someone putting mail into a street letterbox

The mailbox is an iconic invention that has served the world well for over 100 years. 

While we all know its purpose, have you ever wondered who invented the mailbox? What’s the story and history behind the mailbox that we all know today?

Well, keep reading to find out. Below, we cover the history of the mailbox and answer the question of who invented the mailbox. 

Who Invented The Mailbox?

In the early 1800s, U.S citizens posted and received their mail via a post office. People would need to travel far distances to visit their local post office for their mailing needs. So, there was a need for a better, more convenient solution.

Albert Potts filed the very first patent for a post box in 1958. His company designed lamp posts that he fitted with letter receptacles. These letter boxes were rather small and did not protect the mail very well. Letters would often get soggy from the rain and they were easy for thieves to steal. 

On October 27th, 1891, Philip Bell Downing designed the mailbox that we all recognize today. We’re talking about those iconic blue USPS mailboxes on four legs. 

Initially called the “street letter box”, Downing invented this mailbox once he saw the need for a convenient way for people to send mail.

Downing cleverly added a hinged door to his street mailbox. This hinged opening prevented rain, snow, and unwanted hands from getting in. 

He patented his invention with the United States Patent Office in 1891. In the same year, he received another patent for a design with a chute that would easily unload mail into a postal worker's bag.

The Downing letter box patent became the basis of the letter box we have today. 

About Philip Downing

Philip Bell Downing was an African American inventor born in Providence, Rhode Island on March 22, 1857

He was the son of a well-known and respected business owner, George T. Downing and Serena L. deGrasse. His grandfather, Thomas Downing, was also a successful businessman who played a significant role in the founding of the United Anti-Slavery Society of New York City in the mid-1830s. 

Philip Downing was one of six children and, like all great inventors, he saw a need within society and developed a product to fill it! 

Besides inventing the street letter box, Philip B Downing also filed at least five patents with the United States Patent Office. Some of the most significant of these inventions were, of course, the street letter box, as well as the envelope moistener, and operating street railway switches.

After living an exceptional life, Philip Downing died in Boston on June 8th, 1934. He was 77 years old.

Who invented the mailbox

A Brief History Of Mailboxes

The Free City Delivery

In 1863, mail started being delivered to people’s homes via the Free City Delivery service. Residents now had their mail delivered instead of having to pick it up themselves. 

By 1890, the postal system was delivering hundreds of letters to recipients at their residences. So, the lack of mailboxes became a bit of an issue. Letters would get wet in the rain or blown away by the wind if left out. And thus, the letter box was born. 

The mail delivery service was an instant success. However, since the delivery service was so new, not everyone had a letterbox at this time. 

Manufacturers quickly saw the value in the residential mailboxes and came out with all sorts of designs. Those who couldn’t afford mailboxes resorted to using old cans, food cartons, and crates as a substitute. 

The USPS Mailbox

In 1903, the United States Postal Service addressed ‌residents resorting to using unsuitable containers as mailboxes by enlisting the aid of a five-man commission. This commission was tasked with examining manufactured mail boxes to check if they were up to standard. 

The post office was unimpressed with the findings and designed their own mailbox. 

An engineer named Roy Joroleman designed the first letter box for the United States postal office. Since then, the USPS mailboxes have become the unofficial standard. 

Mailboxes Today

Since Philip Downing invented the mailbox in 1857, the modern-day letter box has gone through an evolution. 

In the early twentieth century, USPS approved the design of a locking curbside mailbox. This was in response to the increase in mail theft. 

The post office also introduced specifications for installing curbside mailboxes. These specifications include placing the letter box 6 to 8 inches back from the curb. 

Today, modern mailboxes still have features stemming from Downing’s invention.

When Was The Classic Tunnel Mailbox Designed?

The classic tunnel metal box design that comes to mind when picturing a rural mailbox was actually designed by an engineer who was hired by the USPS. 

As mentioned above, when the USPS aimed to standardize residential mailboxes, they hired Roy Joroleman. Joroleman designed the classic tunnel mailbox or Joroleman mailbox.

This design was developed in 1903. However, while this design was standardized, residents still found creative ways to personalize their metal box. This included painting their letter boxes with fun colors and adding creative designs. 

Since then, mailbox designs have exploded and now, there’s a mailbox to suit your every need. For example, there are mail slots, large mail boxes, metal boxes, high-tech boxes that send you notifications when a package arrives, and handy P.O Boxes as well. 

Classic Tunnel or Joroleman Style Mailbox


To sum everything up, Philip B Downing, an influential African American inventor, invented the street mailbox that people could use to send their mail. Roy Joroleman, an engineer hired by the USPS, designed the tunnel-style mailbox for receiving mail at one’s home. 

Mailboxes have come a long way over the years. After the first letter box was invented, it went through a ton of changes and modifications. Now, there are thousands of mailbox designs and features. 

At MailboxEmpire‌ we have the perfect mailbox for you. Our mailboxes come in every shape and size. So, whether you’re looking for a classic tunnel mailbox or a modern lockable mailbox, we’ve got you (and your mail) covered!

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