There are 347 free-standing USPS mailboxes in Seattle. Know why I know that? Because David Peterman documented every one of them in a series of photographs over a year on Mailboxes of Seattle.
In this very cool project, David took selfies in front of every single publicly accessible blue mailbox. And I was lucky enough to have a chat with him about the project.
You can here the interview by clicking on one of the services below…or you can find the podcast wherever you get your podcasts by searching Postcardist.
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Here are a few of the photographs David took on his journey. Please click over to Mailboxes of Seattle to see the full set. And leave David a comment or two.
Photos courtesy of David Peterman. All right reserved. Mailboxes of Seattle.
The full transcript of the show is here:
You know of all the times I think I counted like 4 times where I actually witnessed someone dropping something in the mail.
The best one being at the one hundredth photo. I was getting everyone gathered around the box and I was getting the camera set up. And so it was for like a dozen or maybe 15 people gathering up everyone. And this guy posing. I’m, you know, saying OK, come in a little bit. Right. Just as it’s all happening this sweet, I mean quintessential, grandmotherly little old lady just walks up you know right in front of everyone. She a pays little attention to the fact that there’s this big audience built up around the box and she puts her mail in and walks off. And I just kind of watched.
I wished I had pressed “video” on my camera because that would have been a just a wonderful little extra a behind-the-scenes clip.
Hello fellow Postcardists, I’m your host Frank Roche and this is the Postcardist Podcast. In our last episode we talked about far flung mailboxes and sending postcards from them. Remember that stony outcropping north of Scotland on the Isle of Harris and the yellow royal mailbox out there that has only once a week pickup. Well this time we moved from the Outer Hebrides to the inner city, namely Seattle, Washington. And our guide today is David Peterman, an intrepid mailbox seeker and photographer, who over the course of one year took photographs of every publicly accessible blue United States Postal Service mailbox in the city of Seattle. David documented his findings on Mailboxes of Seattle dot com and just completed his work a few days ago. And I had the chance to talk to him about the project. Let’s go.
Well thank you for doing this. You know guys I am sitting here talking to David Peterman of the Mailboxes of Seattle project. And so welcome to the Postcardist podcast. DAVID Well thanks for having me. This is certainly fun for me to do. You know you took pictures of the outside of things that us post Curtis want to put you know our postcards inside so it could start out just telling the audience a little bit about your very ambitious project.
Sure. Little over a year ago I think it was on March 1st that I started of 2017. I kicked off a project that ran almost a full year.
I wanted to take a picture of myself with every mailbox in Seattle every freestanding blue mailbox in Seattle and post one photo a day to my blog. And that’s that’s the project in a nutshell; there is no big artistic statement or political statement or anything I just want to keep it very simple and do just that.
And there are grand total of close to 350 mailboxes so doing one a day I finished up just a little under one year.
I saw that you got to 346 and then found another one.
Yes, that was because the data that I had originally downloaded that showed me where all the mailboxes were some of the locations were a little little wonky. They would they would often give a very precise address but sometimes the were I would actually find the mailbox was considerably away from the original location that was in the list. And this one particular box just completely eluded me. I had gone to the location. I think I went there twice looking for it couldn’t find it and figured it was one of the many boxes that had been removed in recent years. And so I just kind of scratched off my list and went on. And then a couple of days ago I heard from a local mail carrier and he said hey I didn’t see my favorite box on your blog anywhere. He scoured my entire site looking for his favorite box and it wasn’t there and it turned out to be dismissing box.
So he gave me some better information about where to find it so I had to go in and added in because it’s a great one because it is totally hidden in some shrub massively overgrown shrubbery. So I don’t feel too bad for missing it because this is most hidden box.
I think I’ve ever encountered in my project that’s really saying something and I looked at them this morning and thought, “Wow it’s under a tree.” Use the snorkel, see there’s technology things that we need to know that they call that the snorkel is pointing the wrong direction. You said that it must have been a bed must have been a bad boy in its previous lifetime or something.
Yeah, probably got exiled there for know misbehaving somewhere else or something like that. But actually thinking about now I think that that spot maybe used to be a bus stop and it was probably better maintained. Not so overgrown and maybe you know a mailbox there made more sense but I think the bus stop is long gone and everything’s being overgrown and out just kind of looks like something out of the Addams family or something like that just totally.
Yeah it’s kind of a creepy box. FRANK: I had to to stifle my laughter. I love that Addams Family Reference. How did you initially find the mailboxes you said that you had downloaded something that’s not something that just you know a normal person would just go and say hey I want to know where the blue available blue mailboxes are.
DAVID: You know I don’t remember my initial impetus but at some point I wanted to find a map to see if there was in fact such a thing a map that showed mailboxes and I must have been trying to see if there was a box in an area that I was going to and I had something in me. I don’t remember the exact reason but it turns out if you search for like mailbox locations in a city there are many people who have downloaded the data from the USPS and mashed it up with Google Maps and you can see the mailboxes on all of the places. And I did that. I saw a Seattle map and I figured out a way to actually by just viewing the source of the website and everything. Extract the raw data that gave me all the coordinates for all the mail boxes and it was actual latitude longitude coordinates.
FRANK: And so you had he had to GPS this whole thing?
Well then I found another site that I was able to input a list of GPS coordinates in and it gave me actual street addresses. And so I probably did more work than it was required. But at the time that’s those are the steps that made sense for me to go to. Sure there was a much easier way for me to do this but I don’t know.
I don’t think so. This is a matter of brilliance. I mean the idea of having an idea. So I didn’t get the inspiration. I mean whether you thought OK I went to the mailbox just just because we were talking about postcards to you. Have you ever sent a postcard.
Yeah boy. It has been a while you know I I think like most people my mailing habits have really dwindled in in the years.
You know, victim of technology and everything so I have learned since I started this project that there are groups you know like yourself and I think people who still enjoy it and consider it a a you know a a a hobby an artform even.
So they’re the third largest Collectors Group in the world, if you can actually believe this. It’s really it’s really quirky but nonetheless it works. So about the inspiration I said you said you know you there was no grand plan it wasn’t some existential thing but I get taking the first picture. But what about the third one. What happened? There’s that. You know, if you want to get a bunch of people to dance the first person is kind of brave. The second person is coming along…but by the third person but the third time. What’s with that? What was it like?
But the third time…oh, actually it didn’t really progress like that because even though I said I started on March 1st of last year I guess technically I started a few weeks before because that’s when I downloaded the data and I’ve posted it on a map and I started really thinking of the logistics of it if I wanted to do this. How would I track it? How would I put out strategically how to go and get the boxes how you know how am I going to document it? You know and I know what sort of should I use Instagram to use tumblr or whatever. And so I spent actually a couple of weeks thinking through all these logistics. And so by the time I took the first box I was I was pretty much committed to it. I didn’t go into it thinking let me just see how this is going to play out. I pretty much knew that the moment I took that very first picture that I was going to have to finish the whole thing especially since I’d already told some friends hey guess what I’m going to do. And they kind of gave me that look with a tilted head and a raised eyebrow and I think you know so I thought no I can’t just do five or ten boxes and give up. If I’m going to do this I have to see it through.
So in for a penny in for a pound as they say for the whole thing. DAVID: Yeah, because as I said, by the time I did that first box I had already plotted out how I was going to do this whole project. So it was in a way I had already done the hard part the thinking it through and then it was just the executing of it.
So are you a native of Seattle?
I think I qualify for honorary native status. I’ve been here for about 34 years so that counts.
Yeah I didn’t I wasn’t born here. I didn’t grow up here. But I think I’ve been here long enough to almost almost qualify as native status.
I live in the Northeast where unless your family came over on the Mayflower you can’t be. You can’t be a New Englander. But the reason I’m asking about native — were you know you’ve been there a good long while is had you covered that area I mean this is a different way of looking at Seattle. I take it it’s a big city and its kind of skinny but tall and lot of water all around.
Yeah there are a lot of neighborhoods that I visited for the very first time during this project a lot of places that I had not been to in probably 20-25 years. You gonna get in a routine and about the places you go in a city you tend to go to the same places and everything and you know why would I just travel up to some little neighborhood where there’s no businesses or anything like that unless you’re searching for a particular mailbox.
So that was one of the things that did appeal to me when I started out I thought well this will be a nice little refresher to get back and see a lot of the city that I haven’t seen on time.
Did you feel like people were watching you sometimes? I mean did you know where you are because you took photographs of yourself. You know in some of these. Right. So I mean you not only used selfie stick but sometimes you staged the camera over a bit and did it.
I tell you about the first I don’t know five or six I did. I felt really self-conscious because I’ve got to box and you know usually I was in a place where there were other people milling about and there’s this guy with this selfie stick post you know next to a mailbox and Santa really we’re really self-conscious. But after about maybe 10 or so that evaporated and I realized no one is paying one bit of attention to me. You know Seattle that was kind of a quirky city. There’s interesting things happening here all the time and I think someone doing a selfie next to the mailbox just doesn’t really register is that weird for most people.
You needed to have you know a spinning beanie on your head and something else so you know you know a floaty or something like that in order to really start gathering.
I think the only times I got a little double-takes is there’s one or two pictures like from sitting on top of the mailbox or standing on it or something and you know people just kind of look. But even then just kept going. No I was mostly ignored while doing it which was totally fine with me ignoring is good.
You did have some friends take pictures in certain times and at the end when you did the wrap up you had quite a cadre of people that were in your 346th photograph.
Yeah. So for the first time I invited a group of people was for the one hundredth I thought OK, that’s us. This is kind of monumental. And so I had put a notice out to friends hey come join me at this box and kind of also word them into and we’ll have cake to celebrate. So that that helped bring people out. So we had a nice group shot for that one. I didn’t want to press my luck and try to get crowds of people for the 200 or 300. I thought now people are going to get really bored of this. I wanted to save it all up for the final one. And you know I got a nice little group of people including a few people who were total strangers to me. They had somehow heard about the whole photo shoot and they were also male enthusiasts and hobbyist. And they came out and joined me too. So that was just absolutely wonderful.
I thought you have you have a very clever site and folks that is Mailboxes of Seattle on tumblr.
That’s where it’s housed but I also have Mailboxes of Seattle dot com, it points also to that. So that’s a lot easier to tell people Mailboxes of Seattle dot com. They remember that.
There you go guys. That’s a lot easier to do. Mailboxes of Seattle dot com. So there you have it. Hey you know when you were plotting this out. How many miles? I was trying to put a map of Seattle up on my screen a little while ago and was trying to like just by my fingers sort of think that like Seattle is way taller than it is wide. But I saw that is 83 square miles. How many miles do you suppose you covered doing this.
I wish I had thought to track that. I did not do anything like that hour. That’s right tracking. I will however let you in on a dirty little secret and that is I posted a photo a day but I did not take a photo a day. I would most often try to take photos if I already had a reason to be going somewhere if I was you know heading out on errand to go to Costco or something I’d see if there are any boxes close enough on the route maybe make a quick detour or if I did have to go on an exclusive journey just to get some mailboxes I would try to be strategic and grab of a number of them in an area because I didn’t want to be wasting gas drive you know driving back and forth between the same distant neighborhood day after day after day.
There’s there’s good efficiency from somebody that lives in the Pacific Northwest. I know they know that you guys up there care about care about the environment and we do care out here too. But nonetheless, it only makes sense that you could do that. And I suppose that you have other things you have to do besides be out photographing mailboxes. It’s super cool.
That is true. So I tried to be efficient about it and you know in the end it I don’t think it was nearly as much of a time sink as it would appear to be. You know, if you thought everyday this guy’s packing up and driving to a mailbox or biking to a mailbox or whatever and taking pictures and taking one picture and coming home that would be a lot of travel on a lot of time but it never really felt like it was eating up that much of my time. And fortunately I work as a business consultant and I work pretty much my own hours from home. And so it was a wonderful way to if I was just kind of you know on a Tuesday afternoon just kind of burnt out on work. I could take 30 minutes and go out and grab a couple mailboxes and come back and get back to work.
So it was it was a very good distraction to have I bet your clients really like this you know in business consulting one of the things they want to see is follow through right. I mean this is you said you committed to it and you bloody well did it up. That is true. Excellent. The decoration on mailboxes. I know that you made a lot of commentary even in the last one about that sort of lavender color of these mailboxes some of them get painted in different ways. Could you talk a little bit about that graffiti that ends up on mailboxes did you find that that was often the case. We’re not so much. How would you say you know as you sort of thought about all those in composite.
Well it was interesting it was you couldn’t isolate it to any specific areas of town or neighborhoods or something it’s like, “Oh yeah all the boxes up in you know on Capitol Hill they’re all covered in graffiti are all the all the boxes are in the nice neighborhoods are clean.” That’s not necessarily the case. It seems like it’s pretty widely. I mean pretty evenly dispersed whoever it is that goes out there and tags mailboxes. They seem to get all over the city. It was actually really rare to find a box that was absolutely pristine with nothing on it. Most of them most of the ones in Seattle seem to have some adornment and took my question would have been better had I asked that question which was did you find.
You know how many did you find that were clean. I actually I’m a little bit of a fan of graffiti I might tell you I lived in Amsterdam for a few years and you know pretty much everything in Amsterdam is tagged and you know at some point they just it becomes art. And actually I have a couple of friends who are you know underground taggers. So that’s this from my other life but it’s been it’s sort of interesting so I find you know the tagging and stuff some see it as urban blight and others kind of see it as like well that’s an interesting thing you found very few that didn’t weren’t tagged.
Yeah the vast majority of them had something stickers and things like that to stickered. My favorite of course was a one box and on its little flap someone had put a couple nice big googly eyes that would you know shake when you used it. So I like that one because that was actually you know playing with the look of the box and everything. So I find that sort of thing.
You know urban art you know to be fantastic.
You talked about that anthropomorphizing these boxes. They almost become they can be a little bit almost named. They seem like something. They’ve come alive with the googly eyes for sure.
Exactly. And I would you know in my descriptions I would sometimes try to give us a little bit of personality to the boxes some of them are really grumpy boxes some of them were very happy some of them are just very dutiful civil servants that just made it a little more interesting to try to break the monotony of posting 346 or artist 347 mailboxes because really you know if you if you don’t take a little creative license it could be a little a little bit boring I would think it wasn’t boring.
How did you let people know? So you know, as creatives, it’s always that moment when you start creating art of any kind. And then all of a sudden you go like is anybody looking at this or does it matter. I mean if you’re as an artist kind of go I’m going to keep making it anyway. But how did you go about creating your audience and having people follow you and then having this big swell of an audience that you know Atlas Obscura and you know in so many media outlets are so fascinated with somebody who’s done something so so interesting.
Well I tell you when I saw as I was doing it I wasn’t really you know I didn’t really care. It was more from me than anything and I’ve never actually racked up a whole bunch of Tumblr followers or anything like that which I wasn’t aiming for that I wasn’t you know trying to to really monetize it or anything but. After I got up I don’t know. It was like 140 or 150. I thought OK this is this is kind of serious. And at the time there’s there’s a local weekly paper in Seattle called The Stranger it’s kind of an alternative press paper but it’s it’s very very popular very well known throughout the city. And at the time they were running a regular feature on the back inside back page of everything. Full page article called person of interest and they would find people who are just doing interesting things sometimes people like an interesting job like they once had someone who was who ran the morgue in Seattle. And then they would do various artists and things like that. And so I just sent them an email saying Hey I think I’m a person of interest. Check out what I’m doing. And so they agreed and I was that was my first bit of press was that they did a great interview. The great picture and it was just a local. But it was nice and I didn’t really pursue anything else until I was getting close to the end. And someone gave me the idea of trying to get a local news magazine like the TV news magazine interested especially since my final picture was coming up and that seemed like something that they would maybe cover and I contacted one of them and they were really interested that they had already already knew of me somehow and they were going to come and cover the final mailbox. But then the guy who was producing this segment got the flu. And they weren’t able to come. So two weeks later he got back in touch with me and we decided to totally do a fake restaging of me taking mailbox photos.
There’s your introduction to reality TV that’s how it all actually totally restaged it totally is. DAVID: I think I made a joke with them that they should put the chyron at the bottom saying you know dramatization or something like that as a disclaimer. But yeah we went out and found some neighborhood and he had me walk up to the mailbox with my tripod about a dozen times while he filmed me from every possible angle and then we did an interview and they cut the piece together beautifully I thought that was wonderful.
But I thought OK that’s it. That’s my two minutes of fame. I’m done. But what I then quickly learned was apparently all these various media things out there all monitored each other and steal. Well not so much steal the key inspiration let’s say from each other about stories that they should do.
And so right after this thing aired on our local channel that’s when I started getting contacted by Canadian Broadcasting Corporation and Atlas Obscura and places like that. And because it’s kind of feed off each other and so yeah the last week has been really interesting just all the different things that that came up. I think it’s dying down now which is fine although just this morning I got written up in a Chinese entertainment Web site that I think is published in Taiwan. I can’t read what it’s on Chinese. I just hope it’s favorable. I hope it’s not saying look at the stupid American and the stupid things they do. We’re going to put a tariff on them. But so yeah that has been very very interesting on how all these different TV radio and websites are how that yeah they just kind of feed off each other and because they they all have content. I mean they all have needs for content that they have to fill on an ongoing basis to work.
I used to work at a newspaper a big national newspaper and there was at 35 every night we had to push print you know go to the press and that was that giant news hole to fill every single day. And you know we will kind of looking for the sort of uplifting perseverance inspiring kind of stories. I think all of us would close our eyes and think like wow would I be able to do that would I be able to push forward and do something for an entire year like that. I mean I think that we we question ourselves about this kind of thing. It’s a really fascinating idea.
And what do your friends say what do your friends say now say? DAVID: You know there was a little bit of skepticism when I first presented the idea. But I think once I got going they know me well enough to thought yeah he’s going to do this. It just kind of fit my personality I guess that it’s not that type of thing that I would just start and give up on. They weren’t terribly surprised.
No you are a guy with a lot of energy that comes through it even comes through microphones so you can definitely tell that were you. You’ve been a photographer as well for a long time.
Your hobby is say I would never call myself really a photographer so much as yeah I’m a guy with a camera and you know sometimes it’s a good tool to do interesting things.
So it is indeed. You know I know everybody has to ask you about like what’s next but what’s next is just eating some pancakes and looking out at a mailbox.
You know there’s value in that, too. You know, I guess the thing is I’m not you know this isn’t necessarily my thing to find urban objects and photograph them because you know people say hey you’re going to do fire hydrants next you’re going to do mail you know payphones next. No, that’s not the point. You know the point isn’t just to document all these objects you know unless you know one of them struck me as very interesting. So, it’s more of a yeah maybe I will just eat pancakes and stare out the window until that next idea comes. But yes I’m not I am not in search of the next urban spelunking project. Let’s call it that. OK.
FRANK: You win like the gold star for spelunking is my favorite word of all time. Nice. I used to when I’ve been a I’ve been both a journalist and a communication consultant for the majority of my life. And when I owned the agency for a long time I used to try and work the word spelunking into at least one client deliverable per time. Excellent. So I them this. You made me happy just from that let alone let alone the rest of the interview. But still I’m sure you’ve you’ve got you know what’s next could be who knows what and isn’t going to get to your point in an urban spelunking but you’ve got a lot of energy about a lot of things so that’s super cool.
DAVID: For me it’s smattered. If I find myself starting to think about the logistics of something like you know how would you do that at that point. I know that’s kind of my tipping point. And I think that’s kind of how it’s worked with a whole range of things like that. One thing just popped in my head was a number of years ago my wife and I were kind of considering replacing our fence. And I remember just kind of staring at a wall thinking hey there’s got to be a easier way to fix this fence rather than ripping everything out starting over again. And I just went through it again all the logistics of a process assembly line process for replacing digital panels on a fence and yet once I once I did that it’s like OK we’re going to have any fence. It’s going to be done. Bang. So for me yes it’s kind of like solving the problem first and then executing it so.
FRANK: OK, so David’s business clients listen up… there’s the unique sales proposition right there. Plan first, you know you measure twice cut cut once. I guess a lot of planning a lot of planning upfront. Absolutely. Just a couple of quick questions and I know you got to go but did the United States Post Office contact you at all during this period of time.
DAVID: No. No. The number of people suggested that Oh every time you get a mailbox you should put a sticker on there saying you know captured by boxes of Seattle.
I liked the concept of that same time I didn’t want to add two stickers and you know graffiti and what some people might call vandalism item. So I didn’t do anything like that to really draw attention to it. I say the day I did hear from a mail carrier he’s the one who told me about that missing box so I know that at least a few mail carriers in the area know of it but nothing directly yes the yes.
So just just curious, I guess final question and I have to let you go because I promised you the 30 minutes here. Did you see anybody posting mail as you were sort of waiting around and you were going to take these photographs and all of these various locations — 347 as it were that people were — putting mail in the mailboxes.
DAVID: You know of all the times I think I counted like four times where I actually witnessed someone dropping something in the mail. The best one being at the one hundredth photo I was getting.
Everyone gathered around the box while I was getting the camera set up. And so you know it was for like a dozen or maybe 15 people gathered in a box. I mean this guy posing I’m you know getting OK come in a little bit about little bit right. Can anyone set it right as it’s all happening. This sweet, I mean quintessential grandmotherly, little old lady just walks up you know right in front of everyone she doesn’t pay a bit of attention to the fact that there’s this big audience built up around the box and she puts her or her mail in and walks off. And I I just kind of watched her I wished I had pressed video on my camera because that would have been a just a wonderful little extra behind-the-scenes clip. But I said that was like one of only three possibly four times when I actually witnessed someone using a mailbox at the time that I was there. So yeah, it seems to be a fading activity unfortunately.
FRANK: We’re trying to bring that back a little bit.
David Peterman thank you so much for being on the Postcardist podcast. DAVID: Well this was a lot of fun. Thank you so much. My thanks to David Peterman for taking the time to talk to me at the Postcardist podcast as I’m sure you can imagine. He’s had a busy media schedule and he was very generous with his time what did you think when he said that he saw only four mailboxes in active use out of the 347 mailboxes he photographed that’s just a little over 1 percent. C’mon postcards. We need to rally. We’re trying to do my part. And to add to the flow of mail either in mailboxes of Seattle or the Hebrides or anywhere in between get on my postcard mailing list. I make this offer to the first 50 people who contact me otherwise. Oh get a hand cramp from writing so much. Send me a note at post courtesy at gmail dot com with your address and I’ll put you on my postcard mailing list. That means you’ll get a postcard read way. But once you’re on my list. Postcards arrive at random times. Tell me something about you and the email. I’m not a postcard swapper. I really do like to get to know the people they write to. For those of you who are already on my postcard mailing list thank you. The best part about postcards for me is in the writing and sending and you are the recipients. You can find much more information about the show including pictures David Peterman took the mailboxes of Seattle on thepostcardist dotcom. I’ll put that link in the show notes along with a link to David’s site. You can also follow me on Instagram and Facebook that’s Postcardist. Yes, I know it’s confusing having my website called THEPostcardist dot com. I’m working on that one. If you would please subscribe to the show and share the show if you think it’s worthwhile. If you would please rate the show in whatever podcast service you use now would mean a lot. Next week’s episode I’m going to talk to a postcard collector who’s giving his collection away one card at a time and he’s looking for people to send his postcards to. Could be you. Well that’s it for this episode.
Thanks for listening.