Screen Wagon

blue and red screen wagon on display in the museum
The Smithsonian acquired this fully restored screen wagon, the only one known to have survived to this date, in February, 1987.

This is one of hundreds of homey, practical, caged mail wagons first used to haul mail in metropolitan areas in the late 19th century. Screen wagons, introduced into service at Sherman, Texas, in 1886, were part of an effort to increase mail security. To ensure that mail being transported between various urban postal sites (which included post offices, branch offices, and railroad stations), was fully protected, it was carried in wagons such as this.

The first wagons built and used for such service were the far fancier regulation wagons. First used in the 1870s, regulation wagons were handsome, well-built, red, white and blue wagons built according to postal specifications. The wagons were often embellished with ornately painted eagles, decorative trim and stripes, and carried the mail in princely style in the nation's largest cities. Although the service successfully protected the mail, regulation wagons were too expensive for use in smaller urban areas.

Although not as ornate as regulation wagons, screen wagons were just as secure. The smallest screen wagon could carry 1,200 pounds of mail, the largest, such as this one, could carry as much as 5,000 pounds of mail. The front wheels were constructed so that the wagon could easily pivot into tight areas for loading, helping to safeguard the mail. Postal specifications called for the main body to be painted blue, the running gear and wire caging red, and the belt, window panel and roof white.

By 1895 screen wagons were in use in nearly 100 urban centers. The next year, screen wagon and regulation wagon services were combined. Within a matter of months, the cheaper and easier to maintain screen wagons began to replace costly regulation wagons.

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Short 1903 film of screen wagons being loaded with mail at a post office. The original film is in the collection of the Library of Congress.

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