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Going Postal

Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor a flat tire on their Harley stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds. Well, it could have been like that. Along with all the recreational uses for motorcycles, they've also proven to be sturdy and reliable workhorses as delivery vehicles. In the early 1900's, the United States Postal Service began taking advantage of the many new modes of transportation. Cars, trucks, planes, and even motorcycles were used to move the nation's mail.

At the turn of the century, rural postal delivery was primarily done using horse-drawn wagons, however there were also carriers making their rounds riding horses and bikes, and a few on motorcycles. In 1907 the Post Office officially authorized “carriers to temporarily perform service on horseback, or by use of bicycles or motorcycles, when their horses need rest or while the roads, owing to storms or other causes, are temporarily impassable for other vehicles”. For the many fledgling motorcycle companies, this was an opportunity to expand their customer base while putting their product's performance on display.

Indian and Harley-Davidson are the names most recognizable but there were many others including Erie, Thor, Wagner, Yale, and Torpedo. Around 1908 advertisements from these companies, and others, began appearing in the R.F.D. News, the magazine for the National Rural Letter Carriers' Association. Each manufacturer promoted their machine as being the best suited for the job of mail delivery. Sidecars were offered as an option to help carry the growing mail loads.

Motorcycle tricycles were soon being used to deliver and pickup the mail from collection boxes in the cities. The trikes were equipped with a hinged box that allowed the carrier to transfer mail from the box to the trike without dismounting. Mechanization meant that one carrier on a trike could easily outperform those walking or using a horse and cart.

In July, 1915, a directive was issued that, as of the end of that year, motorcycles and bicycles were being eliminated from the rural routes. A year earlier the Post Office had started allowing carriers to use automobiles for mail delivery and they believed the bikes put the carriers at greater risk for injury and did not have the capacity needed for items like Parcel Post packages. This didn't go over well with the more than 8,000 rural carriers who were riding their routes at the time and the ruling was reversed, although with new restrictions that called for the vehicles to have certain minimum engine sizes (60 cubic inches) and the ability to keep the mail safe from damage or loss in a waterproof compartment.

The increasing popularity of the automobile, and the bad weather issues led to the demise of motorcycle delivery in the mid-1920's. They have been gone for decades but not totally forgotten. At the 66th Sturgis Motorcycle Rally in 2006, the Post Office unveiled the 39-cent American Motorcycles commemorative stamps. This was done to recognize the role of motorcycles in American culture and featured a 1918 Cleveland, a 1940 Indian Four, a 1965 Harley-Davidson Electra-Glide, and a 70's style chopper. Alas, they didn't feature one of the early postal delivery bikes.