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National Postal Museum

Smithsonian National Postal Museum

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Moving the Mail : Motorizing the Mail : Mailsters


Carriers loading mail into mailsters
Letter carriers were able to make fewer trips back to the post office by loading their day's delivery into a mailster.

Carrier delivering mail in the snow
Carrier leans through the snow to deliver the mail

When City Free Delivery Service began, all the letter carriers needed were their leather satchels. But, as the service continued into the 20th century, and cities, populations, and commerce exploded. And, before long, carriers' mailbags were stuffed to the brim, the carriers overwhelmed by the volume. Carriers needed a vehicle that could get them to their routes, carry the day's mail without relays, including parcel post packages.

The first large-scale purchase of vehicles for letter carriers use was in the 1950s. These three-wheeled, light-weight vans are known as "mailsters." The funny-looking trucks could carry up to 500 pounds of mail. By the 1960s, mailsters comprised almost one-third of the postal service's vehicular fleet. At least seven different companies produced mailsters, including Cushman, which produced the mailster in the museum's collection.

While the idea behind mailsters was solid, the vans were not. Letter carriers were not impressed by their new vehicles, which they considered too dangerous, too flimsy, too small, too underpowered, too prone to breaking down, too impractical and too top heavy. Northern carriers, immobilized in as little as three inches of snow because the front wheel dug in and wouldn't move, also complained that the vehicles could not be heated properly and that they would not start on very cold days. The carrier, seated directly over the 7.5 horsepower engine, was exposed to dangerous exhaust fumes. The tri-cycle design left mailsters susceptible to tipping over if cornering over 25 mph or if caught in a high wind. One mailster even tipped over by a large dog.

A common complaint was that mailsters were unable to compete on the open road. They simply lacked sufficient "get up and go." This frequently resulted in back-ups, with cars lined up for blocks behind the creeping three-wheelers. Breakdowns also were a common problem. Among the major sources of complaints were faulty brakes, poor clutches, shimmying front wheels, broken front axles, broken gear shift levers, and transmission troubles. Mailsters were hard to handle, difficult to load and unload, hard on uniforms (the grease and oil placed on door latches and steering columns constantly spotted pants and jackets were often torn while getting in and out of the mailsters' cramped quarters), and generally unpleasant, if not downright risky, to drive.

Mailster on display
A Cushman manufactured mailster on display at the National Postal Museum between 1993-2003."

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