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1950-1986black and white photos of U.S. mail trucks

In the early 1950s, the Post Office Department tested dozens of new vehicles in an attempt to find the best trucks for their carriers.

A New Design On Mail Volume

After the end of the Second World War in 1945, the Post Office Department was finally able to purchase 3,247 new trucks. Post-war booms in business and employment fueled an increase in mail volume. More mail flowing into individual mailboxes meant more mail toted by the carriers.

Growing suburban sprawl added to the complexity of the challenge facing the Department after the war. City mail delivery systems were strained to the point of breaking and letter carriers to the point of exhaustion. A new approach was needed to keep mail moving quickly and efficiently.

“The unprecedented suburban
grown throughout the country
has made obsolete many of the
old methods for delivering mail.”
- Postmaster General Arthur Summerfield, Annual Report to Congress, 1954

Letting the Carriers Drive

Sit or Stand Van
Sit or Stand Van

For the first half of the 20th century, mail trucks transported both carriers and their mail to the spot where the daily rounds began on foot. Faced with more homes to reach, and more mail to bring, the Post Office Department’s solution was to put their letter carriers behind the wheel. By using vehicles to haul all that mail, carriers could complete longer routes in the same amount of time.

To ensure the success of this plan, the Department needed to obtain vehicles that were lightweight, maneuverable and able to withstand the rigorous demands of mail delivery service. To find these vehicles, postal officials instituted a series of tests, including one in Miami, Florida in July 1954. A number of vehicle types were offered for inspection and testing. When the tests were over, three vehicle types had sparked the Department’s interest, the Sit or Stand Van, the Mailster and the Jeep.

The first “sit or stand” vans used by the Post Office Department were built by the Twin Coach Company of Kent, Ohio. The design gave carriers the option of standing up while driving short distances or sitting down for longer distances. The sliding side panel doors allowed carriers easy access to mailboxes along the route. By 1955, 3,791 sit or stand vans were being used by carriers across the country.

postal worker loading mail into a Mailster
Mailster

The first large-scale purchase of vehicles for letter carriers included an odd looking three-wheeled, lightweight conveyance known as a “mailster.” The mailster worked best in temperate climates or on even terrain. In other areas, they sometimes did not work at all. Northern carriers, immobilized in as little as three inches of snow, also complained of the vehicles’ inability to heat properly. The three-wheel design left mailsters susceptible to tipping over if cornering over 25 miles per hour or if caught in a wind gust. One carrier complained that his mailster was tipped over by a large dog.

Listen to a mailster on the road

postal worker leaning out of a jeep
Jeep

Postal officials had been especially impressed by the performance of the Willys jeep in earlier vehicle tests. Already famous for the rugged reliability they demonstrated in World War II, jeeps soon became part of the Post Office’s vehicle modernization program. In August 1953, the first postal jeeps rolled off the Willys Motors assembly line. The model, the first U.S. car in three decades to have right-hand drive, was soon being tested on postal routes around the country. Carriers used these right-hand drive vehicles to save delivery time on their routes. They were able to more easily reach the mailbox without having to park and go around their cars, or reach over the passenger’s seat to deliver the mail.

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