Rain? Sleet? Gloom of night? None of them really compare with those interminable post office lines this time of year. But before you take it out on that clerk behind the counter, you should know that he has at his disposal an arcane reserve of knowledge that could enable him to declare your package "unmailable."
It's called the Domestic Mail Manual (DMM), and you don't want to make him get out this book. Not only does it contain rules you never knew existed, but a point-by-point review of its bizarre cargo of regulations could keep you both busy long into the new year.
Brown paper packages tied up with string? Not one of the U.S. Postal Service's favorite things, according to David Mazer, manager of public affairs and communications for the USPS in Los Angeles. "I've been here for 20 years," he said, "and no matter what we say, we'll still see this every Christmas." The USPS, he said, regards paper and string as just another way to snarl its machines. The manual declares anything tied with string unmailable and takes a dim view of wrapping paper not tightly secured.
"It's not like you're ever going to bump into anyone out on the street who's seen a copy of this book," Mazer said, "but for the sales associates behind the counter, this is the Bible."
He hauled out a fat three-ring binder stuffed with 500 or so pages of regulations issued every year or so, and flipped through a few pages. "I can't honestly say every clerk out there knows every page of this book, but they'll generally know if a package meets the standards."
So what does a DMM-compliant package look like? For starters, it's taped shut, and certainly not with that cellophane or masking tape you might be considering. That stuff's "only to be used to augment adhesive closures on envelopes or to cover staples on bags." You'll need bona fide shipping tape, and what's more, it had better extend at least 3 inches over each adjoining side of the box in strips no less than 2 inches wide, unless, of course, it's "pressure-sensitive filament tape," which can be narrower.
The stickling does not stop there.
If you were thinking of constructing your own box from scrap cardboard, don't be too quick on the draw with the old glue gun. The DMM has very explicit guidelines for that, worth reading for their Byzantine style:
Hot-melt adhesive may be used if at least four strips are applied on each part of the box flap where the outer flap overlays the inner flap; each strip is 3/16 inch wide after compression; the strips are not more than 1 1/2 inches apart, with the first strip no more than 1/2 inch from the center seam; and all strips are the full width of the inner flap, unless hot-melt adhesive is applied to 25% of the area where the outer flap lies over the inner flap.
Even if you manage to seal up your parcel without breaking a single USPS regulation, there's still the potential for labeling blunders.
Did you write "do not bend" on a flat package? It is strictly verboten to use this phrase unless you've reinforced the contents.
You may consider it a personal choice whether your mailables are left to bend or rattle to pieces, but broken goods can injure postal employees or damage other mail, so the DMM insists you make sufficient use of wadded paper, excelsior, plastic peanuts or "rubberized hair." (The latter slightly creepy element happens to be horse, cattle or hog hair bonded with latex and also used as padding for carpet or upholstery.)
Exactly what you can and cannot send through the mail is even more rigorously controlled. For instance, that platinum cigarette lighter you bought for your brother-in-law falls under the category of "explosives, flammable material, infernal machines." "Infernal machines" may never travel by air, only by surface. So what about that infernally yacking mounted fish novelty you bought for your uncle? It can travel by air, but you must pull the batteries before mailing to prevent it from accidentally activating and annoying postal employees from here to Peoria.
"Something like that," said Mazer, "might seem like a lighthearted matter, but every once in a while you'll have a clock or toy ticking in a package that will clear out an entire post office."
What's just as surprising as what you can't send sometimes, said Mazer, is what you can. "Tires, for instance; all they need is a label that's firmly affixed, and they're good to go."
Food can be sent so long as it will not "rapidly decay or generate obnoxious odors in the mail." In fact, you can even send a Christmas turkey you bagged yourself, since "the dead bodies, or parts thereof, of any wild animals" are acceptable if lawfully killed. Even living "turkeys, guinea fowl, doves, pigeons, pheasants, partridges, quail, ducks, geese, and swans" can be popped in the mail as long as they're shipped express in "biologically secure containers." Live chickens are mailable too, unless you're sending them for purposes of cockfighting. Still-wriggling "bloodworms, earthworms, mealworms, salamanders, leeches, lizards, snails and tadpoles" are also good to go if packaged correctly; however, baby alligators and caimans over 20 inches will be returned to sender. Bees can only go surface mail, except, of course, the queens, who can go by air "accompanied by up to eight attendant honeybees."
Then there's the International Mail Manual, with its own surreal set of restrictions for packages leaving the U.S. Postal Service. Forget about that menagerie of living animals you can pop in the mail in the land of the free. Mail bound for foreign countries can only include "live bees, leeches and silkworms," along with "certain parasites and predators of injurious insects."
Some overseas restrictions require a bit of technical savvy to interpret. Want to mail a box of toy magnets? Better be sure its cumulative field strength is less than .002 gauss at 7 feet. What about your aunt's aerosol potpourri? Better be sure the gas inside doesn't exceed 40 psi at 70 degrees (or 104 psi at 130 degrees, for those of you in warmer climes). If it's radioactive matter you're bent on mailing, the IMM asks that you send it by registered mail. Stateside restrictions are further complicated by regulations laid down by destination countries. While the many prohibitions on printed material in less freedom-loving countries are not surprising, even these clearly political constraints can at times come off as eccentric--like the Albanian ban on "extravagant clothes and other articles contrary to Albanians' taste." Canada's taboo on "oleomargarine and other butter substitutes" and Denmark's proscription against powdered milk seem equally odd, as does the Italian refusal of mail containing artificial flowers. But what about Italy's ban on typewriter ribbons and "hair or articles made of hair"?
Many of the forbidden particulars seem to point to lessons learned from some terrible (and terribly obscure) misfortune. Why else would the Dominican Republic issue an interdiction against "books in parcels addressed to bookshops care of banking institutions" or would Germany ban "playing cards, except in complete decks properly wrapped" or Paraguay eschew "stocking and socks except those made of jersey"? Other presumably threatening objects banned by various countries include chessboards, canned plums, funeral urns, musical greeting cards, wooden utensils, shoe polish and "used beehives."
If you're still feeling confused, go to http://www.usps.com and print out the manuals. Take them along to read at the post office. You'll have plenty of time once you get in line.