When It Was Legal to Mail a Baby

Early Postal Laws Allowed "Baby Mail"

A US postman carrying a baby boy along with his letters, USA, circa 1890.
A US postman carrying a baby boy along with his letters, USA, circa 1890. Vintage Images/Getty Images

Once-upon-a-time, it was legal to mail a baby in the United States. It happened more than once and by all accounts, the mailed tots arrived no worse for wear. Yes, "baby mail" was a real thing.

On January 1, 1913, the then Cabinet-level U.S. Post Office Department — now the U.S. Postal Service — first started delivering packages. Americans instantly fell in love with the new service and were soon mailing each other all sorts of items, like parasols, pitchforks and, yes, babies.

Smithsonian Confirms Birth of "Baby Mail"

As documented in the article, “Very Special Deliveries,” by curator of the Smithsonian’s National Postal Museum Nancy Pope, several children, including one “14-pound baby” were stamped, mailed and dutifully delivered by the U.S. Post Office between 1914 and 1915.

The practice, noted Pope, became affectionately known by letter carriers of the day as "baby mail."

According to Pope, with postal regulations, being few and far between in 1913, they failed to specify exactly “what” could and could not be mailed via the still very new parcel post service. So in mid-January 1913, an unnamed baby boy in Batavia, Ohio was delivered by a Rural Free Delivery carrier to its grandmother about a mile away. “The boy’s parents paid 15-cents for the stamps and even insured their son for $50,” wrote Pope.

Despite a “no humans” declaration by the Postmaster General, at least five more children were officially mailed and delivered between 1914 and 1915.

Baby Mail Often Got Very Special Handling

If the very idea of mailing babies sounds sort of reckless to you, don’t worry. Long before the then-Post Office Department had created its “special handling” guidelines for packages, children delivered via “baby-mail” got it anyway. According to Pope, the children were “mailed” by traveling with trusted postal workers, often designated by the child’s parents. And fortunately, there are no heartbreaking cases of babies being lost in transit or stamped “Return to Sender” on record.

The longest trip taken by a “mailed” child took place in 1915 when a six-year-old girl traveled from her mother’s home in Pensacola, Florida, to her father’s home in Christiansburg, Virginia. According to Pope, the nearly 50-pound little girl made the 721-mile trip on a mail train for just 15 cents in parcel post stamps.

According to the Smithsonian, its “baby mail” episode pointed out Postal Service’s importance at a time when traveling long distances was becoming more important but remained difficult and largely unaffordable for many Americans.

Perhaps even more importantly, noted Ms. Pope, the practice indicated how the Postal Service in general, and especially its letter carriers had become “a touchstone with family and friends far away from each other, a bearer of important news and goods. In some ways, Americans trusted their postmen with their lives.” Certainly, mailing your baby took a lot of​ plain old trust.

The End of Baby Mail

The Post Office Department officially put a stop to “baby mail” in 1915, after postal regulations barring the mailing of human beings enacted the year before were finally enforced.

Even today, postal regulations allow the mailing of live animals, including poultry, reptiles, and bees, under certain conditions. But no more babies, please.

Babies, Breakfast, and One Big Diamond

Babies are far from the only rather off-beat items the U.S. Postal Service has been asked to deliver.

From 1914 to 1920, President Woodrow Wilson's administration conducted the Farm-to-Table program as a way for American farmers to negotiate prices with people living in cities and then mail them their selections of farm-fresh products—butter, eggs, poultry, vegetables, just to name a few. Postal Service workers were required to pick up the farmers’ products and deliver them to the addressee’s door as quickly as possible. While the program was conceived during peacetime as a way to help farmers gain larger markets for their products and to give city dwellers cheaper and faster access to fresh foods, after America entered World War I in 1917, President Wilson touted it as a vital nation-wide food conservation campaign. What were the most-ordered Farm-to-Table products? Butter and lard. It was a simpler time.

In 1958, the owner of the 45.52 carat Hope Diamond New York City jeweler Harry Winston, decided to donate the massive and already famous gem—valued today at $350 million—to the Smithsonian Institution museum in Washington, DC. Instead of a guarded armored truck, Winston trusted delivery of what was then the world’s most valuable gemstone to the U.S. Postal Service. Having regularly mailed many valuable jewels in the past, Winston fearlessly affixed $2.44 in registered first-class postage to a box containing the magnificent jewel and mailed it away. Also ensuring the package for $1 million at a cost of an additional $142.05 (roughly $917 today), the generous jeweler was not surprised when the Hope Diamond arrived safely at its destination. Today, the original packaging with the postmarks remain in the Smithsonian’s possession. Although the package is not on public display, the Hope Diamond is. 

About the Photographs

As you can imagine, the practice of “mailing” children, usually at costs far lower than regular train fare, drew considerable notoriety, leading to the taking of the two photographs shown here. According to Pope, both photos were staged for publicity purposes and there are no records of a child actually being delivered in a mail pouch. The photos are two of the most popular among the extensive Smithsonian Photographs on Flicker photo collection.