The claim: In 1913, it was legal to mail children in America
The Postal Service was created in 1775 to give Americans a safe way to send things across long distances, but one thing that the first postmaster general, Benjamin Franklin, probably never imagined mailing was children.
Still, some online posts claim that the Postal Service once allowed parents to mail kids.
“In America, [in] 1913 it was legal to mail children,” reads a Facebook post shared May 24. “With stamps attached to their clothing, children rode trains to their destinations, accompanied by letter carriers.”
The post includes photographs, and it claims the images show postal workers carrying bags of “mailed” children during the early 1900s.
The post accumulated over 400 reactions and 100 shares within three days. The same claim has circulated online since at least 2014.
But the photos were staged.
The images in the post do not display real-life cases of mailed children. In the early 1900s, a few cases of mailed children were reported, according to postal historians. Even so, it was not legal to mail children at the time, and there is no evidence that children were delivered in mailbags.
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USA TODAY reached out to the Facebook users who shared the claim for comment.
Children were mailed, but the photos were for humorous purposes
The photos in the post are possibly from the National Postal Museum’s online art collection, and they were made to be “humorous,” according to the museum’s Flickr account, where copies of the photos are available.
While the exact origin of the photographs is unclear, there is no evidence that these pictures are of actual children in mailbags. They seem to have been done for fun, according to experts.
In an email to USA TODAY, Lynn Heidelbaugh, a curator at the National Postal Museum’s history department, explained, “these may have been taken as humorous or charming portraits.”
“Mailing” children did occur after the Postal Service introduced package delivery in 1913, but there are no reported cases of children delivered in mailbags, according to interviews with the late Nancy Pope, a National Postal Museum historian.
The first known case of a baby being transported by the Postal Service occurred in Ohio in 1913, as documented in Pope’s article “Very Special Deliveries.”
The Postal Service stamped and delivered some children as late as 1915, including a “14-pound baby.”
Mailing children typically involved postal workers carrying or walking them.
Families relied on a trusted rural letter carrier to transport their children across short distances, Pope said in a 2015 interview with PolitiFact.
Mailing children was not legally sanctioned
After the Postal Service began package delivery, a variety of restrictions were put in place on what could be put in the mail. Certain animals were banned, but children were initially not specified.
As Jennifer Lynch, the Postal Service’s historian, explained in a Smithsonian Magazine interview, “There’s an account of (a 4-year-old girl named Charlotte May Pierstorff) being mailed under the chicken rate, but actually chicks weren’t allowed until 1918.”
In 1914, after a couple of children were handed to postal carriers for delivery with stamps attached to their clothes, Postmaster General Albert S. Burleson barred postal carriers from accepting humans as mail, according to Pope.
Despite the prohibition, some families continued to break the law, and a small number of children were given to postal carriers as mail. The last known case of someone trying to use the Postal Service to transport a child happened in August 1915.
Our rating: Missing context
Based on our research, we rate MISSING CONTEXT the claim that in 1913, it was legal to mail children in America. Although the photo in the social media posts is staged, mailing children occurred between 1913 and 1915. However, the practice was rare and never officially permitted.
Our fact-checking sources:
- PolitiFact, Jan. 13, 2015, Think again about mailing off your noisy kids
- Smithsonian’s National Postal Museum, accessed June 2, The Oddest Parcels
- National Geographic, May 18, 2020, The tumultuous history of the U.S. Postal Service—and its constant fight for survival
- History, Aug. 21, 2020, When People Used the Postal Service to Mail Their Children
- The Washington Post, May 24, 2017, Mail that baby: A brief history of kids sent through the U.S. Postal Service
- Smithsonian Libraries, accessed June 6, Parcel Post: Delivery of Dreams
- Smithsonian National Postal Museum, Feb. 19, 2013, Very Special Deliveries
- Smithsonian Institution Archives, June 16, 2009, How Many Stamps Does it Take to Mail a Baby?
- Smithsonian Magazine, June 14, 2016, A Brief History of Children Sent Through the Mail
- Harvard College Library, accessed June 16, Against further extension of the parcel post service
- Lynn Heidelbaugh, June 15, Email exchange with USA TODAY
- Smithsonian National Postal Museum via Flickr, May 14, 2008, Photo
- Smithsonian National Postal Museum, accessed June 6, Precious Packages-America’s Parcel Post Service
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