More inventions and gadgets from the past

Published 8:17 am Friday, July 30, 2010

Ed Shannon, Between the Corn Rows

In the column published on July 9, I mentioned the post and arm device used at small town depots a century or more ago to dispatch a bag of outgoing mail onto a passing passenger train and into the railroad post office (RPO) car.

Now, thanks to local historical researcher Kevin Savick, I have another old news article featuring another gadget involving the U.S. Mail.

Email newsletter signup

This article is from the Nov. 25, 1917, issue of the weekly Albert Lea Times-Enterprise. It’s based on a farmer near Union, Iowa, who lived three-quarters of a mile from his mail box located next to a country road. Union, by the way, is located in Hardin County, somewhat to the north of Marshalltown, Iowa.

This farmer became tired of walking or riding through the snow, mud or dusty dirt to get his mail. One day he happened to see an ad in a magazine or newspaper for a movable mail box. Here’s how the news article described this particular innovation:

“The device is composed of wire and crank and a couple of wheels and brackets to attach it to the telephone poles. When the carrier puts the mail into the box, (he gives it) a push that sends it a couple of feet, and that gives a signal at the house, and the person at the house can turn the crank, every turn bringing the box 16 feet nearer, and in a very short time the box arrives with the mail. Then, at mail time again, when the carrier is on his return journey, the folks at the house deposit the mail they may want to send and start the box for the station on the main road.”

An added detail in this article said it took three and a half to five minutes to turn the crank to bring the mail to the house. There was no indication as to whether the crank was located inside or outside the farmer’s house.

Right at this point I’d like to speculate that two smart crows perched in a tree saw the mail box moving by. Maybe these crows were ancestors of those birds in the recent television commercials about the window cleaner. Anyway, one crow could say, “Hey, let’s go for a ride.” His feathered buddy might reply, “This could be fun.” Then again, we’re just digressing.

This particular device to deliver mail to rural residents might have been the greatest innovation for mankind (and womankind) since the creation of sliced bread and buttered popcorn. Yet, there could be problems with this product. A freezing rain could result in frozen wheels or pulleys. Also, falling branches or a severe storm might sever or block the connection between the farmer’s home and the mail stop.

The news article said this entire device cost the farmer $50 in 1917 dollars. Let’s hope this amount included the extra shipping and handling costs.

Today, a product like this could be purchased in a store with a special section or end cap marked off by a sign with these words, “As Seen On Television.” The prices on these oddball modern items, incidentally, don’t include the extra shipping and handling costs.

Back in 1917 this mail box conveyor was likely American made. Sadly, today it’s more likely any of those oddball television-promoted products are made somewhere else in the world.

Now, it was my intention to feature several inventions and gadgets from the past for this column. However, this old mail delivery system down in Iowa really filled up space. For this I’ll take full credit. Thus, there’s only room for one more device. And, just for the heck of it, we’ll feature an obscure local product called the “Spud Bug Killer.”

A Tribune article dated Feb. 22, 1922, found by Kevin Savick, didn’t give the name of the inventor or if a patent or pending patent was involved.

This product was described as “… the only mechanical device on the market that successfully removes potato bugs from potato vines without the use of any poisonous chemical. It is a two wheel, hand-operated machine that cleans one row at a time …” It would be made by the Olson Mfg. Co. (still located on South Broadway Avenue) for another firm named the Pioneer Mfg. Co. The Pioneer firm was actually a subsidiary of the Olson firm, and like the spud bug killer didn’t last very long at all.

Ed Shannon’s column has been appearing in the Tribune every Friday since December 1984.

About Danielle Boss

For legal information email me at or call 379-3426.
To submit any local news email me at

email author More by Danielle