Going Postal: When Motorcycles Moved the Mail
Harley-Davidson was once the preferred bike of mail carriers across the nation.
Over the decades, the U.S. Postal Service has used every possible method to deliver the mail — motorcycles were no exception. In 1907, postmasters received official authorization to use motorcycles. Harley-Davidson and other American motorcycle manufacturers responded quickly to the new guidelines, filling the National Rural Letter Carriers' Association's magazine with advertisements.
Harley-Davidson took their promotion one step further. The Motor Company not only advertised how suited their machines were to the task of mail delivery but how much fun it would be to ride to work. With the automobile still in its infancy, motorcycles soon became the preferred method for negotiating the rough roads of rural delivery routes.
Rural carriers were paid $300 a year. They were expected to provide their own mode of transportation and complete their lengthy routes regardless of weather or road conditions. Despite these challenges, the job had its perks. Harley-Davidson sought to capitalize, and advertised the testimonials of rural carriers, extolling the benefits of motorcycle ownership.
Pictured in this 1914 advertisement image, rural letter carrier Wallace Vance and his wife pose with their Harley-Davidson motorcycle. Vance stated that he was able to both deliver the mail and spend time with his wife fishing. “We made all these side trips and were never late with the mail, as we had no trouble at all. My wife and I have been taking these kinds of trips all summer.”
With the advent of Parcel Post in 1913, sidecars became a necessity to cope with the increasing volume of mail. With an eye on versatility, Harley-Davidson advertised that its sidecar could be swiftly detached depending on the load requirements of the day. Parcel Post also saw a rise in mail theft and it was not uncommon for motorcycle carriers to be armed.
Harley-Davidson introduced the 'motorcycle truck' in 1912 as a cheaper alternative to the automobile. The motorcycle truck was tested with the Milwaukee branch of the U.S. Postal Service during the winter of 1912-13. After a successful Wisconsin winter trial, it was put into production. Touted as being easy to handle, the motorcycle truck enjoyed a short two-year stint before being replaced by the 'package truck' in 1915.
In 1915, the Postmaster General made an abrupt decision and banned motorcycles as delivery vehicles. The ban was short-lived, but delivery regulations were amended by the end of the year. Motorcycles now required a commercially-produced waterproof compartment to protect the mail. The timing was perfect for Harley-Davidson and its new 'package truck' — a cargo container attached to a standard solo motorcycle.
Mail delivery was not the exclusive domain of Harley-Davidson, but they did have an excellent reputation for reliability. Among the other brands were the more commonly known Indian and Excelsior, and a host of lesser-known names from that bygone era. These included brands such as Armac, Thor, Erie, and Torpedo, as well as the 1915 Wagner pictured above.
Motorcycle mail delivery drew to a close in the late-1920s. The post office's Annual Report from 1928 is the last mention of government-owned motorcycles being used for collection, transportation, or delivery. The age of intrepid mail carriers braving the elements on two wheels was over. What remained was a legacy. One where Harley-Davidson was at the forefront of helping to connect a growing nation.
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