Transporting the Mail
Mail delivery was not exempt from the Department’s modernization plans. Just as massive increases in mail volume demanded changes in how it was processed and sorted, it also brought to light the need to help letter carriers deliver all that mail. Historically, improvements in mail transportation had been focused on moving mail between cities or post offices. With carriers burdened down as never before with their daily deliveries, getting mail to people’s homes had to be examined for changes and upgrades. The Post Office Department stated that “If the public is to get fast, dependable mail service, every method of transportation must be used in its proper sphere and adapted to changing times and to our great population growth.”(1) The Department thus looked into various modes of transportation for moving the mail, such as three-wheeled scooters for delivery, and helicopters, and even missiles, for moving mail from place to place.
Mailsters and Other Vehicles
Carriers had been using wheels to help their daily rounds prior to the 1950s. Rural Free Delivery carriers needed wagons or cars to carry them over miles of rural roads. City carriers operated somewhat differently. They might be driven, as a group, to a starting point for their daily rounds, but they usually completed those on foot (if needed, more mail would be provided to carriers along their route). By the 1950s, carriers needed much more help. In 1951 only 3,134 bicycles were being used by letter carriers to deliver the mail. Some letter carriers used public transportation on their routes.(2) The Post Office Department needed a vehicle that could be mass produced at low cost and help increase efficiency in delivering the mail. That vehicle was the “mailster.”
The first of these vehicles were put into experimental use on June 23, 1950 in Miami, Florida.(3) Mailsters were essentially large, 3-wheeled scooters that resembled small cars. In 1952 the Post Office Department added an automotive engineer to the departmental staff so that the Department could follow “advances in automotive design and construction and in garage and fleet management.”(4) The Department wanted to experiment with electric tractors, light motor vehicles for urban areas, and various models of vehicles for mail delivery.(5) In 1953 the Department further established a Division of Transportation Research for the studies of intra and intercity mail delivery.(6)
Multiple vehicles that resembled the initial mailsters of Miami were researched and experimented. These models had names such as the “Thrif-T” and “Autoette.”(7) Experimental use of such vehicles was made in six cities. Approximately 25 different model vehicles were tested. They ranged from small vehicles that resembled golf carts to small trucks. Right-hand side drive vehicles were tested. These allowed drivers to make deliveries more efficiently. The tests found that, although the small vehicles worked well in cities such as Miami, they did not function as well in cities like Milwaukee which would get snow or in cities that had hilly areas. Problems that occurred in such cities involved the lack of power on such small vehicles and the deficient covering from the elements that was put on the early vehicles.(8)
A key drive in the shift to mechanizing mail delivery routes was the spread of suburban areas away from city centers. Purely manual delivery of the mail for many routes became inadequate and unable to handle the suburban growth. Another problem for manual delivery of mail was the lack of sidewalks in areas.(9) The Department thus concluded that letter carriers would have to, on some routes, start using motor vehicles. The benefits of such mechanization were that, “through using functional vehicles and revised methods of collecting and delivering mail, consolidation of routes and reduction of nonproductive time could produce savings of $40 million or more a year. Also, such a program would provide better service to the public and the physical effort required of carriers would be less than with the present methods and equipment.”(10)
The mailsters were cheap to manufacture, saving the Department money. Their use in Florida expanded to the Tampa and St. Petersburg areas. In the northern states, small four-wheel right-hand drive jeeps were being used experimentally because they were better able to handle the weather conditions than the mailsters. A new bicycle was also developed that would improve letter carriers’ efficiency on routes where motor vehicles were not practical.(11) This motor vehicle program for mechanizing the mail was reported to be one of “the most important steps taken since 1953 to modernize the postal service in line with the President’s mandate to improve service and reduce costs.”(12)
The first city in the county to get 100 percent of their mail delivered by motorized routes was Decatur, Georgia. Mailsters were established to be the primary means of delivery for mail in the city. Eighteen mailsters were required for the deliveries, and a carrier praised the vehicles for their ability to keep dogs at bay while also keeping the mailmen from getting sore feet.(13)
The initial success of the mailster, primarily in southern cities, led to the spread of the vehicle to other cities. In 1957 four cities in Florida initiated delivery of mail via the ¼ ton mailsters: Fort Lauderdale, Hialeah, Jacksonville, and Tallahassee. In Georgia, Augusta, Columbus, Decatur, and Savannah were now getting mailsters to help deliver mail. The Post Office Department began experimenting with the mailsters in more northern states again as well. Such cities that the mailsters were introduced to were Charlotte and Gastonia, North Carolina, Charleston, South Carolina, Washington, D.C., Richmond, Virginia, Wichita, Kansas, and Paterson, New Jersey.(14)
Mailsters enabled the letter carriers to carry more mail on their routes, including parcel post, while also covering more areas with no increased effort or time needed. Moreover, the “carriers [benefited] by having the mail load removed from their shoulders, by the reduced amount of walking required, and by protection from inclement weather. The patrons [benefited] by having parcel post delivered at the same time as their regular mail.”(15)
In 1958 the amount of money that was spent on the research and development of motor vehicles more than doubled, from $10,500,000 to $21,500,000.(16) Researchers needed to work on mechanical aspects of the mailster, as it was found that “Functionally, the mailster is almost perfect.”(17) The main goal of the mailster had to be continued, for the vehicle to be able to be produced cheaply and be uncomplicated in its design, while improving the mechanics of the vehicles.
Conversion of foot routes to motorized routes throughout the country continued throughout the decade. By 1959, approximately 5,000 routes were covered by mailsters.(18) Along with use of the one-cylinder mailster, various other vehicles were still being tested by the Department, such as “vehicles powered by electric motors, two-cylinder mailsters, and four-wheel vehicles powered by four-cylinder engines, were being tested and evaluated as the fiscal year ended.”(19) Tests on Jeeps found that “a right-hand drive postal body on this proven chassis will be very satisfactory in areas where the scooter types may not be adequate.”(20) Mailsters were also exhibited by the Post Office Department internationally, in Warsaw, Poland in 1960 and in Osaka, Japan in 1966.(21)
Developments were continued to be made on the mailster, and more were being used or on contract for delivery. In 1960 there were 5,700 mailsters in operation and 3,000 were to be added.(22) The two-cylinder mailster was put into experimental use in hilly areas and other places that required more power than the one-cylinder mailster could give. Trucks with 4-cylinders and right-hand drive were also expected to enter regular use in areas that required larger loads of mail to be delivered.(23)
Tests on electric-powered mailsters initially showed positive results. In tests having letter carriers deliver their mail in the electric mailsters instead of gasoline powered mailsters, results showed that 90 percent of the postal workers favored the electric mailster. The reasons that the workers gave for favoring the electric vehicle were: “ease of operation, less fatigue, quietness and rapid acceleration between stops.”(24)
In 1961 the use of mailsters continued to increase. More than 8,400 mailsters were now being used to deliver mail and more were on order.(25) The Post Office Department was also increasing their studies on electric vehicles, and 4-wheeled vehicles were put into experimental use in 1962. The Department stated that the benefits of the electric vehicles over the gasoline powered vehicles were that “the absence of a conventional engine permits redesign of vehicles to incorporate excellent driver visibility and operational accessibility.”(26) In 1963 the design was improved of electric mailsters that increased their top speeds to 25 miles per hour.(27)
By 1963 the design of the mailster had been changed. The cargo capacity was increased to allow for more mail to be delivered per mailster. Various other technical improvements, such as the installation of a steering wheel instead of a handle bar, were made so that the mailster could be more easily used while also providing better safety measures for the vehicle.(28) Other additions to the redesigned vehicle included a heater, a windshield defroster, and sliding doors instead of curtains.(29) The older mailsters were mostly transferred to the southern states so that the northern areas could be better serviced by the newly designed mailsters.(30) By the end of 1965 the total number of mailsters in use was expected to double to continue to lower the costs of delivering the mail. Mailsters were upgraded and redesigned through the 1960s. Further improvements that were made to experimental mailsters included “transistorized ignition, improved engine cooling, special tires, and no-lubrication fittings.”(31)
By 1967 the Post Office Department had motorized almost 42,000 routes, but felt that to gain the maximum benefits that motor vehicles could provide, the number of mechanized routes would have to be doubled.(32) By the next year over 11,000 more routes were motorized.(33) However, the mailsters were ultimately not the future of the Department because of their many flaws. By 1967 the Department was lowering the number of mailsters in service, and Jeeps began replacing them.(34)
Some of the letter carriers had not been enthusiastic about the mailsters when they debuted. Some of them thought that the mailsters, instead of making routes more efficient, actually hindered their progress. One worker, talking about his dislike of the mailster, said “My houses are close together in a row. I used to be able to walk right down the line, across the front yards. Now I have to keep returning to the mailster, moving it along with me.”(35) Furthermore, some carriers that were using mailsters reverted back to manual routes because of congested residential areas, such as apartment houses, for which foot delivery was more practical.(36)
The construction of the vehicle was not the safest, possibly because the Department’s primary concern in building the vehicle was creating one that was cheap to produce and uncomplicated to maintain. One flaw of the vehicle was the location of the gas tank. The instructor’s guide for training new mailster drivers explained that the “gas tank is located at the extreme rear of the cargo compartment with very little clearance from the ground. It is protected somewhat when the vehicle is moving forward by the differential housing, but use caution when backing to avoid rupturing the tank on low obstacles, such as curbs, etc.”(37) The driver thus had to be careful in backing up the vehicle, which was made to be driven in tight spaces.
The electric mailsters were not problem free either. The electric vehicles had a high cost of operation, approximately twice was gasoline mailsters cost, which went against the idea of the mailster. The electrical components of the mailster could malfunction, which could cause a fire in the mailster. Most problematic, though, was that the vehicles were so slow that they could not safely travel on main roads, which they often needed to do to travel to the delivery route and back to the garage.(38) The speed of the gasoline mailster was not very high either. The one-cylinder mailster could only go an average of 25 miles per hour.(39)
The mailster’s safety was also questionable. Although statistics showed that there was a similar rate of accidents with the mailsters and four-wheel drive vehicles, the difference was in who was injured in the accidents. Most accidents that involved a four-wheel drive vehicle injured pedestrians, while most accidents that mailsters were involved in injured the operators of the vehicles.(40) Some common accidents involved the vehicles falling over during sharp turns or on icy roads.
In a study of the mailsters and two fatal accidents that occurred involving their drivers, the Office of Research and Engineering found that there was an “apparent trend for accidents involving the mailster to result in more severe and serious driver injuries than those occurring with conventional vehicles under comparable conditions.”(41) There was also a death that was supposedly caused by a heater in the mailster, but the Department found that “overlooked is the fact that such heat exchangers are safely used worldwide in the Volkswagen and that they may be found in virtually every residential hot air furnace.”(42)
Nevertheless, the mailster was not a safe vehicle. One reason for this was that almost every one of the companies that were contracted to build mailsters was not actually a recognized automotive vehicle contractor, and most had never built vehicles for use on the road before. In a report on mailster deficiencies, the Department concluded that “Such backgrounds do not qualify those firms to produce mailsters or any other vehicular equipment. Inadequate design, poor equipment reliability, or defective workmanship due to inexperience, can cause death or disfigurement to driver, pedestrian, or other motorists.”(43) The Office of Research and Engineering questioned the Post Office Department’s use of the vehicle on terrain that might be unsafe for the mailster. The Department of Research and Engineering actually suggested that the “Post Office Department should give serious consideration to the use of a crash helmet by all mailster operators.”(44)
By 1967 the Department had found serious flaws with mailsters. Such flaws included defective front axles, defective and inferior shaft linkage, defective drive couplings, defective universal joints, defective door locks, defective fuel pumps, and defective brake pedal mountings.”(45) It was concluded that “a reasonable probability of purchasing reliable, safe, and road-worthy vehicles of this design does not exist.”(46)
Rocket and Missile Mail
Another way of moving mail between cities was through the air. The use of air mail was increasing, especially as the use of the railroads for transporting mail decreased. A very different way of transporting mail through the air, though, was through rockets or missiles.
European nations (primarily Austria and Germany) were the first to try sending mail by rocket. In the United States, the most enthusiastic use of rockets to carry mail was made not by the Post Office Department, but by rocket enthusiasts. In 1936 rockets containing mail were sent from Texas to Mexico, travelling a distance of about 4,000 feet.(47) Others had the idea of sending mail even further by rocket. The Cleveland Rocket Society was interested in creating a liquid-fuel rocket for carrying mail as well as rockets that could be shot out of the earth’s atmosphere.(48) In the Las Cruces, New Mexico Proving Grounds a V-2 rocket was shot by the Air Force that also contained mail. The stamp that they applied to the mail placed in the rocket was a six cent US Air Mail stamp. The rocket was named “Gloria,” and the bag in which the mail was placed was labeled “First Rocket Mail.”(49)
On September 16, 1958, a naval officer placed a letter into a Regulus II missile that was fired from the submarine USS Greyback.(50) In 1959 another missile was flown that contained mail. In a presentation by the Navy a Regulus I missile was flown with mail, and the mail was given to the guests “guests in envelopes stamped, U.S. Missile Mail, Point Mugu, Cal.”(51)
However, it was later in 1959, on June 8, when the “First Official Missile Mail” flight occurred. In an event that was widely publicized after it was completed, mail was sent on a guided Regulus 1 missile from the submarine USS Barbero (on which a branch post office was temporarily created) to the Naval Auxiliary Air Station at Mayport, Florida.(52) The missile carried 3,000 letters which were processed at the Jacksonville Post Office then delivered to various prominent people around the country and internationally. Postmaster Summerfield noted that “the practical significance of this flight was made known to the world immediately, including these important points: (1) guided missiles may be used for the safe transportation of considerable quantities of mail; (2) mail can be transported significant distances; and (3) mail can be loaded efficiently and quickly into special containers which can be placed inside missiles.”(53) In his statement concerning the event Summerfield stated that “In colonial days Benjamin Franklin took the mails from horseback and put it on coaches; in 1831(54) the Post Office Department was the first to use the ‘new fangled’ trains; in 1858 the Post Office linked the nation with the famous Overland Mail stage service to be followed in 1860 with the even faster Pony Express.(55) In 1918, when most people still thought the airplane was an unworkable contraption, the Post Office Department demonstrated its practical peacetime uses with the first regular air mails…Today’s Missile Mail will go down in history as another saga of progress and achievement in our national heritage.”(56)
Not everyone shared Summerfield’s optimism about the pragmatism of sending mail by missile. The “First Official Missile Mail” experiment was not followed by any serious research or development of mail-carrying missiles. Postmaster General Summerfield’s successor, J. Edward Day, stated that, “We are not using ICBM’s to carry mail. Our predecessors in the Department actually shot some mail up in a missile here in Florida a few years ago. But the press releases about this incident moved much faster than the missile mail. I understand that the letters took eight days to get to their destination.”(57) Day was referring to the fact that after the successful completion of the flight, all of the envelopes (with the exception of one addressed to President Eisenhower), were deposited in the Jacksonville, Florida, post office for standard mail processing.
Rail Decreasing, Air Increasing, Highway Post Office
One of the reasons that missiles were studied for transportation of mail was because the traditional ways of carrying the mail were changing. While much of the mail was being conveyed by the railroads in the early twentieth century, this trend was reversing, especially after the Second World War. More mail was then being transported around the country by air and over highways.
Railway mail costs were expanding as the number of trains available declined, due mostly to declining passenger traffic. Unpredictable railway strikes also effected the timely transportation of mail. During these strikes, motor vehicles were used to transport the mails in their place.(58)
Between 1950 and 1952 the cost of transporting the mail around the country almost doubled.(59) The Post Office Department began researching various kinds of ways to carry the mail, hoping that these increased costs could be abated by new or improved means of transportation. In the early 1940s the Post Office Department had briefly experimented with Highway Post Office service (clerks on board a specially-outfitted bus sorted mail while the bus traveled from town to town. The original bus used for this purpose is in the collection of the National Postal Museum.(60) A second HyPO route was not established until 1946 due to the outbreak of World War II. The service grew very slowly at first, not really taking-off until the 1950s. Three of these “specially designed highway post office vehicles” were ordered for experimental use.(61)
The initial impression that the vehicles made on the Post Office Department were favorable. Jesse M. Donaldson, the Postmaster General, noted that “One of the most efficient means of bridging railroad service losses has been the highway post office which is fitted for the sorting of mail in transit similar to the railway post office car. In one efficient vehicle it combines the advantages of a railway post office, mail messenger vehicle, and star route track, plus an elasticity not possessed in any single one of its predecessors.”(62)
With the decreasing number of trains in use and the swelling price of moving mail by the rails, more mail was moved by airplane each year.(63) Airplanes were used to move the mail in increasing numbers through the early 20th century. The first use of airplanes by the Post Office Department for moving the mail on a regular schedule was in 1918.(64) The Post Office Department, in fact, operated the nation’s airmail service between 1918-1926. After that year, commercial airlines bid to carry mail on pre-designated routes. Commercial airlines relied on those postal contracts to survive the early years. It was not until 1936 that an airplane (the DC-3) existed that could carry enough passengers to justify the cost of the flight. Before that, mail funds kept the planes flying.
One vehicle that the Department studied for carrying the mail by air over short distances was the helicopter. Chicago, New York, and Los Angeles had all begun to experiment with helicopter airmail routes in the early post World War II years. Although much mail was moved by the service (over one billion letters were carried by helicopter in Chicago), the service was found to be inefficient.(65) The Department found that more money could be saved by improving highways and access roads and carrying the mail by trucks, rather than using helicopters for the service.(66) The Department concluded that “To be of significant advantage over trucks, helicopters must operate between points separated by some distance and which are not connected by high speed highways.”(67)
With the focus of transportation moving from railways to highways and airports, the Post Office Department had to consider their tradition of post office locations. New buildings were traditionally built as close to railway stations as possible in large cities.(68) In 1968, it was noted that “nearly all of the seventy-five largest post offices, handling half of the nation's mail, were built near railroad stations at a time when 10,000 trains daily hauled the mail. Today, with only 700 trains in mail service, many of these buildings are badly located for transporting mail by truck or air.”(69) As any modern air traveler has noticed, postal processing facilities are now often located near large city airports.