Horseless wagons began to appear in Europe and America in the late 1800s. American postal officials, continuously seeking faster and more effective ways of moving mail, were drawn to the possibilities of these new self-propelled wagons. The match between postal service and vehicle was a great success. By 1920, the U.S. Post Office Department controlled the largest civilian vehicular fleet in the world. By the 1960s, these vehicles had become an essential tool of city delivery service. Today letter carriers and their vehicles are commonplace in neighborhoods across the country.
Speeding Along and Setting a Standard
In December 1899, an automobile mail wagon was tested for the first time. It was manufactured by the Winton Company of Cleveland, Ohio. The test was conducted with snow both on the ground and falling. Even in those conditions, the new vehicle covered 22 miles of paved and unpaved streets in just under two and one-half hours, stopping at 126 mailboxes along the route. The average time for a horse and wagon over the same route was six hours.
Officials cheered the dramatic increase in collection speed and soon postmasters across the country were testing motorized vehicles. Collection times were cut at least in half in most trials. This was exciting news for the time-conscious Post Office Department.
This video chronicles the use of motorized vehicles to move mail within America's towns and cities.
Americans in towns and cities take door-to-door mail service for granted.
But, it wasn't always this way.
Until the mid-1800s, city folk had two ways to get their mail.
Richer people paid someone to fetch their mail for them.
But most went to the post-office themselves.
It was a time-consuming chore.
Ladies were discouraged from being seen around rough-and-tumble post offices.
In 1858 came a new way to mail letters, the letterbox, attached to lampposts across the city.
Then in 1863, and 49 northern cities, another change, "City free delivery."
This meant that mail would be delivered to your door, free of charge, by the Post Office, and each year, more and more cities would get free mail delivery.
Of course the mail still moved at the speed of a horse.
But by the end of the 19th century, America's cities swelled and the demand on the postal service increased.
The Post Office unveiled new innovations: streetcar mail service, underground pneumatic tubes.
Letterboxes had to be bigger.
In 1894, free-standing mail boxes began to appear.
But the biggest innovation of the mall was the horseless carriage.
It changed the way we carry people and had revolutionized the way people carried the mail.
The Winton motor wagon became the first motorized vehicle to carry mail over a 22 mile route, in one-third the time of a horse-drawn wagon.
Some postmasters followed up with automobile tests of their own.
But the car was in its infancy - and most roads were better suited for horses.
Could the horseless carriage really carry the ever-growing volume of mail in America's cities?
In the fall of 1906, assistant Postmaster General Frank Hitchcock decided to find out.
He ordered two Columbia Mark 3 Touring Cars to make test runs around Baltimore, Maryland.
The result: and overwhelming success.
The horse-drawn wagons days were numbered at the Post Office.
By 1912, 30 cities had adopted motor cars to carry the mail.
Or at least to carry the mailman.
In larger cities, post men would pile into a wagon at the start of the day, be driven to their routes and deliver the mail on foot, with new mail distributed to them throughout that day.
Then they were driven back to the post office.
In 1913, that volume would get much larger, with the introduction of Parcel Post Service.
The Post Office Department was now also in the package delivery business.
Boxes, newspapers, magazines - by 1920, letter carriers had moved two and a quarter billion parcels - in addition to the increasing load of regular mail they were already carrying.
The smaller motor-cars that carried the mail became overwhelmed.
Soon, the post office was using trucks.
World War one created a surplus of trucks that were drafted into service by the Post Office.
The Post Office had forty-three different types of trucks, a nightmare to maintain.
They needed to pare down their fleet.
By 1923 the Post Office simplified its fleet to only a few manufacturers making mail trucks, the largest of which was the Ford Motor Company.
In the 1930s, this fleet began to age, but the Great Depression prevented the Post Office from upgrading its trucks.
Then, World War II broke out.
And manufacturers turned out vehicles for the war effort, but none to move mail.
The Post Office's truck fleet aged still more.
By 1945, 90% of the Post Office's vehicles were obsolete and by 1950, the fleet was hopelessly out of date - some trucks had been on the road as long as 30 years.
Through all this, however, the average city resident still got his or her mail from a letter carrier traveling on foot, braving the elements to deliver a steadily increasing volume of mail - more than they could carry at one time.
After the war the Post Office had a plan.
Letter carriers would drive their mail to their route, or even from house-to-house.
They were sheltered from the elements and wouldn't have to go back and forth for more mail.
So, by 1950, the Post Office had put more than 19,000 mail trucks on the road, in a hodgepodge of styles.
The fleet needed to be simplified and made more efficient.
For this, the Post Office needed a light flexible fuel-efficient vehicle.
It had to be inexpensive.
And from this the Mailster was born.
The three-wheeled lightweight Mailster was unveiled with great optimism in 1957.
The Post Office was changing the way the mail was delivered.
The letter carrier could now carry the 35 pounds of regular mail - and deliver parcels, too - faster.
Nearly 10,000 were on the road by 1962.
But, the Mailster was a lemon.
It was too small and flimsy - even dangerous.
It struggled up hills.
It was top-heavy and tipped over too easil.
It could not get through more than three inches of snow.
It choked the carrier with its own exhaust.
Letter carriers gave it terrible reviews.
The Mailster would become a notorious flop.
So, the Post Office turned to a vehicle very familiar to the World War II generation - the Jeep.
The tough, nimble Jeep had earned its stripes in battle and was well-suited to the task of delivering urban and suburban mail in all weather conditions.
The steering wheel was moved to the right, trimming 30 to 60 minutes off a delivery day.
The Jeep had been used in the 1950s, and when the Mailster failed, the Jeep became a mainstay of the carrier's fleet for more than 20 years.
In the 1980s, the Postal Service decided to have a vehicle built to their specifications that would carry carriers and their mail.
It had to be able to cart more mail, be reliable in bad weather as well as good, and hold up to the demands of mail delivery service.
They had learned the lesson of the Mailsters.
The Long-Life Vehicle, or LLV, first rolled off assembly lines in 1986.
Made of lightweight aluminum, but large, enclosed and tough as a truck, the LLV went through a test phase as if it were an astronaut-in-training.
Three prototypes were developed of this vehicle, but only one company would be rewarded with a contract to produce the LLV.
It had to run up to 20 hours a day, seven days a week.
It would be tested 960 miles over brick at 23 miles an hour, 14 miles an hour over cobblestone.
Each wheel would hit a pothole 35,000 times!
The LLV can carry a half-ton of mail in Arizona summers and Vermont winters.
It became the meat-and-potatoes vehicle of the letter carrier.
Grumman Company would make 99,150 of these familiar vehicles, which are still delivering most of the mail today.
Long life indeed.
But a new century demands a next-step vehicle.
Meet the Flexible Fuel Vehicle, or FFV.
More than 21,000 FFVs were deployed in 2002.
The FFV runs on a combination of unleaded gasoline and ethanol, a renewable fuel made from corn.
The FFV conserves oil and cuts emissions.
Horses, motor carriages, Jeeps, Flexible-Fuel Vehicles, they've revolutionized mail delivery.
New vehicles and innovative ways of moving the mail are constantly being explored.
As time marches forward, the Postal Service keeps step always with an eye for what is just around the corner.
It's rich tradition continues to evolve and change right alongside America's diverse landscape.
This exhibit was made possible through the generous support of Ford Motor Company Fund.