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Color codes for safety are important. Before national standards were established, a conflict in preferred color between fire departments and the post office emerged. A national, resounding protest preserved the default standard that had been in place for fire departments. The protest proved it pays to fight for safety. Here is the story.

On February 27, 1913 the post office department in Washington, D.C. issued Order No. 6883 regarding the paint color for letter and package boxes and supporting posts. The order stated:

Hereafter either vermillion or coach-red paint must be used in painting or repainting city letter boxes, package boxes, combination boxes and letter-box posts now in service.

The post office order created a major stir among fire departments, insurance companies and others involved in fire protection. For many years prior to the order, fire alarm boxes were painted with the color red. The concern expressed by fire chiefs and others throughout the country considered the potential confusion between letter boxes and fire alarm boxes. For years there had been a concerted effort to establish a consistent and distinguishable color for fire alarm boxes. That color was red! Those in the fire community feared considerable confusion by the public, including children, if letter boxes were also red.

Examples of old fire alarm boxes

Examples of old fire alarm boxes

The outcry to the post office was huge. Complaints proliferated from across the U.S. expressing fear of the potential for response delays and a resulting increase for injuries, death and property losses from fires.

Telephones were not common in 1913 and many municipalities placed fire alarm boxes strategically through out the city. Individuals could notify the fire department of a fire by pulling the alarm in a fire alarm box. Fire alarm boxes and many letter boxes were of similar sizes. For both, many were atop a post or pedestal. For many letter boxes, users had to pull a tab to open the slot and then to place a letter in the slot. For a fire alarm box, users had to open a door or break a glass panel and pull a lever to trigger the fire alarm.

Fire Chiefs Respond

Based on their experiences, fire chiefs and others sent reports to the post office. Here are just a few examples.

  • Fire Chief James P. Welsh of Eau Claire, WI stated:
    “Some 20 years ago…I was frequently called upon to collect mail from fire alarm boxes and I have known instances where persons have attempted to turn in a fire alarm from a red mail box.”
  • Captain C. Albert Gasser of Newark, NJ stated:
    “Persons seeking to send in an alarm of fire running toward a red letter box would result in delay in notifying the fire department.”
  • Chief Engineer T. O. Doane of Plainfield, NJ said:
    “Red paint for letter boxes will cause confusion, delay, trouble, loss of property, and, perhaps, loss of life.”
  • Fire Marshal William Haible of Elgin, IL stated:
    “It is a big mistake…I believe the government should be discouraged in this matter. It refuses any intrusions in its regulations. Why should it wish to intrude in other departments’ rights?”

National Organizations Join the Complaints

Several national organizations associated with the fire protection community filed formal complaints to the Postmaster General.

The National Board of Fire Underwriters stated:
“…the citizens and even the children of communities have been educated to a degree whereby it is almost second nature to recognize a municipal red-painted box on a street corner as one to seek and use in case of fire.”

Other comments

  • “I sincerely hope that this order will be changed so as to read ‘Green,’ and not steal our standard color for our fire alarm boxes.”
  • “I think that it is one of the most ignorant orders that the postoffice department could issue.”
  • “It is, in my opinion, the most non-sensical change ever heard of.”
  • “I had an experience the other day which will interest you. A young woman on her way to mail a letter met a police officer and asked him where the mail box was. He answered by pointing in the direction of the mail box. It happens that the mail box is about two feet from the fire alarm box. Well, the young lady, coming to the fire alarm box first, opened the door, pulled the hook and sent in an alarm. What will it be when the mail boxes are painted red?”

The national effort paid off and achieved its goal. It caused the postoffice to rescind Order No. 6883. By April 14, 1913 the first assistant postmaster general reported in discussing a contract that had already been let to paint a letter box red:  “As the clamor against it had assumed such proportions, it was thought, evidently, that it would be most unwise to ignore such a degree of protest.”

References

  • Insurance Engineering, Volume 25, Number 3, March 1913, pages 168-169.
  • Safety Engineering, Volume 25, Number 4, April 1913, pages 268-270. (Note: With this issue, the longstanding publication’s name changed from Insurance Engineering to Safety Engineering.)
  • Safety Engineering, Volume 25, Number 5, May 1913, page 300.

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