May 17, 2017
In the late 1890s, mail transported by trolley was the era’s equivalent of text messaging, with pickups and deliveries up to 12 times a day in the business districts of 13 major cities, including D.C. “There were no phones, and few offices had telegraphs, so mail was the main means of communication,” says Nancy Pope, curator of the “Trolley Car Mail” exhibition at the National Postal Museum. The display, though small, is packed with photos, anecdotes and letters documenting the system.
Mail trolley beginnings
The idea of distributing mail from a trolley arose in St. Louis in 1891, when the city’s postmaster decided to take the U.S. Post Office’s intercity Railway Mail Service and adapt it locally. “In the railway mail system, there were clerks on board sorting the mail,” Pope says. “The idea was to sort mail on trolleys like they did on trains.” Because trolleys ran on electricity, those on busy lines even had electric stamp-canceling machines. At designated stops, postal workers on the trolleys would hand off mail to horse-drawn wagons for delivery. In order to differentiate between mail and passenger trolleys — so weary commuters didn’t accidentally try to jump on the wrong one — mail trolleys were painted white.
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