Trolley Mail Service

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Clerks posing in white streetcar that has been designed for mail sorting instead of carrying passengers.

The central feature the Railway Mail Service was the concept of sorting mail en route. This scheme, begun in 1863, saved time and work because the mail in many cases was ready for distribution by letter carriers by the time the trains arrived. Postal officials in large cities were quick to notice the effectiveness of the Railway Mail Service. They began to wonder if something similar could be used successfully in urban areas. Mail carried between sub post offices, or between post offices and rail stations could be sorted on specially designed trolleys or streetcars.

The first such Railway Post Office streetcar was put into service in St. Louis, Missouri, under the direction of that city's postmaster, Major John B. Harlowe. The service began in October 1891, following two months of experimental service.

Brooklyn was the second city to give streetcar RPO's a try. In 1894, the Brooklyn and Coney Island Railway Post Office was inaugurated. Brooklyn's passenger trolley cars had been in service only a few years before postmaster Sullivan decided to follow St. Louis and establish mail service on the trolley lines. Sullivan contracted for special trolley cars to be built so that mail could be sorted as the cars moved from station to station.

Central Park, 4 Av & Post Office, Grand Central Depot- New York City white trolley mail car

New York City white trolley mail car

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Unidentified white trolley mail car

Half of the cars were for mail, the remainder was for passengers. On August 9, 1894, the Brooklyn Eagle reported the debut of the cars by observing: "The forward half is fitted up for Railway Mail Service, with iron racks for the pouches, a distributing table extending all along one side for the sorting, separating, and stamping of mail matter, and with a set of pigeon holes for distributing. . . The windows of the postal compartment are protected by a wire netting, so that while the windows may be opened in warm weather there is no possibility of any of the mail being blown out of the windows. . . The car is lighted by electricity and supplied with the new patented electric heaters."

Over a year after Brooklyn's trolley car mail service began, a similar system was inaugurated in New York City. On October 2, 1895, the New York Times ran a story with the headline, "CABLE CARS CARRY MAIL," which related the first day's events. "Street car mail service was begun in this city yesterday at 5 o'clock in the morning. . . Half-hourly trips north and south were made throughout the day and that time schedule will be maintained for present. The car . . . is 22 feet long, with side doors and a window. It is painted white, with gold trimmings."

Union Traction Company trolley mail car

Union Traction Company held a contract for trolley mail service in Boston, Massachusetts.

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Clerk sorting mail inside trolley mail car.

The postal system liked the white color, and so did streetcar companies, but for different reasons. The companies saw an advantage in using cars of that color during times of labor strife or strikes. The companies reasoned that while striking workers might damage cars belonging to the company, or attempt to stop the cars from moving, they would be reluctant to harm a car carrying U.S. mail, since such action would make them liable to federal prosecution. In Chicago, one company even tried to paint their passenger cars white in an attempt to slip the cars through unmolested, but postal authorities quickly put a stop to such deceptions.

Boston's trolley mail car service was begun on May 1, 1895. The Boston Post referred to the "six strange but beautiful vehicles" which were ordered for the service. Closed pouch mail service on trolley cars had been provided in Boston since February 26, 1895. It had been such a success that it led the way for full trolley mail car service. In Boston, seven mail cars were operated on the West End Street Railway. These cars furnished service from the general post office to each of the twelve of the principal branch offices, as well as all of Boston's railway stations. One of Boston's busiest trolley cars was even equipped with an electric canceling machine. The clerks were able to cancel 2,000 covers per hour.

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Mail clerks and trolley employees pose with their trolley mail car.

Trolley car stuck in traffic

Trolley cars did not always have more success than automobiles in maneuvering through busy urban streets.

Each trolley mail car was typically staffed by two to four mail clerks. They were responsible for taking mail out of the bags loaded on at either a post office or a train station and sorting it along the route, re-packaging it for carriers. The clerks referred to a plan of the city, showing how districts were divided by carriers. Clerks would bundle letters by district for each carrier. Bags containing the letters for carriers who worked out of a substation were taken off the mail cars at the substation. It was then taken by a clerk to its destination. Mail destined for points out of the city was placed in bags which were deposited at the central post office or railway station.

In addition to the mail clerks, two employees of the trolley company were usually assigned to the cars. The company employees were the motorman, who was responsible for running the cars which traveled alone, and a conductor, (who would keep the car on schedule and handle the trolley rope and switching) or a trolley boy, (who would be responsible for replacing the pole whenever it jumped a wire).

The demise of trolley car mail was signaled by the arrival of the automobile. While pneumatic tubes carried the letter mail in the large cities, the introduction of automobiles solved the parcel and pouch mail problem. No sorting was done in transit on board the trucks, but then their ability to cover the city was not restricted by tracks. The mobility and carrying power of the trucks easily won over postal officials.

The postal service experimented with attaching trolley mail cars to passenger trolleys. However, this system was abandoned because it slowed up both mail service and passenger trolleys.

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Short 1903 film showing a horse-drawn mail wagon receiving mail from an attached trolley mail car.

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