owned a surfboard. So what were we doing with surfers?

In fairness, she knew how absurd that was, but knowing a thought’s absurd doesn’t stop it from operating.

And for those of you who know enough not to confuse England and Cornwall, I remind you that when you’re an ocean away, it all gets a little–well, vaseline-y.

My latest (and somewhat questionable) example of romanticizing America came to me as follows: Earlier this week, A. and I were stuffing leaflets through the neighbors’ letterboxes. This isn’t a romanticizable activity. Letterboxes are cleverly designed to keep things out, not invite them in. This is good if you own one, because it keeps the wind from banging the flap around and blowing into your living room. It’s bad if you’re trying to stuff paper through, because as you push the paper in the flap resists with all its inanimate might.

The leaflets were about a massive reorganization of the National Health Service that the government’s forcing through. It will cut services, close some hospitals, and generally make a mess out of things. What sort of nutburger would oppose that? I doubt we’ll be able to stop it, but we can at least make it more difficult. And, if the political winds are kind, build a base to reverse the damage in the future. We’ve organized a meeting in the village where people can learn about it (it hasn’t been well publicized) and (since the farce of public consultation is required) voice their opinions.

A couple of houses from mine, a couple I know, J. and P., saw me coming and said hello.

“Can I just hand you this rather than fighting with your”—and here, if I remember right, I stumbled around a bit, my brain running through post slot and mailbox before I landed on what (I think) is the correct term, letterbox, which I find hard to remember because the object in question isn’t, on most houses, a box but a slot in the door.

If you’ve been around Notes for a while and have a better memory than I do—which isn’t hard—you may remember that we went through this once before. I should know the right word by now. I don’t. Or not with any certainty. I mean well, but the word just doesn’t stick.

P. accepted the leaflet while I explained that I’d almost lost a fingertip to a particularly vicious letterbox (and here I pointed in its vague direction in case they wanted to avoid it on their walks), and P. said there was one like it at the top of our street.

J. delivers the village newsletter, and P., who retired very recently, either helps out or is an equal participant. Either way, they know their letterboxes.

Then—and I’m coming to my point any minute here—he said, “You have those boxes in the U.S.” His hands shaped the dome of the archetypal American rural mailbox. Something about either his hands or his voice convinced me that they seemed romantic to him, although I admit I didn’t ask. But it made a kind of sense. If they haven’t been worn down daily contact, even the oddest things can seem romantic. I’ve known Americans who fall in love with the British pillar mailboxes because they’re red and they’re shiny and they’re–well, British. They’re also postboxes and not to be confused with letterboxes. They’re the things you post your mail into, not receive your mail in.


You don’t—for reasons I’ll never understand—mail a letter in this country. You post it. Even though you’re handing it over to the Royal Mail, not the Royal Post. Because the word usage is foreign to me, I’m sure I could romanticize it. I don’t, as it happens, and pillar postboxes don’t do anything for me either. But I’m a fool for thatched roofs. And I do kind of like the squarish postboxes when they’re set into stone walls. I mean come on now, that’s romantic.

Either J. or P. suggested that I write about mailboxes. Or postboxes. Or letterboxes. Or, well, whatever they are’s. If I hadn’t just endangered my fingers in one, I’d have shrugged off the idea. But knowing what I do about how vicious the beasts can be on this side of the Atlantic, I’m ready to tell you everything I know.

So here’s what I know about American mailboxes, and it isn’t much: With rare exceptions, those domed things that look like miniature Nissan huts aren’t used in cities. They’re rural. Why? Because. In the cities we have—well, where I’ve lived houses have rectangularish boxes of one sort or another, usually on the outside wall. In Minnesota, it’s too cold to run around cutting holes in the doors, even for the privilege of getting mail. At all costs, you want to keep the cold outside and the heat inside.

If you live in an apartment building, you might have a mailbox on or set into a wall in the entryway or lobby, but then you also might pick your mail up off the floor where the letter carrier dumps it. Or half a dozen other things might happen to it. As far as I can figure out, it’s up to the landlord to set up a system. Or not, in the case of it getting dumped by the door.

Romantic, right?

There’s a joke I’ve seen played with the rural boxes: Someone mounts theirs on a pole with a sign on it saying Mail. Then they mount one 10 or so feet above it. The sign on that one says Air Mail. I’d guess that at least one person plays that joke in every county in the country, but it makes me laugh anyway.

I was told once that it’s illegal to stuff flyers in people’s mailboxes in the U.S. because they all belong to the post office. I have no idea whether that’s true—the post office doesn’t buy them, so I don’t see how they own them, and before we left the U.S. I lifted many a pizza delivery ad out of our mailbox without calling either the police or the post office, but political flyers tended—in an excess of legality—to get stuck in the door, so maybe it is true.

Everything I know about British mailboxes I already wrote above. Two things are worth repeating, though: 1, They can be vicious. 2, they’re very romantic.

83 thoughts on “Ah, romance: the U.K. letterbox and the U.S. mailbox

  1. Very entertaining post – thank you. Having lived in Canada for 10 years I am bilingual (no not of the French sort). I mean, I say eh a lot (see the old Bob and Doug McKenzie skits from The Great White North, on YouTube if you don’t know them – eh is the mainstay of their vocabulary). I was saying ‘you guys’ before it became common here in the U.K. and I started calling biscuits cookies. So I guess that makes me trilingual because cookie is very US.

    It took me awhile to get used to calling carpets ‘broadloom’ though. Trash instead of rubbish was another weird one for me and I must say that once back here, I reverted back to saying rubbish.

    There is a ton of other stuff that I never used to say before Canada (like ‘ton of other stuff’). I still call washing up liquid (UK speak for the stuff that rots our guts but makes our plates squeaky clean) dish soap, which once again, I picked up in Canada.

    And yes, letterbox IS a very confusing name for a slot in the door that resists letters and attacks fingers. Handtrap would be far more apt and not at all romantic. Or maybe lettercrumpler.

    Anyhow, may I suggest you explore knockers next? As in door knocker. The diversity of UK English always amazes me. ‘Knockers’ can refer to either the door variety or breasts (if you are an ignorant male of a certain age and socioeconomic class).

    And Debenhams, wow, what a sense of humour they have! There was once a department in the Ipswich Debenhams called Knobs & Knockers (yes REALLY!) where they catered for all your door furniture requirements. And what a great name for a blog post. I would do it myself if I wasn’t knee deep in incontinence pads (not mine). Instead, I just ramble on other people’s blogs like right now. Ok, I’m going. 😀

    Liked by 1 person

    • Wow. I hardly know where to start. Handtrap. Lettercrumpler. Knobs. Knockers. What a great comment. I’ll only say that I’ve never heard of broadloom, which I guess proves that I’m not Canadian, even though I recognize eh as pure Canadianese. And that I’ll see if I can’t do something with your suggestions.

      Sorry to hear about the incontinence pads. That doesn’t sound like fun.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I tried mailing a letter in Scotland once. The lady at the window smiled and asked, “you mean ‘post’ don’t you?”
    “Yes, ma’am,” I assured her. So she sold me some stamps and pointed me to the nearest post box or mail box or whatever. Unlike in the states I couldn’t just stamp my letter and hand it to her. It had to go into the whatever box.
    I get to go to Ireland this summer so I’ll try again.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. It seems that you guys (UK) have managed to avoid the ambiguity of the term ‘mailbox’ – I mean, is it my mailbox or the mailbox on the corner. Here in the US, we can mail (post) a letter from our individual mailbox by raising the little red flag. Do you have anyway of doing that in the UK? Is your flag red? How would one do that from a slot in the door? (in either country).

    I worked my way through college by working for the Post Office. Nothing about those boxes seems at all romantic to me.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Right, there’s nothing like work to take the romance out of something.

      We don’t have flags on our letterboxes, red or otherwise over here. Especially when they’re slots in the door. And you can’t use them to mail/post something–for that you have to use a postbox. Because–um, well, because that’s how it’s done.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I have to admit to being completely in love with my mail box. We bought a house over the summer, it didn’t have a mailbox, and shortly after moving in we received a letter from the city Postmaster asking if he could come see me about the lack thereof.

    So we arranged a meeting and a very nice chap turned up and we stood at the bottom of the drive gravely discussing the height it needed to be so that the mail person could open it from their vehicle and how far back it needed to be to avoid being hit by snow ploughs in the winter. We lined it up with the path to the front door, marked an X and that weekend my husband purchased a box and he put it up.

    A personal visit from the Postmaster himself is pretty small-town romantic, but it got better. It turns out the flag on your mail box means you can leave mail to be sent out in there and your mail man takes it away!! I found this so exciting that I immediately sent my sister a postcard and then sent her a photograph of the postcard in the mail box with the flag up. (We know ho to live)
    I suppose this seems completely silly to American’s but to me it is the stuff of my child hood tv shows and Stephen King books. (We also have a story about my husband nearly swerving off the road because I shrieked “white picket fence” when I saw one for the first time, but that is much less romantic :)

    Liked by 1 person

      • I have a question though (also I’m desperate to distract from the possessive apostrophe my phone added to “Americans” in my comment above) I live in what is by UK standards a small town, but it calls itself a city. Just outside there is a township by the same name, 20 miles down the road there is a large town which also calls itself a city. Neither of the cities have cathedrals. What are the rules in America for taking the title city?

        Liked by 1 person

        • I wasn’t sure what the rules are, so I googled it and found this, which says it has to do with whether the place has its own governing structure. If that’s true, some very uncityish places are cities, including lots of suburbs.

          None of this has anything to do with cathedrals. That just doesn’t compute in the U.S.

          What I would have said, before consulting Dr. Google, is that you can call yourself a city if no one burst out laughing. And probably even if someone does, although you’ll have to put up with that reaction every time you say the name.

          Hope that helps, although I doubt it will.

          Liked by 1 person

          • In the nearby incorporated city of Grover Beach there is a street by the name of Atlantic City Avenue. I have no idea where this suburban street got its name. Grover Beach is next to the Pacific Ocean. Before it was incorporated as a city, it was known as Grover City. I think it used to be thought that adding “city” to the name of a small town might bring in more visitors who would spend money. Lately though the term “beach” seems to fill that function. You have to keep up with what the current thinking is on these important matters.

            Liked by 1 person

  5. I think many Americans romanticize Britain, just as many British may romanticize America—though postal envy may not always be involved. We have so many things in common and so many charming differences—how we spell certain words, the different words we use for common things, what we find edible, and what we consider funny. And now, we have the commonality of having voted against our best values and our own common sense. I always appreciate how you share with us both big and little notions to consider. Thank you, Ellen.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. These days rural mailboxes are mostly input devices because there are thieves about who steal outgoing mail to see if there’s anything valuable like checks they can alter. Decades ago my outgoing mail was found ripped open on a nearby street in Santa Barbara. Oops! There goes another bit of romance–Santa Barbara as a perfect paradise. Everywhere I’ve lived teenagers have focused on rural mail boxes as an object of entertainment–cherry bombs and firecrackers inside or baseball bats applied swiftly to the outside from a speeding car or bike, colorful spray painting or simply switching the mail from one box to another. Where I live now 60 rural boxes are lined up in two rows behind a gate. They now have an arty tilt to the west after a neighbor mistook gas for brake and hit the wall to which they are all attached. Looks so good the mobile home park manager left them that way and I photographed them with the sun reflected off their shiny tops. We once had a mailman (postman in Brit?) who opened and closed all 60 with a rapid, rhythmic flourish. Retired folks would show up just to watch. Now that’s American romance. Better to focus on such romantic memories than to think about that scary regret already washing over us in a Twittery way, right?

    Liked by 1 person

    • It is, but somehow a bit of the romance drained out of it with the baseball bats and the cherry bombs and check theft. But I report fairly authoritatively that it postman in Britain–or even postie.


  7. Wait ! You are trying to prevent massive changes to a Health Care system which, while not perfect, has been helpful to many ? And you think that, no matter what you and your cohorts do, the Gummint (say it aloud. It’s ‘Murican.) will do whatever they d**n please ? Wow ! Vive la – uh – similarities ! And good luck with that.


  8. So, Brits don’t “mail a letter” but post it (“even though you’re handing it over to the Royal Mail, not the Royal Post” – hahahaha). But they do send email and not epost, right? LOL Also, Mail and Air Mail, hahahahaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa!!!!!!!

    Liked by 1 person

  9. I understand this completely.
    It is, in fact, illegal to put anything that is not posted into an American mailbox. It is true. It is a federal crime. This is why junk mail goes in mailboxes and flyers go on doors, in doors, etc. and why if you get the paper, it must have it’s own compartment.
    I live in the city and I have a mailbox resembling a small house with a shingled roof. It is on a post and lives near the side of my house. I have had many kinds of mailboxes, but I’ve preferred the two homes that allowed us mail delivery almost to our door. Not fond of walking to the mailbox. It’s enough to keep me from collecting my mail. Take long walks with the dog, sure. Walk to the mailbox every day, no.
    I wouldn’t like a letterbox. I would probably jump out of my skin every time it was used. I certainly wouldn’t want to bend over to pick it up. Yoga every day, absolutely. Bending over to collect mail, no.

    Liked by 1 person

    • What you consider acceptable exercise is so silly that it makes perfect sense. Strange creatures, we humans. I don’t mind picking up the post/mail everyday, but I’m not crazy about finding it on the floor when we come in wet and with our hands too full to pick it up, so that it’s soaked by the time two humans and two small wet dogs have passed over it.

      Liked by 1 person

  10. In the 80’s, in a city townhouse, I had a mail slot in my door. It was quite unfortunate, actually, because I had a huge German shepherd dog who did no appreciate it AT ALL when the female mailman (post-person?) put letters or bills through the mail slot. He once tore apart a large reimbursement check and even perforated an absentee ballot sent to my roommate, thereby choosing her candidate for school board, because it was a punch-type absentee ballot.

    I’m digressing.

    All I really wanted to do was pat you on the back for your commitment to your civic duty.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I love digressions almost as much as I love thatched roofs, so indulge, please. I hope your dog was a thoughtful voter, not just choosing a candidate because his or her name appeared at the top of the ballot.

      I’d go for letter carrier to avoid the mailman/mailwoman/malewoman problem.

      Liked by 1 person

  11. Ellen, years ago I had an interesting conversation with my B&B host in northern England. He revealed that he and, he suspected, many Brits have the idea that Americans have big hair, big teeth and big breasts AND carry guns. He was hilarious! And I once met a woman in a tiny northern village who, on learning we were from America, asked if we had known Elvis Presley.

    But we definitely romanticize England. And I do it rather deliberately. I’d be afraid to actually go there again as it couldn’t possibly live up to the version in my head! :D

    PS I adore those red postboxes — and the phoneboxes, some of which I’m told are being preserved and used to house heart defibrillators.

    Liked by 1 person

  12. One not so very romantic thing about ‘those domed things that look like miniature Nissan huts” is that nasty pranksters seem to enjoy driving around and knocking them over or bashing them in. After all, what else is there to do when you live out in the boonies?

    Oh dear, I just went back to read previous comments (I have to do this because the short term memory is very short these days) and discovered that someone else had already mentioned the baseball bats applied to rural mailboxes. Doing a far better job of it than I did. Hard to come up with something witty or original after nursing a toothache half the night.

    I’ll have to google “nissan hut” since I can only picture a garage for a car manufactured by Nissan.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Aha! should have done the google before I hit “post” (ahem, we don’t “mail” but “post” a comment here, too). Seems that the google spells it nissen and I’ve always heard them called Quonset huts. We had a neighbor who lived in one back in the 80s. Went back a few years ago to visit and it had all been boxed over to look like a normal house. Can’t imagine what it might look like inside. But I digress.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I can’t find it now, so either I looked in the wrong place or I took the word out, but I’d initially described American rural mailboxes as miniature Nissan huts, trusting my (generally unreliable, although not usually about spelling) memory that the spelling followed the pronunciation. Ha. This is English. What was I thinking? Spell check, however, accepts the -an spelling as correct as long as I capitalize it. It doesn’t accept Nissen. Should we just agree to call ’em Quonset huts?

        Any idea why we’re capitalizing the beasts?

        On the use of post for what we do on blogs: I always imagined it as a bulletin board we were thumb-tacking something to. And, gee, I’m using a preposition to end a sentence with.

        P.S.: I’m all for digressions. They’re often more fun than the original topic.


        • Just guessing, but since there’s an auto brand called and spelled Nissan, I’m thinking that’s where the caps come from. Quonset might be capitalized because there’s a town outside of Boston names such. Perhaps where they were first built? Guessing and too lazy to google. I don’t mind calling them Nissan or Nissen. I just learned a new term for ’em. Whether I’ll remember it two days from now is anyone’s guess.

          These days I’ve forgotten what a preposition is, so you’re free to tack one onto any sentence you like.

          Liked by 1 person

          • I learned two definitions of a preposition: It’s anything you can do in relation to a cloud (on a cloud, in a cloud, with a cloud, etc.) and it’s something you should never end a sentence with. The first is useful if you happen to need to know, and as a copy editor I did, since prepositions have their own bizarre set of rules governing capitalization in headlines, and the second gives me joy because it does exactly what it tells you not to and who could resist that?

            Liked by 1 person

  13. In today’s climate in the US, I definitely would feel like I’m taking my life in my hands stuffing flyers in mailboxes. Of course, our mailboxes are extremely roomy. Except when the mailperson stuffs a package from Amazon in it and it is all beat to hell but I digress. It is funny how the UK romanticizes us and we in turn romanticize them. I guess it is the old “grass is always greener” theory.

    Liked by 1 person

  14. Interesting, post. I agree with you. I like the Mailboxes that sit in a stone. I also like the look of the slot in doors but I can see where there would be problems. Great, post. And full of fun facts!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’ve been surprised at the way people responded to it. I wasn’t sure it was worth posting but time was tight and I didn’t have anything better on hand. And the moral of this story is–. Hmmm. I’m not sure what it is. Don’t trust my own judgment?

      Liked by 1 person

  15. Letterbox. Didn’t realize there was such a thing. And I left university with a Linguistics degree. =) Cross-cultural perspectives and perspectives crossing cultures – hitting more than missing in the hit-and-miss – are always so interesting.

    Liked by 2 people

    • I’m always stumbling over words and phrases I hadn’t been aware of, or using ones that people here think are charming/incomprehensible/painfully funny. It seems to be a lifelong process.


  16. Well, letterboxes there sound less romantic when you asterisk your warning. I think you should start a movement that requires each letterbox mail slot to have a small basket hanging underneath with some bandaids and salve. But don’t put the salve on your eye glasses to make the letterbox more romantic. It’ll just make bugs stick to them. And that’s never romantic. :) Thanks for another awesome read! <3

    Liked by 1 person

  17. I like the idea of mail boxes being both romantic and a little dangerous. I prefer not vicious. In my mind mail can be dangerous when it is a break up letter or a bill that causes someone to have to give up their home. Just a side note from a “hopeful romantic” from America. <3

    Liked by 1 person

  18. Before my accident, I was a rural mail carrier for many years. I’ve always said that those airmail boxes were for the political mail. My route was 98 miles in some of the curviest roads in KY. You know snow up hill both ways and all of that. I loved it after being a stay at home mom for many years. An empty car, my own radio station, and nothing but nature (and by nature, I mean allergy season and 2 feet of snow). I volunteered on my off days!

    Liked by 1 person

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