A letterbox, more commonly known today as mailbox, is a container in the street or other public place in which you can put letters for them to be collected and sent to someone else.
The first letterbox in North America was a hollowed-out tree that stood on the corner of Main and Second Streets in East Quogue, New York. The tree, a large white oak (Quercus alba), was used as a mail drop-off point by Long Island post riders. It was planted in the early 1700s by a local farmer.
The tree was known as the "Boxtree" and it became a popular gathering place for locals. The tree was used as a mail drop-off point for over 100 years. In 1876, it was damaged by a storm and was eventually removed. A stone marker was placed at the site of the Boxtree in 1939.
The Boxtree is described as the first known letterbox in North America by the East Quogue Historical Society. It is recognized as the earliest postal letterbox in the United States by the Town of Southampton's East Quogue Hamlet Heritage.
Beginning in 1747, before there was the U.S. Postal Service, a stagecoach made two round trips per week from Brooklyn to Greenport by way of the north shore and returned on the south shore. It was a two-day trip each way. Postal riders frequently traveled this Brooklyn to Greenport route on what is now called the North Fork of Long Island.
Mail was delivered to area residents by this stagecoach from which the driver dropped the mail into the hollow of the white oak tree. Consequently, the hollowed-out tree became a pick-up point for the mail. By 1835 stagecoach service to New York City ran through the Quogues from East Hampton as well.
Soon after the Revolution in 1787, a box was placed in the tree making it the first known letterbox in North America. It was hollowed out by a post rider who needed a place to store mail. When the U.S. Postal Service's Rural Free Delivery (RFD) officially started in 1891, the Boxtree became the first RFD post box in America as well.
In 1894, a brass plaque was affixed to the remnant. The plaque reads:
"In Perpetuation Of The Memory Of The Box Tree. A repository for the U.S. Mail more than 100 years ago, the only Free Post Office known was destroyed by fire July 4, 1893."
A poem is inscribed upon the plaque of the Boxtree. The poem reads as follows "E. Walters, corrected to read Mrs. Fairfield. For centuries God’s happy birds, Found cover safe with me, A hundred years man’s written words. I guarded faithfully, Now life is over; naught remains, But one long peace for me, And in the grateful hearts of man, This honored memory"
The plaque is now kept at the Old Schoolhouse Museum on Quogue Street. The museum is only open to visitors in the summer however, a more detailed account and reference material can be found on the East Quogue Historical Society website. The Boxtree historical stone marker is about 150 yards north of the museum, which marks the spot where the Boxtree once stood.
According to the May 17, 1902 edition of The Brooklyn Times, the mighty oak “was a favorite meeting place for the villagers, and many matters pertaining to the town were discussed at this spot.” It was also reported that “a light-fingered grocery clerk often hid a quantity of his loot in the hole in the tree until he could get it again at a later time.”
The Boxtree is a significant piece of American history and it is a reminder of the early days of the postal service in North America. Today it is a popular local tourist destination in East Quogue, New York.
Fun Fact: The U.S. Postal Service is the largest postal service in the world according to the U.S. Government Accountability Office.