It was the Little Mail Truck Who Could. An odd American vehicle – looking more like a patriotic Good & Plenty than a post truck – but by the 1960s, the “Mailster” made up one-third of the post’s vehicular fleet, according to The Smithsonian, somehow schlepping 500 lbs of brown paper packages tied up with strings, and all the rest of your favourite things. That’s the remarkable, and remarkably under-appreciated thing about the mail: come rain or shine, pandemic or peace, it finds us. In honour of postal workers everywhere, we’re diving into a few of the wildest trucks and tales of mail delivery…
How far back does mail go? There’s evidence of particularly impressive postal systems in ancient Asia, India, and the Middle East. Interestingly, one the first privatised mail systems was created by religious groups – including the Knights Templar. (Cue the illuminati theories.) Here’s what just might be the world’s oldest piece of hate mail. It’s known as “The Complaint Tablet to Ea-nasir”:
Some of the first traces of snail mail can be traced to Ancient Egypt (is there anything they couldn’t do?), which typically sent messages via the Nile River or homing pigeon – lest we should forget the stories of various animals carriers. Up until 1929, Afghan “cameleers” transported mail in south Australia (in a rather darker chapter of history). Alaskans have relied on reindeer, and dogsled.
And who could forget the Pony Express? That storied mail service that ran between Missouri and California, using only relays of brave mountain riders and their steeds…
Allegedly, it was a preferred requirement for the Pony Express that its riders be orphans. Pictured above, Frank E. Webner must have been barely sixteen. The job was dangerous and Pony Express Riders had to ride long and hard, often fighting off bandits, indigenous tribes and bad weather. They wanted people without no families. Their youngest rider was reportedly just 11 years old.
As legendary as the service became, the Pony Express was only in operation for 18 months before the outbreak of the Civil War forced it to operate only between Sacramento and SLC. Not long after, the transcontinental telegraph was the true nail in the coffin for the Pony Express, rendering the service obsolete, having lost upwards of $200,000 after delivering approximately 35000 pieces of mail with a fleet of 400 horses.
It’s worth mentioning too, that the Roman Empire had their own version of the Pony Express called the Cursus Publicus. News could go from Persia to Hadrian’s wall in as little as 26 days.
A map memorialising America’s famous Pony Express route was later published in the 1951, and it’s interesting to note that the old trail closely follows the interstate I-80 today. We’re also delighted to report that if you want to experience a taste of the old west, The National Pony Express Association does an annual mail ride in which hundreds of cowboys ‘n gals will transport your letter across the country by horseback relay.
Fast-forward to the 1910s, when the USPS had the cutest little motorised scooters, known as Autopeds, the first mass-produced motorized scooter in America.
And we most definitely would’ve had a crush on the biker postmen of yore. Imagine seeing this mail worker from Newell, South Dakota pull up to your mailbox on that Wagner 4-11 motorcycle…
Or this dashing postman from Lincoln, NE who delivered special packages for USPS on his Harley with a sidecar:
And what about the postmen who bravely took to the skies in those rickety old surplus planes from World War I? Over a century ago, the US Postal service began a cross-country air mail service, many piloted by former army flyers…
This was long before the days of radio (and those convenient little smartphone applications), so the federal government funded enormous concrete arrows to be built every 10 miles or so along established airmail routes to help the pilots trace their way across America in bad weather conditions and particularly at night, which was a more efficient time to fly.
All across America, in the middle of nowhere, you can still find these forgotten giant 70 foot long concrete arrows, with weeds crawling through their concrete cracks.
Meanwhile, in Britain, The Postal Museum of London reminds us of just how involved the post was in everyday life. “The Post Office still ran telecommunications services in 1970,” their historians say, and cite the prevalence of not one but three post-n-telephone floats in the Lord Mayor’s Day parade, which has taken place annually for almost 1,000 years…
It’s about time now for a shoutout to the little red post bus that traversed rural England back in the day. You might remember our article on the story of this curious little vehicle, that brought news of bustling cities to villages in the countryside. Quite often, they transported goods, food to Britain’s most isolated communities, but also people! That’s right, the Royal Mail also served as the only public transport in some of the UK’s most remote areas. You’d pay your fare in postage stamps, and off you went…
Speaking of transporting humans via the post, did you hear about the time the USPS offered a service to mail your own kids? It’s true! When the USPS began offering large parcel post in 1913, numerous poor families pushed the limits of the service and used it to mail their own children to relatives across the country on the cheap. One girl was mailed to her grandmother 73 miles away for just 53 cents.
The loophole was quickly outlawed, but it’s a mind-boggling reminder of what was sent through the post back in the day; such as, live poultry and eggs. Actually we’ve discovered that the USPS limit for carefully transporting eggs is still 54.
Personally, we’ll settle for repurposing some of those old school egg cozies, like this one we found for sale on Etsy.
Now where were we? Ah yes, tiny post vehicles….
That should bring us back to the Mailster, of which there were 17,7000 at their peak in 1966. They worked out excellently in Florida and California – unfortunately, they had a harder time in snowier states, and were given the boot.
But we love that they came onto the scene as such an optimistic design. Luckily for us, there are still many circling the internet for purchase or rent. Live in the New York area? Borrow this baby through Cooper Classics Collection:
By contrast, in 1972 USPS launched its fleet of snazzy mail Jeeps, which were in use into the 1980s, until they were replaced with the “Long Life” vehicles of today…
Of course, the cutest vehicles weren’t just the minis. Check out the charming US Highway Post Office Bus, which ran until 1974, when metro systems began to expand and render its services a little outdated.
Then, there are the countless wonderful stories of the dedicated workers who will do anything to protect your post, like Mary Fields, aka “Stagecoach Mary,” the first African American woman to carry mail on a Star Route for the United States Post Office Department and a force to be reckoned with.
She was known for three things: her staunch character, stiff drinks, and talent for warding off thieves. You go, Mary.
During WWII, there was the 6888th Central Postal Directory Battalion, an all black, all female US Army battalion. Here they are enjoying a moment in the snow while serving in Europe, 1945…
And postal workers today? Turns out, they’re a hilarious bunch. “Mail-carriers: Lurking in the shadows since 550 BC,” writes one in a reddit thread asking postal workers: what’s something the general public might not know about your job, but should? “We do have sex with your wives. That kid? It’s mine,” says one. “The weather ranged from shit, to bollocks,” says another, “On the other hand, I loved being out doors in the early houses, watching the countryside slowly wake up…Some people were amazingly kind to us.”
There’s even an unofficial post workers creed: “Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these carriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds.” Cheers to that.
On that end note – the United States Postal Service is a national treasure. We try to serve as your respite from politics at Messy Nessy, but sadly, USPS is now in financial trouble for a tangle of reasons and needs our love and support. Even the purchase of a few USPS stamps makes all the difference in showing solidarity. Learn more in this sketch from Comedian John Oliver, who launched a collection of special USPS postage stamps. Or, you can upload your own photo in a manner of seconds to make your own stamps! So you can finally send a letter to your enemy with your face on it. Obviously.