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The US Postal Service's Bold History of Innovation

By Rachel Swaby

Over its two hundred plus years of operation, the US Postal Service has turned to some downright nutty ways to get mail from sender to receiver as fast and efficiently as possible. Here are its most wacky attempts at innovation.

The United States Postal Service has been in the news a lot recently, due to its plan to cease Saturday mail delivery to cauterize a multi-billion budget deficit. Turning the service around will require both tough cuts and reinvention in recognition of changing times. It's a good thing then that the US Postal Service has a long record of trying new technologies to adapt to the times. Because both in these days and in the past, regular ol’ mail delivery methods just don’t cut it. Over its two hundred plus years of operation, the US Postal Service has turned to some downright nutty ways to get mail from sender to receiver as fast and efficiently as possible. “We’ve tested every vehicle this country has ever had,” says Postal Service public relations rep Sue Brennan. What that amounts to is a long history of impressive—and sometimes misguided—attempts at innovation.

One such experiment launched in the late 19th century when traffic was becoming a persistent problem for mail carriers. The mess of horse-drawn buggies on city streets was making it difficult to gather mail from various train stations in a timely manner. How do you circumvent all that hoof traffic? By going under it.

In 1893, Philadelphia opened the country’s first underground network of mail-moving pneumatic tubes. Up to 600 letters were stuffed in canisters and whooshed off at an average speed of 35 miles per hour. It was a remarkably efficient system, and soon other cities wanted in on the action.

In Chicago, the Postmaster decided to employ a rather obstinate test subject to show off his city’s miles of just-laid tubes to the press. The reasoning: “If a kitten survives, then the mail will survive, too,” explains Nancy Pope, a historian and curator at the National Postal Museum. So they shoved the cat into a tube, sealed it, and sent the whole package off at 35mph. “When [the Post Office] received the canister, they opened it up, and the cat came flying out. It was a very mad cat—but it was alive!”

By 1915 there were upwards of 56 miles of vacuum-sucking arteries ferrying mail from train stations to postal hubs in Philadelphia, Chicago, Boston, Brooklyn, New York, and St Louis. The systems ran well into the ‘50s until the cities—and their Post Offices—outgrew them.

When cars came into fashion, post offices got rid of their horses-drawn transportation, and with it the ability to easily scale the snow. So when winter came around, postal workers would remove the Model T’s front wheels and replace them with a set of skis. These Model T-specific snow kits were so popular among the postal service crowd that the set became known as the “mailman’s special.”

Rural areas lacking a municipal airport also posed a problem for mail carriers. It just took so much time to schlep all the way out to small towns; the process wasn’t time efficient. So Dr. Lytle Adams, a dentist from Pennsylvania, came up with a solution. What if an airplane could handle mail pick-ups and deliveries without having to ever land? He thought that by hoisting up a looped rope attached to rubber mail containers between a pair of 15-to-30-foot stilts like a necklace hanging on a stand, a plane could swoop by, kicking out one container of mail just as a lowered hook scooped up another.

Adams sunk much of his fortune into promoting the project, but finally, in 1939 in Latrobe, Pennsylvania, the project, well...took off. Eventually, buoyed up by an increase in letter writing during WWII, the operation eventually spanned six states and 11 planes.

The pilots compared their quick dives toward the ground to something like stunt piloting. “If you didn’t like to do it, you were in the wrong business,” said Kip Barraclough in a news program about the program. “But if you did like to do it, it was like eating ice cream all the time.”

For a pilot: maybe. But for a sheep proxy for a potential human pickup: not so much. At some point during the decade that Adams’ mail planes were flying, the Army thought the sky hooking system might function as a way to pull soldiers out from behind enemy lines. Alas, when the plane swung by to scoop up its ruminant test cargo, the rapid acceleration—from stationary to flight at 110mph—snapped the sheep’s neck. After figuring out all the bracing that would be involved to make the project viable—not to mention what carrying around two long poles would mean for roving soldiers—the Army shelved the idea.

Another aerial experiment had mail hovering over the Delaware River in an autogyro. The set up was this: one vehicle would take off from a rooftop in Philadelphia, land on a rooftop in Camden, and then go back again—“because Camden and Philadelphia are so horribly far apart,” jokes Pope.

Not all innovations were good ones. A three-wheeled car called the Mailster may have been the most universally hated method of transportation in the institution’s history. “There was not an excess of love put into making them,” says Pope. Although the small, thin vehicles underwent testing in the 1950s, the flat warm surfaces in Florida weren’t an accurate predictor of how the vehicles would fare in just about any other condition. In a strong wind, the flimsy cars would tip over. Grab a curve at over 25 mph? The mailsters would topple then, too. Even a dog—the mail carrier’s classic nemesis—had successfully toppled a mailster by simply placing its front paws on the vehicle.

In San Francisco, carriers had to push the vehicles up the city’s steepest hills. And in more than an inch or so of snow, the mailsters would get stuck. But they were more than just a hassle. The seat, which was situated directly over the engine, kicked dangerous fumes straight up at the driver. One worker was subjected to so much carbon monoxide, that he drove with a tube out the window in order to stay conscious.

But despite all the complaints, mailsters didn’t go away because they were driving the postmen mad; they were eventually swapped out because the vehicle’s 500-pound carrying weight just wasn’t enough to get the job done.

In 1959 mail-delivery experiments became even weirder—and more public. The USPS with the Department of defense decided to send 3000 letters from a submarine to a Florida to a Naval station 100-miles away by launching it to shore in a missile. Although “missile mail” claimed to redefine how quickly and accurately our notes could be delivered, Pope explains in a Smithsonian video, “it was basically a cold war move.” The idea was to show off that “our missiles are so common and so controllable here that we deliver the mail [with them] if we want to. Take that Russians!” Of course, the press was only alerted to the feat after the missile had already completed its run successfully. Wouldn't want the Russians to get the wrong idea if the stunt had gone sour.

Even with the press attention, “missile mail” never took off. “If you were going to try to move mail on a regular basis by missile, you’d need one that didn’t cost hundreds of thousands of dollars,” explains Pope.

In order to hit that sweet spot of efficiency and price, the post office has tried moving letters by hovercraft, donkey, segway, and three-wheeled vehicle, to name a few. (Mail by mule still happens today in the Grand Canyon).

One method deemed not worth trying: snail mail.

All photos courtesy of the Smithsonian National Postal Museum and used with permission