The last of the older coin-operated postage stamp vending machines have, as of today, been removed from every one of the city’s post-office lobbies. “The old machines were nearing the end of their lifetimes,” said postmaster Ike Howell. “They were prone to clog, break down, fail to dispense stamps.” The city is in the process of replacing the remainder of the machines, some of which were nearing 80 years old, with newer computerized vending machines that can weigh packages and sell delivery insurance in addition to selling stamps. This marks the end of a three-year program to completely phase out the older devices. Howell added that new machines will provide customers more options than ever to purchase stamps.
But for many patrons, the older machines were a part of the fabric of the city. “I’ve been using those machines since I was a little girl,” said resident Delilah Nattson, 84. “I remember when they were first installed. My mother would send me down the block with a quarter to buy a packet of stamps.”
The original machines were invented by city resident Carnell R. Lewis, who went on to found the short-lived Ought-O-Mat chain of health-food oriented automated restaurants (litigated out of business by Horn & Hardart). The Journal-American reported that Lewis began his remarks at the machine’s introduction ceremony by saying, “Today, postage will enter the 20th century, and we, with it.”
But the spread of the Great Depression and a misplaced patent application prevented wide-spread adoption of the Lewis Boxes, as they were known, and the United States Postal Service showed little interest in introducing the machines to other cities. (The local truckers’ union speculated that the USPS did not want to pay shipping costs for the machines, which were built from iron and very heavy.) Three Lewis Boxes were melted down during World War II as part of local scrap drive efforts.
It wasn’t until Mayor J. Daniel Osgart welcomed the National Postal Machinery Convention in 1958 that the machines were discovered by postmasters in other cities. The United States Postmaster General was quoted in the Clarion-Standard as noting that the machines’ “weighty, pleasant demeanor … would fit in well in any post office.” With that endorsement, orders for the machines shot up. Local manufacturer Cyrus Works, Incorporated, switched to a twenty-four-hour, three-shift schedule in an attempt to meet demand. (Cyrus would later draw condemnation for keeping its assembly lines open on Sundays, skirting local “Blue Laws”; company President Sebastian Lyons is reputed to have responded “They don’t deliver the mail on Sunday, but by golly, we’ll deliver our machines.”)
The new machines are manufactured by the Hyundai Group of South Korea and will be installed over the next month. The city has donated three of the old machines to the National Postal Museum, where they will be used in a forthcoming “Mail Across The Centuries” exhibit. The remaining machines will be offered for sale at the next city property auction.
Because of a boundary dispute dating to the city’s 1984 annexation of the municipality of Ralston, the Argyle Street post office occupies a separate ZIP code from the rest of the city and will not be required to replace all of its machines. Postmaster Howell said that the Argyle Street post office will instead install one new machine to “supplement its existing vending machines.”
- Sean Fraga