As You Cast Your Ballot, This Little-Known Inventor May Save Your Life

Schematic drawing of mailbox by Downing and photo of the inventor
Schematic drawing of mailbox by Downing and photo of the inventor
Philip B. Downing’s patent for the mailbox and an undated photograph of the inventor later in life

That familiar yawning blue mouth allowing you to vote more conveniently, more safely in this time of pandemic? You know that one — the one the president and his postmaster general continue to fulminate about and have endeavored to remove from the streets, especially in inner cities?

It was created by an American, one who happened to be of African heritage.

Now, how dazzlingly pertinent is that?

I came across the information in a roundabout way while researching nineteenth-century English novelist Anthony Trollope for a piece I was writing on how he had anticipated Donald J. Trump with a sociopathic con-man “businessman” character in his 1874 novel The Way We Live Now.

For many years, as he labored to become a novelist, writing for 4 or 5 hours every morning, Trollope worked full time as a civil servant for the postal service in England and in Ireland. He is credited with coming up with the concept of the post box in 1852, at first specifically for a couple of the Channel Islands, Guernsey and Jersey, so citizens could post a letter more conveniently and not have to go to a post office or a “letter-receiving house” (such as an inn). Trollope’s design was an octagonal “letter-receiving pillar,” cast iron painted olive green. These post pillars (now of various styles, typically painted red) are still used in the United Kingdom and in many of the countries and territories of the former British Empire.

Looking a bit further into the history of the post box, I learned something that delighted me: the modern U.S. mailbox, the big-shouldered blue one with the hinged lid that we know today, was patented by Philip B. Downing in the final decade of the nineteenth century.

In a series of articles on notable African Americans published on the BlackPast website, historian Eleanor Mahoney writes that Downing received a patent in 1890 for “new and useful improvements for street railway switches.” And then:

A little over a year later, on October 27, 1891, his two patents for a street letter box also gained approval. Downing’s design resembled the mailboxes that are now ubiquitous, a tall metal box with a secure, hinged door to drop letters. Until this point, those wishing to send mail usually had to travel to the post office. Downing’s invention would instead allow for drop off near one’s home and easy pick-up by a letter carrier. His idea for the hinged opening prevented rain or snow from entering the box and damaging the mail.

Downing died in Boston, aged 77. His obituary, which appeared in the Newport Mercury, on June 8, 1934, noted that his father was a well-known abolitionist:

Employed in Boston Custom House Philip B. Downing, a native of Newport and for many years an employee of the Boston Custom House, died at the Boston City Hospital Wednesday. He was born in Newport 77 years ago, a son of George T. and Serena L. Downing. His father was one of the best known colored men of his day, being associated with Charles Sumner, Colonel T. W. Higginson and other leading abolitionists before the Civil war, in the interest of the abolition of slavery.

Mahoney also notes that Downing spent part of his childhood in Washington, D.C., where his father managed the U.S. House of Representatives’ dining room.

So, yes, there’s that Downing connection, as well — to the government that is now conspiring against voting by mail and, indeed, that has removed mailboxes from streets where a higher percentage of people of color live.

Now you know about as much as there is to know. The record may be slight but the achievement is lasting. And it is really a perfect example of how it seems the birthright of all Americans (I include myself here) to pay scant attention to their own history, particularly if Black Americans were involved.

All inventors’ lives matter; they drive the engine of the economy and help make our lives more enjoyable. But of course that is true only if Black inventors’ lives also matter and are celebrated.

As Trump, his enablers in Congress, and his media partners/advisors continue to bray like bloodhounds in their attacks on the post office and on the right of people to vote, especially those of color, as well as argue with health experts and promulgate their “herd mentality” about the coronavirus pandemic (which is clearly their only strategy at this point), Downing’s invention will, no doubt, quietly and efficiently save untold lives this fall.

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