Every day, we use our mailbox, checking it for packages and letters and bills. You look at it every single day but did you know a black man invented it? Thanks to Phillip L. Downing (some sources and memes say Paul but so far I have only been able to verify that his name was Phillip), you don‘t have to travel to the post office every day. You can just walk a few steps from your home. But Downing didn’t call it a mailbox. He called it a Street Letter Box.
Downing was born in Providence, Rhode Island on March 22, 1857. His father, George T. Downing was an abolitionist and business owner. His grandfather, Thomas Downing, was born to emancipated parents in Virginia and also had a successful business in the financial district of Manhattan in 1825. Thomas Downing also helped to found the United Anti-Slavery Societies of New York City.
Coming from a family of business owners, it‘s no surprise that Phillip would become an inventor. During the late nineteenth and the early twentieth century, Downing successfully filed five patents with the United States Patent Office. Among his most significant inventions were a street letterbox (U.S. Patent numbers 462,092 and 462,093) and a mechanical device for operating a street railway switches (U.S. Patent number 430,118), which he invented before the predecessor of today‘s mailbox. On June 17, 1890, the U.S. Patent Office approved Downing’s application for “new and useful Improvements in Street-Railway Switches.” His invention allowed the switches to be opened or closed by using a brass arm next to the brake handle on the platform of the car. Then, on October 27, 1891, his two patents for a street letter box also gained approval.
Downing’s design resembled old school mailboxes (see image). A tall metal box with a secure, hinged door to drop letters. Until this point, people wanting to send mail had to travel to the nearest post office. This is how the enslaved “heard it through the grapevine,“ communication started on slave plantations where information passed from person-to-person, by word of mouth. The Black person who was sent to the post office to get the mail would linger long enough to get a drift of the conversation from the group of white people who congregated there. The mail carrier on his way back to the master‘s house would retell the news he heard so that the other slaves knew what was going on in the world. While many records accredit this to the news that came through the telegraph, it actually began before then. The “grape-vine telegraph” (Washington, p. 9) was unofficially invented first as mouth-to-mouth rumors, gossip, and worldly conversations and news of the war from Southern blacks on the plantation.
Knowing this, it is not surprising that a Black man would make these “conversations” easier by inventing a mailbox. To this day the term, “I heard it through the grapevine,” is still a common saying for someone who has heard gossip. The phrase has even been recorded as a song by Gladys Knight & the Pips in 1967 and by Marvin Gaye in 1968.
Before, those wishing to send mail usually had to travel to the post office but Downing’s invention changed that. Instead, the street letter box would allow for drop off near one’s home and easy pickup by a letter carrier. His idea for the hinged opening prevented rain or snow from entering the box and damaging the mail.
Misty Brown, “Ever Wonder,” Afro-American February 6, 1988; Eyvaine Walker, Keeping a Family Legacy Alive: Unforgotten African Americans (Atlanta, GA: Twins Pub, 2011), 316 – 317. “Philip Downing, Boston, Retires After 31 Years Service in Custom House,” The New York Age, April 9, 1927.
Mahoney, E. (2017, October 31) Philip B. Downing (1857-1934). Retrieved from https://www.blackpast.org/african-american-history/downing-philip-b-1857-1934/
Washington, B. (1995). UP From Slavery. Dover Publications Inc. Edition. Original Publisher, Doubleday, Page, circa 1901, NY. Chapter 1: A Slave Among Slaves, p.9