Mail by Motor

U.S. Mail motorized car in the snow and a postal worker next to a letter box
This motorized vehicle was tested for carrying mail in Cleveland, Ohio, in 1899.

With 190,000 vehicles currently on the road, the United States Postal Service has the largest vehicular fleet in the world. These vehicles drive 847 million miles a year. That is a far cry from the way things were when the first fragile looking motor car was tested by the Post Office Department in 1899.

The first official use of gasoline-powered vehicles to collect city mail began in Baltimore in late 1906. A pair of Columbia "autocars" were used in the test. Each had a special compartment holding two mail sacks mounted on the back of the front seat. The tests were successful, and motorized mail vehicles were introduced elsewhere. By the end of 1912, they were being used in Boston, Detroit, Indianapolis, San Francisco, and four other cities.

Postal officials have used steam, electric and gasoline-powered vehicles alike, and in about the same proportion as they were used personally, and commercially. Electric vehicles, for example, were almost entirely confined to cities or to interurban service where distances were not great and the roads were good.

The Post Office Department faced its first motor vehicle-related crisis in 1913 when Parcel Post was inaugurated on January 1, 1913. It was totally unprepared for the public's response to the new package service. In the first few days of service it was swamped with parcels, deluged by four million packages during the first week of service.

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Front and back of the Columbia autocars tested in Baltimore, Maryland in 1906.

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Side view of a Columbia autocar tested in Baltimore, Maryland in 1906.

Postmaster General Frank Hitchcock quickly realized what he was up against. He hastily issued a call for bids for 100 additional government-owned mail trucks to augment the dozens of rented trucks and government-owned mail wagons that he confessed were "already taxed to their utmost capacity."

Mail trucks were often loaded well beyond their capacity. Such overloading often resulted in the temporary loss of mailbags in transit. As a safeguard, a laborer often rode on top of the mailbags so that any that dropped off could be promptly recovered. This problem was not confined to the Post Office Department. The tendency to overload commercial vehicles was a common practice during much of the first quarter of this century. 

The story of mail truck service can be found in the Museum's On the Road exhibit.

Parcel Post Service wagon, horse, and postal worker posing

Parcel Post Service wagons were quickly overwhelmed by the popularity of the new service.

row of parked screen trucks

Row of screen trucks used to carry the mail.

Overloaded mail truck used by a mail contract carrier

Overloaded mail truck used by a mail contract carrier in Cody, Wyoming.