What is a “five-pound box”?

As I have previously mentioned, I am currently transcribing my father’s letters from Italy during World War II. As I said in “Why I Love the Internet,” it is very satisfying to track down details mentioned in the letters and get a deeper understanding of the context.

Occasionally, however, I draw a blank. In some cases (I’ll discuss one tomorrow), the Internet just doesn’t seem to know anything at all about a given subject. In other cases, though, I don’t seem to be able to craft a search string that will elicit the needed information without also including an overwhelming mass of irrelevant search results. This has been the case with the “five-pound box.” Since I have had no success in going to the Internet mountain, I thought I would try getting the mountain to come to me, by querying my vast readership (that is a joke, of course) and anyone else who might stumble upon this post.

On Christmas Day 1944, Dad wrote to Mother:

What a Christmas! It has just been wonderful—that is, as nice as any day can be away from you. I have been so happy today. Robbie awakened me at 0700 and I got out of bed in my cold tent and dressed quickly. Off we went to breakfast wishing everyone a “Buon Natale.” After breakfast I censored the mail and then began opening my packages. I saved yours until the last as I knew it would be the best, and it sure was. How wonderful, Virginia, darling, for you to get all those things together, wrap them so prettily and then send them before Oct 15. I am delighted with each item. I was out of tooth paste and almost out of shaving cream, so you can tell how well those two hit the spot. Then, the fingernail set is something I’ve been needing a long time. And all the good things to eat arrived unbroken and OK. I am just dying to play the record and will now institute a search for a phonograph.

In a later paragraph, he adds: “Your 5 lb box was the best planned of any I received. Even my own mother who has known me 25 years longer than you doesn’t know as well what I need and like.” (His parents sent a box of “things to eat, the nicest of which was a 2 lb box of mixed nuts.”) The “record,” incidentally, was one Virginia herself had made using her family’s recording phonograph—a sort of audio greeting card.

A few days later, reporting on all his Christmas gifts, Dad wrote: “Susan and Luella [his two younger sisters] sent two five pound boxes just crammed full of good things to eat and little items like buttons and thread. They were all prettily wrapped up and each item had a silly verse on it like ‘In this package wrapped so gaily you’ll find something you should use daily’ and the package contained tooth paste.”

From these references, it seems clear (at least to me) that a “five-pound box” was a specific thing. I have searched the site of the Smithsonian Institution’s National Postal Museum and even sent a query to their reference desk (so far without response), but I can’t find any support for my feeling that there might have been a special postal rate for parcels weighing five pounds or less sent to active military serving overseas.

At one point I found what I thought was a reference to five-pound boxes sent by the American Red Cross to prisoners of war. These boxes also contained everyday necessities—food, toiletries, cigarettes, playing cards, etc.—and it occurred to me that perhaps people used “five-pound box” in an extended sense, the same way we describe parcels of goodies sent to college students as “CARE packages.”

But then I learned that the ARC actually sent twenty-pound boxes. Another good theory spoiled!

I ran across a book referring to packing Bundles for Britain:

Our parcels contained gloves, socks and sweaters knitted by our little Chapter on winter evenings according to special patterns. Canned goods, cigarettes and toilet articles were added and fitted like a puzzle into a tiny box. But Americans poured out their friendship and their material goods in these boxes. However, individuals were allowed only one package a month; it must be packed in a regulation box and not weigh over five pounds. No parcel could contain whiskey or more than two packs of cigarettes. Mrs. Houghton used her kitchen scales to make sure her boxes weren’t an ounce too heavy.

This also sounds promising, but still not quite what I’m looking for. So the question remains: “What [during World War II] was a ‘five-pound box’?” I would be grateful for any leads.

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3 Responses to What is a “five-pound box”?

  1. Update: I have found a Czech site that sells scale models and miniatures. It offers “U.S. Cardboard Boxes WW II” (see http://www.plusmodel.cz/view_en.php?id=475) that include “Boxes for overseas mail” of two types: “Overseas Shipper” and “Service Men’s Victory Shipper.” These seem like likely candidates for the “overseas shipping boxes” my father later mentions.

    Yesterday in the grocery store I accosted a man wearing a “WWII Veteran” cap. He said he had served in Germany, but unfortunately he said the term “five-pound box” meant nothing to him. Still a mystery!

  2. I think I have finally found at least a partial answer to this question. According to the “Restrictions on Overseas Shipments to Army Personnel” quoted at http://www.igreenbaum.com/restrictions-on-overseas-shipments-to-army-personnel/, the “five-pound box” was not a special postal rate qualification but in fact a limit on the weight of any parcel.

    By the time Dad went overseas, the requirements of item 2 must have been relaxed to exempt gift boxes (for Christmas and birthdays) because he certainly did not specifically request all the items he received in those gifts. On the other hand, this might explain why there is often a stamped postmark next to the specific requests he did make; Mother must have shown these letters to a postal clerk when she mailed the package.

  3. Further follow-up: I received today a letter from Lynn Heidelbaugh of the Curatorial Department, History Division, of the Smithsonian’s National Postal Museum, and she enclosed copies of documents that answer most of my questions, though I’m still wondering about the “surprise” gift boxes. One of the documents (an excerpt from “A Wartime History of the Post Office Department: World War II 1939-1945) does stipulate that the approval of the unit commander later became unnecessary (though in this case Dad was the C.O.) and that “When parcels were presented for mailing addressed to APO’s overseas, the accepting employees were to examine the requests brought by the mailer and postmark them to prevent reuse.”

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