Today’s episode of The Peoples Post looked at how retailers benefited from the cheaper postage rates brought about by postal reform. Circulars, delivered to people’s homes at low cost by the General Post Office (GPO), advertised products that wouldn’t necessarily be available to the public on their local high streets – and interested buyers could even place their order by return post, paying for it with stamps.
Manufacturers, farmers and a variety of other services and enterprises also began to use the Post Office on a large scale, but this presented a problem: if you’re a brewer, or a bee breeder, or a berry grower, how do you get your beer or bees or berries to whoever wants them in perfect condition?
Parcels showing bad packing, 1945 (POST 118/1605)
The Royal Mail Archive holds dozens of files detailing the problems which beset both senders and the GPO, but as far as the GPO was concerned this was almost always the fault of the sender. From inadequately-packed liquids which damaged other mail, to postal workers’ concerns about handling badly-wrapped parcels containing pathological specimens and samples of bacteria, it was clear to the GPO that senders needed to be educated.
Front of Wills' cigarette card number 28 showing a parcel hospital at G.P.O., London, c. 1911-1936 (2010-0383/28). The back of the card reads “In every large post office provision is made for the repacking of parcels which have suffered damage in transit, in almost every case the result of insufficient packing. When the damage is limited to the packing paper being torn, repair is easy, but articles are sometimes so smashed or broken that compensation, not exceeding £2, is voluntarily given”.
Over the years the GPO and Royal Mail have produced a number of leaflets and posters giving advice on how to send everything from butter to tennis rackets. They even produced educational material for use in school science classes:
Word card for use in schools describing an experiment to determine which materials are good for wrapping and packing, c. 1969 (POST 110/0404)
The publication Packing Parcels for the Post, published 1955, (which you can see in full on Flickr) noted that:
Last year the Post Office had to re-pack about one parcel in every 500 because it had either been so badly packed, or so damaged by some else’s badly-packed parcel that it could not be sent safely on its way.
In an emotive ploy for proper packing it continued:
At one side of Mount Pleasant Sorting Office is the damaged parcel section, popularly known as “Heartbreak Corner” because it may represent so many heart-breaks for people whose parcels do not arrive properly… One collection of property which could not be delivered because the goods had escaped from their parcels included 300 parcels, 110 wallets, more than 100 shopping baskets and bags, 39 cigarette lighters, razors, dry shavers, soap and toothbrushes.
Mount Pleasant Parcel Office - Returned Parcels Section, 1938. Items found in the Returned Parcels Section are displayed on a table. Items include dead animals and birds, bottles of beer and various foodstuffs. (POST 118/939)
The advice within such publications was often surprising – not just in terms of what you could send but how you should send it. If you wanted to post a rabbit in the 1930s this was how to do it:
GAME (including rabbits) may be posted with a neck label only (which must be securely tied), provided no blood or other liquid is exuding or likely to exude, and that the game is not so “high” as to taint other packets. Liability is not accepted for loss arising from the detachment of a tie-on label.
(Inland Parcel Post, c. 1930s, POST 30/3356A)
As for posting living creatures, here’s some advice from Wrap up well. Packaging for the post – a general guide, 1987 (POST 25/94)
Live bees, leeches and silkworms can be sent through the post but must be enclosed in boxes constructed to avoid all risk of injury to Post Office staff or damage to other packets. Certain parasites and destroyers of noxious insects intended for the control of such insects can only be sent by first class letter post by or between recognised institutions.
Other harmless living creatures such as mealworms, earthworms, ragworms, lugworms, caterpillars, maggots and so on may be sent with prior permission of and in packaging approved by Post Office Headquarters.
Today you can still post a wide variety of items (Royal Mail’s current packing advice can be found here), but the key point remains: to prevent your parcel from ending up in Heartbreak Corner, please pack it properly.
Properly packed parcels please, February 1965 (POST 110/2640)
– Alison Bean, Web Officer
For more on today’s episode of The Peoples Post see our webpage Business Post. Further images can be found on Flickr. Use the Twitter hashtag #PeoplesPost to comment on the show.