British Blue

_MG_7633oAs iconically English as double-decker buses, red pillar boxes have been repositories for British mail since 1852, a mere dozen years after the country introduced the penny post with penny stamps. Usually round, but sometimes octagonal or squared, many original post boxes are still in use across the British Isles. And strangely, some of them are blue.

That’s right: blue!

The advent of air travel in the early 20th century meant not only people could be transported faster, but also the mail (see my review of the film Only Angels Have Wings). But flying the post was more expensive than transporting sacks of mail by train or ship, so customers paid a premium price for the service.

Pillar_Boxes_WindsorTo separate the “high flying” letters from the more grounded masses, the British government began installing a new set of pillar boxes painted Royal Air Force blue in 1930. These collected letters until the outbreak of World War II suspended air mail. After the war, UK citizens could post their air mail letters anywhere, with the postage amount and blue stickers distinguishing air from surface mail.

A few blue pillar boxes still survive as remnants from an age when air travel seemed more special even for letters.

Remember Aerogrammes?

Aerogramme 1Who remembers aerogrammes, those lightweight, prepaid, all-in-one flimsies that post offices around the world once sold for international correspondence?

A constant during my pen pal years and when I taught school in Melbourne, aerogrammes have gone the way of the dodo and rotary dial phones. When I lived in Australia, international phone rates ran a steep $2.00 per minute. Those were the days when people shouted, “It’s long distance!” and you RAN to the telephone to save the caller from spending good money on silence.

By comparison, an aerogramme at that time cost 25¢ from Australia and 22¢ from America, cheaper than regular international postage. I could cram a lot of news into one full sheet plus a third (on the inside fold). Conversely, letters with fold and seal end flaps had a marked finish line; I usually didn’t run out of news before I ran out of aerogramme. And the very name conveyed the feeling of swift couriers carrying a message in my own hand: “telegrams” sent by “airplane” = aerogrammes.

aerogramme 2Of course, there were drawbacks. No enclosures allowed, so I could not have mailed my cat, for example, who decided to pose on top of an old letter to illustrate my point. Plus, I don’t usually look for a letter opener, so piecing together ripped news was par for the course.

Aerogram006I recently found an unused 1985 aerogramme celebrating Mark Twain and Halley’s Comet that I had saved. Its white color is unsettling. No matter where I bought them, aerogrammes were always blue.

Email, Facebook and our other electronic connections are easier (and even cheaper if you don’t count the monthly Internet bill) than the streamlined aerogrammes. But wouldn’t you love to open your mailbox to find one of those thin blue missives, carrying in its folds a connection to faraway friends in distant lands?