New Postal Exhibit Goes ‘On the Road’

Posted January 3, 2005 at 3:11pm

The National Postal Museum opened a new permanent exhibit, “On the Road,” on Dec. 23 to chronicle the history of mail delivery in cities from 1899 to present day.

The exhibit includes a 1931 Model A Ford Parcel Post truck and the first Long Life Vehicle off the assembly line. The Long Life Vehicle, also called a LLV, is the modern postal truck that most people recognize.

Both trucks are set in the scene of the time they are used. In addition to seeing the difference between the trucks, visitors can see the differences in the streets, sidewalks, light posts and mailboxes.

“It gives you a good feel for what it was like at that time,” said Nancy Pope, the National Postal Museum’s historian.

An eight-minute video on the history of motorized mail is shown on a screen between the two trucks.

There are four interactive games surrounding the trucks. Each one is a wheel with a question. When you turn the wheel, the answer is revealed. All of the questions are from information in the museum.

Also around the trucks are pictures of the many different vehicles used by the U.S. Postal Service.

Before the Postal Service used trucks, mailmen were dropped at the beginning of their route in the morning by a wagon and picked up at the end of the day. Their bags could carry only 35 pounds of mail, so mailmen carried two bags and then tied the rest of the mail around themselves, Pope said.

During the day, the wagons would drop off more mail at distribution boxes along each carrier’s route. The letter carriers then only had to go back to the distribution box instead of going back to the post office. At that time, there were two mail deliveries a day.

In 1899, the first truck was used to pick up mail from the mailboxes around the city.

Soon, the trucks took the place of wagons in dropping off the carriers at the beginning of their routes, but the carrier’s job did not change.

“They did it the old-fashioned way for a long time,” Pope said. “Then they started thinking what if they drove themselves.”

In the 1950s, the Postal Service started to experiment with different trucks. This was the first time mailmen drove to deliver the mail instead of being dropped off at the beginning of their route. Also, mail delivery switched to once a day in 1950.

“There was a revolution of a lot of ideas at this time,” Pope said.

The Sit and Stand car could be driven both sitting and standing up because, if the driver was going a short distance, it was quicker to stand than sit.

The Mailster was a three-wheeled truck. When tested in Florida it worked fine, but it was horrible when actually used. The vehicle could not get through more than 3 inches of snow, would tip over on sharp turns, was knocked over by a large dog that jumped on the side and had a very flimsy body.

“It’s absolutely one of the worst vehicles ever,” Pope said.

The Mailsters were replaced by the Jeep after the Postal Service saw how much the vehicles could do in World War II. Some of the Jeeps used were right-hand drive.

Around that time, the Postal Service also replaced the trucks used to transport the mail between post offices and train stations, because they were still using the trucks from the 1920s.

“The mechanics were fabulous,” Pope said. “They kept the trucks together with duct tape and good luck.”

In the 1980s, there was a large increase in the volume of mail, because of the rise of businesses and the introduction of credit cards, Pope said.

The Postal Service, realizing the unique demands they had of a vehicle, sent three manufacturers a list of requirements. Three different trucks were then put through a series of tests that included each tire driving over 30,000 potholes and the car starting and stopping continually, Pope said.

The Long Life Vehicle won. It is made of aluminum so it will not rust and should last 25 years. The Postal Service purchased more than 100,000 of these vehicles.

Although the Long Life Vehicles are still used, more fuel-efficient vehicles are being sought. The Postal Service uses 21,239 Flexible Fuel Vehicles, which look very similar to the Long Life Vehicle but can run on batteries and gas, Pope said.

Eventually, the Postal Service will completely switch over to the Flexible Fuel Vehicles, but the Long Life Vehicles are expected to be around for a while.

The “On the Road” exhibit replaces the Airmail exhibit, which will eventually be relocated in the museum.