While the job of a mail carrier might be largely the same as it was 100 years ago, the postal system itself has drastically changed over the past century. Here are some vintage photos, courtesy of The Library of Congress, that show how your mail used to travel in the early 1900s.
Inside the Post Office
Just like today (unless you use online postage or the Automated Postal Center), a package’s journey started at the post office window. While the technology used by the cashier has changed since 1925, it still involves scales, stamps and money.
Once packages and letters were paid for, they were pushed to the back of the post office, where they would be sorted and sent off according to their destinations. Similarly, incoming mail would be sorted for the local carriers to take along their routes. This particular image from 1914 shows the behind-the-scenes action at the Pennsylvania Terminal Post Office in New York.
Just as today, when mailing addresses were found to be illegible, the packages and letters were sent to the dead letter department. While more machines are involved nowadays, back in 1917, the department had to rely on the ability of employees to decipher the addresses.
Mail wasn’t delivered across the country via small cars or on the backs of horses. At least, not after the railroad connected the coasts to one another. The mail trains were a critical part of the postal system in the early 1900s, although railroads are almost never used in our modern mail system.
In many ways, the inside of a mail train operated much like the back-end of a post office. Sacks of mail would be loaded onto the train and then dumped out for sorting, as seen in this 1938 photograph by Arthur Rothstein.
The mail would be sorted based on destination, then re-bagged and unloaded at its appropriate destination. Here’s a group of gentlemen sorting out the mail in a rail car sometime around 1910.
Modes of Transportation
These days, most mail vehicles are either large trucks carrying loads between post offices or the little trucks used by mail carriers, but in the first half of the last century, there was a lot more variety in the methods of transportation used to ship mail. Automobiles started being used to deliver mail in the early 1900s, but the type of vehicles used varied from location to location. Here’s a line of early U.S. mail trucks taken in an unknown city at an unspecified date.
Some places didn’t switch to using mail vehicles until much later. In fact, it was still common for mail carriers to use horses all the way through the forties — especially in poorer and more rural areas. Here’s a mailman all saddled up for delivery in Puerto Rico taken some time before 1930.
Of course, in snowy areas, other modes of transportation were common. For example, here is a picture of a British Columbia mail team taken some time before 1930.
Once mail trucks started to become more common, though, certain modifications had to be made to accommodate vehicles for delivery in snowy weather. Here is a mail truck adapted to use extra wheels and special treads that was used in snowy Nevada County, California, in 1940, as photographed by Russell Lee.
Air delivery eventually rendered railroad services unnecessary. The Post Office jumped on the airplane bandwagon early, offering air mail service as early as 1918. In fact, here are a bunch of the officials, big wigs and a handful of the pilots that showed up at the first official flight of the air mail service.
And here are some of the first pilots to fly routes on the air mail service back in 1918.
Just as today, the most public face of the USPS has always been the mail carriers who visit our homes nearly every day. Before mailboxes were mandatory, they were required to stop at every home and knock on the door, developing close ties with those living on their routes. Here’s one mailman greeting one of his customers in Nebraska, 1938.
As you may have guessed, most mail carriers of the past were men, but during the two World Wars, women filled in at the Post Office just as they did in other businesses. Here is Parmlee Campbell delivering mail to some appreciative customers back in 1917.
Thought the Christmas mail rush was a new phenomenon? Think again. Here are three postal workers strapped with Christmas packages, photographed sometime between 1910 and 1915.
If you like these pictures, head over to The Library of Congress and do a search for “mail.” There are hundreds of pictures featuring mailmen, mail trains and more.