Though not an official part of the Joukowsky Institute’s collection, this antique mailbox front represents a fascinating part of the history of Brown Mail Services. The object, identified as a Corbin Model 87-A Post Office Mailbox Door, is a special find in and of itself. Once contextualized within its place in the lives of Brown students and staff, the mailbox front reveals how Brown’s ever changing campus facilities drastically alter the college experience of Brown students over time.
Our story begins in the basement of Faunce House in 2008, when the building was on the cusp of a major renovation. While Brown students today know Faunce as the home of popular social spaces such as the Blue Room, Leung Gallery, and the Underground, an often overlooked door to what is now known as the Kasper Multipurpose Room still bears the markings of what this space once was: the Mail Room. Rows and rows of mailboxes similar to the one belonging to the Joukowsky Institute were uninstalled and put into storage in 2008, where they would remain until 2013 when the Brown Bookstore commissioned custom wooden banks for the mailbox fronts to be sold to alumni.
Meanwhile, the renovation of Faunce between 2009 and 2010 saw the relocation of Mail Services to its current home just across the street in Page-Robinson Hall. There, each student received access to their own metal mailbox, whose minimalist design was in stark contrast from the intricate details of the previous mailbox doors that were manufactured by the Corbin Cabinet Lock Company in the early 1900s. The company’s Post Office Equipments Catalogue from 1900 describes the technology behind the brass door, boasting that the “Double dial keyless [locks] are secure, cannot be picked, and an unlimited number of combinations are possible.” Double windows for departmental mailboxes and single windows for students allowed for one to gain a sneak peek of the mailbox’s contents before turning the iconic double dial keyless locks to retrieve mail.
It turns out that the motion of peeping into mailbox windows and entering a combination on the dials has sparked visceral memories of college days at Brown for several alumni. In a Brown Alumni Magazine (BAM) article published in 2013, Brian Lies ‘85 reflected on the daily routine of visiting his antique mailbox in Faunce House,
“Through the tiny window in your box’s ornate door you might see only flimsy campus announcement slips, but occasionally you’d spy something substantial, spinning the twin dials to find—yes!—a handwritten letter or a colored card indicating a package waiting to be picked up. You’d get that dopamine blast that keeps gamblers gambling—the power of infrequent reward.”
Almost 20 years prior in the February 1994 issue of BAM, Maggie Rosen ‘85 wrote about a recurring nighttime dream she had about being a student at Brown again. Between scrambling to figure out her class schedule and buying textbooks, Rosen always dreamt of returning to Faunce House to find her mailbox overflowing with letters, postcards, and flyers advertising campus activities and events. Lies and Rosen show us that the antique Corbin mailbox fronts were an undeniable part of the Brown experience for all students enrolled before the 2009 renovation. Within those four brass walls lay lifelines to home, mass communication from peers, and tickets to opportunities beyond College Hill. Essentially, they were perfect representations of what it is to be a Brown student, simultaneously stretched between the familiarity of one’s roots and the promises of a new life of infinite possibilities all while temporarily being situated right here on the Main Green.
Yet, the thrill of an unexpected letter or surprise package described by Brown alumni is not as often felt today. Mailroom habits have changed in tandem with new methods of communication. As handwritten letters and care packages began to be replaced by FaceTime calls and Amazon orders in the 2010s, Brown Mail Services was faced with the unprecedented challenge of processing more packages than letters. Soon, the physical student mailbox became obsolete and in the fall of 2015, Brown University students returning to campus were greeted with a newly renovated mailroom. This second renovation saw the digitization of the regular ritual of retrieving one’s mail, with locker combinations being traded in for the swift swipe of a Brown ID. Today, stopping by Mail Services in Page-Robinson Hall is not necessarily a daily task for Brown students. Instead, they receive campus announcements, messages from extracurriculars, and even notifications that tell them when their letters and packages arrive in their email inbox.
This mailbox front is a symbol of a reality that every Brown alum faces– that our campus is constantly evolving and continues to do so even after we step through the Van Wickle Gates, sometimes to a point beyond recognition. The common experiences of one generation of Brown students can be entirely different from the next depending on the state of Brown’s facilities at the time. The drastic changes of Brown Mail Services throughout the past decade is simply one example of that.
Though this object represents a particular moment of such drastic change, it also maintains a meaningful connection to the Joukowsky Institute today. Notice the mailbox number printed between the two windows. This is the original Box 1837 that was assigned to the JIAAW upon its inception in 2004. While a physical Box 1837 no longer exists, one can still address a letter there and it will surely find its way to Rhode Island Hall.
Special thanks to: Beth Gentry, Assistant Vice President of Business and Financial Services at Brown, who graciously provided much of the information that this post is based on.
-Jinette Jimenez ‘21
“Corbin Post Office Equipments : Lock Boxes, Both Key and Automatic Keyless Style, Furniture of Any Description for All Classes of Post Offices. : Corbin Cabinet Lock Company” Internet Archive, New Britain, Conn. : The Co., 1 Jan. 1970, archive.org/details/corbinpostoffice00corb/page/12/mode/2up.
Green, Anica. “Mail Services Streamlines Operations, Revamps Look.” Brown Daily Herald, 14 Sept. 2015, www.browndailyherald.com/2015/09/13/mail-services-streamlines-operations-revamps-look/.
Lies, Brian. “Mailbox Dreams.” Brown Alumni Magazine, 2013.
“Philip Corbin: Manufacturing A Legacy for New Britain: Connecticut History: a CTHumanities Project.” Connecticut History | a CTHumanities Project, 24 Aug. 2013, connecticuthistory.org/philip-corbin-manufacturing-a-legacy-for-new-britain/.
Rosen, Maggie. “Mailbox of My Dreams.” Brown Alumni Magazine, 1994.