Jeff Van Bueren:

Having long been genuine admirers of the United States Postal Service (USPS), which gives amazingly reliable service especially compared with many other countries, our team of investigators decided to test the delivery limits of this immense system. We knew that an item, say, a saucepan, normally would be in a package because of USPS concerns of entanglement in their automated machinery. But what if the item were not wrapped? How patient are postal employees? How honest? How sentimental? In short, how eccentric a behavior on the part of the sender would still result in successful mail delivery?

We sent a variety of unpackaged items to U.S. destinations, appropriately stamped for weight and size, as well as a few items packaged as noted. We sent items that loosely fit into the following general categories: valuable, sentimental, unwieldy, pointless, potentially suspicious, and disgusting. We discovered that although some items were never delivered, most of the objects of even highly unusual form did get delivered, as long as the items had a definitely ample value of stamps attached. The Postal Service appears to be amazingly tolerant of the foibles of its public and seems occasionally willing to relax specific postal regulations.

Our research staff began the project by obtaining and reviewing relevant information on USPS regulations and discussing, in a limited and very hypothetical manner, the planned project with USPS 800 number personnel. A group of mailable objects was then assembled, stamped with abundant postage by weight and size, and mailed at public postal collection boxes (when possible to cram the object through the aperture) or at postal stations (if possible). A card was strapped to the object with duct tape or stranded strapping tape, and postage was affixed to the card, except as otherwise noted below.

Senders and receivers were interchangeable; the mailings were double-masked to conceal the identity of our mailing specialists, and gloves were used to prepare the mailings (to avoid fingerprints). In no case was a return address given; each object either went forward to its destination or was lost to follow-up. An object was considered lost if it was not received within the 180-day study parameter. All objects were sent first class using five-digit ZIP codes to actual domestic addresses, and the number of days to delivery were recorded (excluding postal holidays). The condition of the object upon receipt was also recorded, if it had changed, as was any unusual communication, verbal or written, from the postal carrier or counter clerk.

VALUABLE ITEMS. These were items that seemed stealable or had some apparent business worth.

Letter with stamp placed at top left corner (incorrect stamp location). Formal business-style letter, to formal business name, in high-quality envelope. Days to delivery, 21. The stamp was crossed out by hand; the top right corner of the envelope was stamped with the following: EVIDENCE POSTAGE WAS AFFIXED, ONE RATE OK’D.

$1 bill. Sealed in clear plastic, with label attached with address and postage. Days to delivery, 6.

$20 bill. Days to delivery, 4.

Much more here.