I have been hesitant to write this blog post for years because I am not a postal worker, and I always get mixed feedback from postal workers when I ask questions about mail art. So, keep that in mind while you’re reading! Despite my non-post office employment history, this blog post needs to happen because I get asked all the time if the envelopes I post on social media make it through the postal system (and the answer is yes!!). What I am writing today is solely based on my personal experience with the United States Post Office; it’s certainly not gospel and was not endorsed by USPS.
When you spend a lot of time on a piece of mail art, of course you want to make sure it gets to where it needs to be! There are a few steps I take to ensure my envelopes’ safe arrival:
1. Make sure you put sufficient postage on your non-machinable envelope.
The US post office (and, as far as I know, many post offices across the world) process letters using machines. However, these machines will only process your letter if:
- Your envelope is a standard size.
- Both the contents and the outside of your envelope are flat and even.
- The envelope is not made out of a reflective material.
- The address on the envelope is legible (especially the zip code/country code).
If any of those criteria are not met, your envelope is “non-machinable” — meaning it cannot be processed by a USPS machine — and you should add extra postage. For example, if your envelope is an irregular shape (e.g. a square, like the Janet Style floral envelope pictured below), you’ll need to add a couple more stamps.
As of November of 2015, the extra charge is $0.22 for a non-machinable piece, but if you want to check up on current USPS rates, the website Postage Rates by Jerry Nelson is a fantastic resource. Nelson’s site not only explains current US postal rates, but also helps you to figure out what “standard sizes” of envelopes actually are.
2. Sometimes, you should add extra postage “just to be safe”.
The USPS standard stamp placement is in the upper right corner of an envelope. However, you can make a fun variation of mail art by placing stamps in unconventional spots. If you look at the Kaitlin Style envelope above, for example, you’ll see that I’ve lined the stamps up diagonally. That’s not standard USPS placement, so I added a few extra to account for the fact that a human — and probably not a machine — will need to handle the processing of this piece.
If in doubt, it’s never a bad idea to check with the post office. I have a tough time getting someone on the phone if I call the Boulder post office, and the line is always too long for me to justify standing in it just to ask questions; so I like to interact with USPS over Reddit. It was through Reddit that I found out that clear envelopes like the one above should have extra postage, as they are non-machinable. If you’re on Twitter, you can also tweet @USPSHelp.
3. Make sure the address is legible.
A legible address is a soft prerequisite for delivery. I say “soft” because sometimes the post office delivers envelopes to my mailbox that I am shocked anyone could decipher (you should see my mother’s handwriting; oy vey), so it seems to depend on how much patience postal employees have on any given day. To see how subjective the legibility of any given mail art envelope can be, check out Schin Loong’s Annoy a Postman project. Despite the title, the goal is not to annoy postal workers, but to test the limits of mail art. It’s amazing to see which of Schin’s envelopes were delivered, and which were not!
Sometimes, the crazy creative artist side of you may take over, leaving you with a beautiful but perhaps impractical envelope, like the Halloween-themed piece below …
In cases like that, I not only add extra postage, but I also put a sticky note on the envelope. I have no idea whether the note helps or not — for all I know, maybe it ended up falling off of this particular mail art piece — but I will say this: the skull envelope ended up at its intended destination within two days. And it made its debut sans sticky note!
When creating mail art, I always try to make sure the zip code is prominent and legible. That way, even if there’s a lot of stuff going on in your mail art (like all the swirls, lettering, and illustrations in the envelope below), the postal workers will be able to easily identify which direction your envelope needs to head.
4. Accept the chance that your envelope may not be delivered.
If I am being totally honest with you, I have never had a letter evaporate into thin air, even when sending internationally (knock on wood). Additionally, if my letters come back, it’s always because I did not write the correct address … well, except for one time, when the post office machine ate my letter. When that happened, I got my letter back along with a contrite note of apology, which I actually thought was pretty cool. Frankly, if it were me working at the post office, I probably would have just thrown the letter away and let the sender think they’d messed up in their addressing rather than admitting the letter and its contents had been torn up. (I think it’s safe to say we are all lucky that I do not work at the post office.) Instead, not only did I get confirmation that the letter had not arrived, but the person who discovered the mangled letter tried to tape it all back together again. While post office machines do not often eat letters, it’s good to keep in mind that there’s a chance it may happen.
Similarly, it is important to remember that the US post office has a 94% delivery rate (as of 2014, at least). Considering the post office sends millions of letters each year, there is a slight chance that your envelope could end up being one of the 6% of letters that do not get delivered, regardless of whether you have sent mail art or a nondescript envelope. So: be prepared for that, and if by some chance your envelope is neither delivered to the recipient nor returned to you as the sender, remember that sometimes life happens and things do not go as planned!
5. Remember that postal workers are, well, people … and people have different personalities/tolerance levels.
I am inclined to agree with many of the points in Mary England’s article How to Navigate the US Postal Service — especially the bit where she points out that different postal workers will respond to mail art in varying ways. Where one postal worker may tell you, “Oh yeah, this is fine!”, the next worker might say, “No way, José.” The only neutral “postal worker”, one who will accept your letter no matter what, is a repository (e.g. the blue mailboxes scattered across the US).
I have conflicting feelings about recommending avoiding postal workers and their varying willingness to take on mail art — the advice seems sneaky and slimy. However, transparency is my policy when writing the TPK blog, and I have to admit that all my letters are sent out from a blue box or my home mailbox. Still, it’s never a bad idea to put on some extra postage and make sure your legibility is acceptable, like in the very readable hand-lettered envelope pictured below.
Remember, too, that not all post offices will react to mail art the same way. I have said this several times on social media, and I’ll say it again here: the Boulder, CO, post office puts up with all my mail nonsense; and for that, they deserve a medal of honor. However, I have heard from multiple TPK readers that this is not the case in their community, and some mail art endeavors are woefully nipped in the bud. If you live in one of those communities, there is absolutely no shame in putting your mail art in a larger, plainly addressed envelope and sending it! When your recipient opens the large envelope, they will still be delighted and surprised.
Fun Mail Art Suggestions
While this post is dedicated to helping you ensure that your letters are delivered, I also thought it would be nice to touch on cool ways to enhance your mail art experience! Here are some ways I like to add some “va-va-voom” to outgoing envelopes:
1. Make stamp collages.
You can use vintage, uncanceled stamps to collage with, as shown on the Breezy Hand-Lettered envelopes below! Just make sure the total value of the stamps is equal to or exceeds the cost required to send the envelope. You can find such stamps on eBay or Etsy. Conversely, you may visit the USPS website and purchase modern stamps of lower values for collaging purposes.
2. Add an illustration.
Putting an illustration on your envelope — especially if it’s not necessarily integrated with the calligraphy — shouldn’t compromise whether the envelope is delivered or not. It also does not render the envelope non-machinable (in most cases). You can learn how to make an envelope with a lace motif like the Janet Style piece below in this tutorial.
3. Get creative with your return addresses.
4. Add an envelope liner.
Envelope liners are super-quick to whip up and will add beauty + stability to your mail art. You can learn how to make them in this tutorial!
5. Make your own envelopes.
I love to DIY envelopes! The Kaitlin Style piece below was created using a page from a vintage art magazine. You can learn to make your own envelopes in the Handmade Stationery Set Tutorial, and if you want to make different sizes of envelopes, you may enjoy the Letter Writer’s Complete Resource (which includes several printable templates).
Ultimately, all of my suggestions for getting mail art through the post office are subjective. Whether your mail art will arrive at its final destination depends on many factors that may be out of your control! However, I do hope that you will give creating mail art a try. You might be pleasantly surprised at what happens; and certainly your recipient will be thrilled with the final result!
Happy, happy weekend, and thank you for reading!