October 7, 2023

Did you know in the early 1900s, mail was delivered by motorcycle?


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The U.S. Postal Service is exploring the use of electric bicycles for mail delivery in urban areas. But the use of bikes and motorcycles is not a new concept to the organization.

At one time, in fact, motorcycles were in use at post offices in the U.S.

According to the Postal Service, it began its foray into motorcycle delivery territory on March 4, 1907, when the “Instructions for the Guidance of Postmasters and Carriers in the Conduct of the Rural Delivery Service” was first published. One segment of the instructions allowed temporary service on horseback or motorcycles instead of horse-drawn carriages for extenuating circumstances like impassable roads or horses needing rest.

It remained a temporary substitute for wagons until 1911. Advertising for motorcycles, a relatively new technology, grew more robust when the National Rural Letter Carriers’ Association (R.F.D. News) ran advertisements for the motorcycle brands of the day, which included Indian and Harley-Davidson as well as others no longer in existence, like Erie, Armac, Excelsior and more. They touted the new mode of transport’s power, reliability, reasonable cost and even appeal to families.

As the hustle and bustle of daily life in residential and suburban areas became faster-paced thanks to motorized vehicles, the Postal Service looked for a lighter, speedy way of delivering mail. The advertisements did the trick and in 1911, the Postal Service began trying out different ways of collecting mail without drivers having to dismount motorcycles.

Early designs included three-wheeled motorcycles equipped with a box fitted with a hinged top or side, according to the Postal Service, allowing for easy mail transfer from a drop-bottom sheet letter collection box on the road. The driver would never have to get off the motorcycle. 

These experiments beat out other forms of delivery like carriers on foot or horse and cart. One driver on the trike-style motorcycle was equal to three carriers on foot and two horse-and-cart carriers. About 8,000 routes included carriers on motorcycles and bicycles by 1915.

The use of automobiles was officially permitted in rural areas on July 22, 1915, by Postmaster General Albert S. Burleson, as long as local Post Office Departments allowed it. However, this same order banned the use of bicycles and motorcycles due to risk of injury, unreliability and lack of capacity, according to a September 1915 issue of the Postmasters’ Advocate, magazine of the National League of Postmasters, cited by the Postal Service.

But this did not last long and motorcycles were back on mail routes by October of that year, thanks to a revision by Burleson of Order No. 9190. The revision allowed motorcycles to follow the same rules as automobiles with certain requirements.

“Under the same conditions as automobiles, if the motorcycle has a cylinder displacement

of not less than 60 cubic inches, has an adjustable axle, and there is permanently

attached to the machine a commercial body of waterproof material not less than 42

inches long,” the order read. “24 inches wide and 18 inches high, so constructed as to protect the mail thoroughly from damage and loss, the assembled machine to have a tread of 56 inches.”

Motorcycles in the post office got a boost after World War I when 1,087 motorcycles were transferred to the Postal Service. More than 500 cities in the United States had their mail delivered by either motorcycle or government-owned trucks.

The motorized trikes of the time were given an additional duty when they were assigned to guard the mail following an armed robbery of a mail truck on Oct. 24, 1924. Almost $2 million worth of money, jewelry and other valuables was stolen. Luckily, 15 motorcycles with sidecars sat waiting in storage in Newark, New Jersey.

The General Post Office in New York used the motorcycles for armed guards to travel with trucks carrying valuable mail. The Postal Service had been planning the use of armed guards in the spring before this but lacked personnel. The armed robbery was the push the post office needed to get the program up and running.

However, the age of the postal motorcycle seemed to fade away only about a decade after it began. The last known mention of motorcycles in postal service in the annual report was in 1928, with only 27 government-owned motorcycles in use in large post offices. The growth of automobiles’ quality and sophistication allowed for much larger capacity, making them the go-to for the Postal Service.

FreightWaves Classics articles look at various aspects of the transportation industry’s history. Click here to subscribe to our newsletter!

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The second annual F3: Future of Freight Festival will be held in Chattanooga, “The Scenic City,” this November. F3 combines innovation and entertainment — featuring live demos, industry experts discussing freight market trends for 2024, afternoon networking events, and Grammy Award-winning musicians performing in the evenings amidst the cool Appalachian fall weather.

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