It is a familiar sight in neighborhoods across the United States: a blue-uniformed mail carrier behind the wheel of a rectangular white postal truck. Today, over 188,600 delivery vehicles are driven by mail carriers, bringing people across the country their share of the over 80 billion pieces of mail processed in the United States each day. “On the Road,” an exhibit opening Dec. 23 at the Smithsonian’s National Postal Museum, explores the history of city mail vehicles from the first tests in 1899 to the present. Visitors will learn how the “horseless wagon,” at first a novelty, became essential to city mail delivery.
“On the Road,” which features a 1931 Model A Ford Parcel Post truck and a contemporary Long Life Vehicle mail truck, was made possible by Ford Motor Company Fund, which also supported the creation of the Ford Education Center.
“We are grateful for the generosity of Ford Motor Company Fund,” said National Postal Museum director Allen Kane, “Without their support, we would not have been able to develop this remarkable exhibit.”
There were a few bumps in the road to motorized mail, especially in the early days. Driving was not an everyday skill in the early 20th century, so the Post Office Department asked vehicle manufacturers and suppliers to provide drivers along with vehicles. For decades, the drivers transported both carriers and their mail to the spot where the daily rounds began on foot.
In 1920, the Secretary of War turned 5,000 motor trucks and 1,000 motorcycles over to the Post Office Department. The vehicles, used during World War I, were a mix of styles and manufacturers. Performing maintenance on 43 different types of trucks by 23 different manufacturers required endless ingenuity from mechanics.
Mechanics were also tested during the Great Depression and World War II, when new postal truck purchases were a low priority. Talent, luck and bailing wire kept these aging vehicles on the road through the end of the war.
Despite challenges, motorized mail has dramatically increased efficiency in delivering the mail. A century after the first postal vehicles rolled onto America’s streets, the latest vehicles are designed with an eye toward the future. One of the newer innovations that Ford had provided was a postal truck that was ultimately engineered to be able to run on 85 percent ethanol fuel, gas, or any combination of the two fuels in the same tank.
“This exhibit is an exciting opportunity to share the story of how letter carriers have operated in getting mail to our homes,” National Postal Museum historian Nancy Pope said. “It’s the story of not only finding the right vehicles, but finding the right way to use them.”
Ford Motor Company Fund also provided support for the Ford Education Center, which opened in November 2003 at the National Postal Museum. The center allows visitors to instantly access images from the museum’s vaults, access curatorial information, conduct searches and locate stamps on exhibition.
“Through the years, Ford vehicles have played an important role in helping to deliver mail in America. Ford is proud to continue our longstanding partnership with the U.S. Postal Service and with the National Postal Museum by supporting this exhibition and education initiatives that increase accessibility to museum and cultural resources,” said Sandra E. Ulsh, president, Ford Motor Company Fund.
Ford Motor Company has long been a very important supplier of vehicles to the Postal Service. Currently, more than 33,000 Ford vehicles—from heavy trucks to special right-hand drive vehicles—are used to transport and deliver mail in communities all across America. Ford vehicles are also used by the Postal Inspection Service and in a wide variety of administrative and support activities. Many of these Ford vehicles are also capable of operating on alternative fuels, which helps the Postal Service and other federal fleets to stimulate new technologies.
Ford Motor Co.’s support of the National Postal Museum is part of the company’s longstanding commitment to education and the arts. Ford Motor Company Fund, the philanthropic arm of Ford Motor Company, supports programs that enhance and enrich the communities where Ford Motor Company does business. Ford Motor Company Fund is committed to creating educational opportunities that stimulate creativity and promote cultural diversity. In 2003, Ford Motor Company Fund contributed nearly $40 million to educational initiatives and more than $10 million to cultural programs and initiatives from university scholarships and programs geared towards school children to nationally touring exhibitions touring exhibitions and performing arts events. For more information on programs funded by Ford, visit www.ford.com.
The National Postal Museum is devoted to presenting the colorful and engaging history of the nation’s mail service and showcasing the largest and most comprehensive collection of stamps and philatelic material in the world. It is located at 2 Massachusetts Ave. N.E., in the Old City Post Office Building across from Union Station. The museum is open daily from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. For more information visit the museum’s Web site at postalmuseum.si.edu.
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