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1906-1920

Columbian Mark truck loaded with mailbags
Columbian Mark truck

In 1906, Postmaster General Frank Hitchcock organized a test of two Columbian Mark vehicles in Baltimore, Maryland. The drivers worked for the vehicle contractors and the carriers for the postal service. The Columbian Marks could carry two mailbags and a few small parcels. The carrier stood on the back of the truck for easy access to mailboxes along the route. The success of these tests helped drive the demand by American postmasters for motorized vehicles in more cities.

Wanted: Better Drivers

The question remained; who would drive all these new vehicles? Driving was not an everyday skill in the early 20th century, so the Post Office asked manufacturers and suppliers to provide drivers along with the vehicles. Some of the drivers were scorned for their reckless disregard of traffic regulations, exploiting an assumed right of way of federal mail vehicles. In a 1913 New York City public hearing, mail drivers were taken to task for their recklessness. Testimonials included complaints that the drivers exceeded the 15 mile per hour speed limit.

“I thought I was right; we [contract mail drivers] all do it.” - A defense given by contract mail driver, John Gorgan, when asked why he was constantly driving on the wrong side of the street

Columbian Mark trucks loaded with mailbags
Columbian Mark trucks

The last straw was a 1913 New York City drivers’ strike that disrupted mail service. Although short-lived, the strike demonstrated the post service’s lack of control over the drivers. On October 19, 1914, the Post Office Department created the Motor Vehicle Service and hired their own drivers and mechanics. 

So Many Trucks

During the 1910s and 1920s, the popularity of time-motion studies inspired many organizations to reevaluate their procedures. Efficiency was the ultimate good and swifter automobiles gave postal officials a new way to provide faster and better service. Postal officials went on a buying spree. A variety of new vehicles were added to the young fleet.

black and white photo of three various mail trucks
Vehicles used during World War I were a mix of makes and models

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 makes and models. Many were too big or too beaten up for mail service. In the end, only 1,444 of the trucks and 701 of the motorcycles received from the military were used to carry the mail. 

Motorcycles

Carriers also used bicycles and motorcycles, although motorcycles never became popular for city delivery. Of the motorcycles donated to the service by the War Department in 1920, only some worked out well. Additionally carriers were challenged by balancing mail while on the bikes. In 1908, the Post Office experimented with three-wheeled motorcycles called “tri-cars.” While carriers had a place to put their mail, the motorcycles did not perform well in the tests and were abandoned.

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Additional Imagery

  • Tri-cycle on the corner of 12th and Pennsylvania Ave., Washington, DC with a postal worker standing next to it
    Tri-cycle on the corner of 12th and Pennsylvania Ave., Washington, DC. 
  • A group of Harley-Davidson tri-cars posed in front of the post office in Milwaukee, Wisconsin
    A group of Harley-Davidson tri-cars posed in front of the post office in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.