Decorated brass mailboxes and their mail shuts may be relics of the past but to the cognoscenti they are beautiful urban art objects that are coveted by antique and Art Deco enthusiasts. Just recently I discovered one of these exquisite objects in the Fairmont Building at 240 West 30th Street. On a wall in the vestibule by the elevators stands a lonely sentinel a medium size brass mailbox sculpted with an American eagle and attributed to the Cutler Mail Chute Company. It was no longer in use, its mail cute and inside quite empty, but still it makes one pause to wonder what happened to result in their demise.
The answer to this question is best explained in the book Art Deco Mailboxes, An Illustrated Design History by coauthors Karen Greene and Lynne Lavelle, published by W.W. Norton & Company. The heyday of the mailboxes was initiated when American Art Deco architecture flourished in the United States during the 1920s and 1930s. By the way, if you did not know already, Art Deco originated in France and the term Art Deco came into general use in 1966. It was inspired by the Exposition Internationale des Arts Decoratifs et Industriels Modernes held in Paris, France in 1924..
In America, while Busby Berkeley was building a staircase to heaven, architects were elevating Art Deco style and mailboxes became focal points in landmark buildings and public spaces. From our glittering ever- changing skyline, to graphic arts, fashion, interior design, jewelry, music and motion pictures that broad and innovative style captivated the collective sensibilities of architects and designers. Art Deco mailboxes were part of the modern movement and were an important mode of public mail convenience in the GE building, Grand Central Terminal, the Woolworth Building, 29 Broadway, the St. Regis Hotel, York & Sawyer Salmon Tower, the Waldorf Astoria. Next time you visit one of these building seek out the mailbox which may reveal some stunning sculptural elements, like eagles, frescoes, the figure of Hermes and the iconic Art Deco fountain design often embellished with streamlined shapes or decorative elements..
While many mailboxes have been removed, forgotten or disused, or even, my goodness, imagine the ignorance, they were painted over, others are still in use. They are faithfully polished daily, and hold a place of pride in lobbies throughout the country.
Although instant communication and overnight delivery are necessities in our era and these traditional mailboxes no longer serve their original purpose their history and development; however, mark a fascinating period in our country’s architectural history.
This tome with its full-color photographic survey of early mailboxes highlights those of the grand Art Deco period, together with a brief history of the innovative mailbox-and-chute system patented in 1883 by James Cutler of Rochester, New York.
Art Deco Mailboxes features dozens of the best examples of this beloved, dynamic design’s realization in the mailboxes of New York City, as well as those of Chicago, Philadelphia, Indianapolis, Cincinnati, and beyond.
Incidentally the author Karen Greene is a lover of Art Deco architecture and design and Lynne Lavelle, is editor of Period Homes magazine. That leads me to remind you that you, too, can share your passion for Art Deco by joining the Art Deco Society of New York (ADSNY), which was founded in 1980 to both celebrate and preserve our Art Deco heritage, and offers educational lectures, bus and walking tours, and celebrates the architecture, decorative arts, fashion, culture and fine arts of the Art Deco era in New York. Visit www.artdeco.org.