How to Drive the Mailster: A Time-Traveling Lesson in Postal Technology

A U.S. Postal Service employee sits behind the wheel of a mailster delivery van.
Still image from “How to Drive the Mailster Safely” (28.96).

With the holiday season upon us, we rely on the U.S. Postal Service to send Christmas cards and deliver last-minute gifts. We’re familiar with the sight of a small mail truck traveling the streets of suburbia, but how did we get there? Let’s travel back to a time when mail was delivered by postal carriers on foot, and motorized vehicles were just entering the picture.

According to the Smithsonian’s National Postal Museum, U.S. mail was delivered on foot through the 1950s. Mail trucks transported postal carriers to their local routes, where they would deliver mail throughout the neighborhood. In order to extend the reach of those routes, mail carriers began to sit behind the wheel themselves. Thus, the “mailster” was born.

But the mailster wasn’t an ordinary vehicle. A small, three-wheeled delivery van, the mailster resembled something between a bicycle and a small car. Although it could hold up to 500 pounds of mail and travel farther than a walking carrier, it wasn’t easy to use. It was difficult to start, prone to tipping over, and hard to drive in anything other than perfectly sunny weather. But the U.S. Postal Service was determined to improve delivery, and so mail carriers were trained to operate these peculiar little machines.

Clip from “How to Drive the Mailster Safely” (28.96).

One training film, “How to Drive the Mailster Safely,” attempts to teach these operations in less than 20 minutes. Lessons are lengthy and convoluted, and much of the film offers back-up instructions for when standard procedures fail. Could you learn to drive the mailster in just 20 minutes? Let’s travel back in time, follow along with the film, and see what it takes to drive the mailster safely.

Start Engine Correctly

Congratulations! You’re about to travel your postal route for the first time in the new mailster. You’ll begin by starting the engine. Just put the transmission in neutral, set the parking brake, pull the choke and throttle rods, turn the ignition key, press the starter button, and push the choke and throttle rods back in. Got it?

Clip from “How to Drive the Mailster Safely” (28.96).

If that fails, it’s best to start the mailster manually. Pull the choke and throttle rods, push the starter pedal up and down, push the choke and throttle rods back in, turn the ignition key, and then push the starter button. Easy, right?

Clip from “How to Drive the Mailster Safely” (28.96).

Get Under Way Smoothly

Next, you’ll want to shift gears slowly. Very slowly. Carefully work your way to a top speed of 25 mph. Do not drive faster than 25 mph, or you risk losing control of the mailster. You should drive even more slowly in inclement weather. This includes rain, snow, or even a few wet leaves on the ground.

Clip from “How to Drive the Mailster Safely” (28.96).

And making a fast turn? Don’t even think about it. Turn the mailster gently at 15 mph or slower to prevent tipping over.

Clip from “How to Drive the Mailster Safely” (28.96).

Drive Professionally

The mailster is designed with comfort and versatility in mind. On this mailster model, a front apron can be removed to provide better ventilation in warm weather. In more inclement weather, the side curtains can be pulled across the doorways to keep the interior dry. Follow all traffic laws and use turn signals as you would in a normal vehicle. Although, the mailster’s turn signals are quite small and may go unnoticed by other drivers, so it’s best to supplement your turns with a hand-signal. An armhole is provided in the side curtain for this exact purpose.

Clip from “How to Drive the Mailster Safely” (28.96).

The mailster requires the skills of both a cyclist and a motorist. When slowing down, use the foot pedal to control the rear wheel brakes, followed by the handle bar controls to operate the front wheel brake. Use the parking brake when stopping on an incline. However, the parking brake isn’t very reliable, so be sure to rest the wheel against the curb to prevent the mailster from rolling backwards.

Clip from “How to Drive the Mailster Safely” (28.96).

You must also be aware of pedestrians and small children. The training film says it clearly: “Children are attracted by the unusual size and design of the mailster.” Although charming in its appearance, the mailster is not a toy.

Clip from “How to Drive the Mailster Safely” (28.96).

After completing your route, it’s time to drive the mailster back to headquarters. A few more wise words from our film: “Remember that the mailster is small, and may be hidden from view of other motorists.” Proceed with caution when merging onto the highway!

Clip from “How to Drive the Mailster Safely” (28.96).

Well done! Our 20 minutes are up and you should now be able to drive the mailster safely… good luck out there!

Clip from “How to Drive the Mailster Safely” (28.96).

Visit the National Archives catalog to view the film in its entirety and explore more Records of the Post Office Department.

One thought on “How to Drive the Mailster: A Time-Traveling Lesson in Postal Technology

  1. Thanks! My dad was a mail carrier so I do remember them.
    When I was a kid, that was something I knew at 7 years old I
    could drive if the adults would just let me. LOL

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