Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Early motorcycles brought mail to rural America

Motorcycles helped bring the mail to rural America.
Royal Enfield motorcycles still do many jobs, especially in India but, like most motorcycles around the world they're more often leisure vehicles. There was a time when no one would have considered a motorcycle a mere toy.

Motorcycles were expected to earn their keep. They had to work hard at low cost, or customers bought something else.

The Smithsonian Institution's National Postal Museum has just opened a virtual "exhibit" documenting a fascinating moment in motorcycle history. Until the 20th Century, Americans outside cities had to go to town to pick up their mail. Rural Free Delivery (RFD) of mail right to the farm only became a national service in 1902 — just as the motorcycle was becoming a practical form of transportation.

The RFD carriers who brought the mail up the unpaved roads of rural America were responsible for providing their own transportation. They had to buy everything they needed to deliver the mail, including their own uniforms if they wanted them.

The 1912 Thiem motorcycle showed it could speed Uncle Sam's mail.
Unlike the city postmen, these rural carriers could not walk their routes. They would have to ride. At first, of course, they rode horses. Manufacturers of motorcycles, eager to prove the value of their products, naturally saw these many thousands of new mail carriers as potential customers.

Early motorcycles were balky, but no more so than horses. And motor vehicles had a huge advantage: a motorized carrier could cover his route in half the time.

The key improvement motorcycles needed to serve mail carriers was the ability to keep running while the carrier stopped to make a delivery — a so-call "free clutch." The motor also had to start without pedaling or pushing the bike. The heavily burdened mail carrier did not want to huff the motorcycle up to speed with his own wind to get the motor started. (Thus the handy kick start lever on my 1999 Royal Enfield Bullet.)

The RFDC Special of 1911.
One motorcycle, the 1911 RFDC Special, was offered on special terms to rural mail carriers by the Edwards-Crist Manufacturing Company of Chicago. Cost was $225, with $75 down and 12 monthly installments of $12.50 at 6 per cent interest. The ad advised customers to "Just send in your order with the cash deposit, together with your height and weight, and a description of your route, and we will send you the machine suited to your purpose."

The ad went on to note that "The next three months will be the nicest riding season in the year, and we would advise that you order now and get to riding while the riding is good."

R.L.C. Townsend, Davenport, Iowa and his 1912 Wagner in sub-zero weather.
The motorcycle started but what about poor Townsend?
What about the other nine months of the year? Unfortunately, no motorcycle could offer the weather protection carriers would want. The mail had to go through in all weather. Advertisements offering horse-drawn buggies to RFD carriers invariably touted their weather proof construction, and heaters were available as accessories.

And it wasn't long before the Postmaster General caught on to the extra speed of motorized carriers and doubled the length of routes covered by them. The usefulness of motorcycles on the rural routes must have ended completely on Jan. 1, 1913, with the addition of Parcel Post Service. Once the mail included packages, the RFD carriers would need automobiles to deliver them.

Like all motorcycles in postal service, the 1912 Flanders had to prove it was tough enough.
But before that happened, Indian, Harley-Davidson, Excelsior and many other famed motorcycle brands offered to put their products to work. The demands of Rural Free Delivery must have strengthened the breed. Mail motorcycles had to work every day, in all weather, without fail, at low cost, on the worst roads.

It's possible motorcyclists of today owe those mail carriers a debt of gratitude.

The National Postal Museum's "RFD: Marketing to a Rural Audience" was created by Lana Tupponce, with supporting materials by curator Nancy Pope. Advertising images were taken from issues of R.F.D. News held by the Smithsonian Institution Libraries, National Postal Museum.

The National Postal Museum preserves the history of the nation’s mail service, and has one of the largest collections of stamps and philatelic materials in the world. It is located at 2 Massachusetts Avenue NE, Washington, D.C. The museum is open daily from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. (closed Dec. 25). For more information visit the museum website at


  1. Great post! Thanks for sharing this awesome history. :)

  2. Very interesting! Enjoyed the post... About post :-)

    When I was a kid the local Post Office supplied 3-wheeled, enclosed Cushmans for the local carriers.

  3. I remember seeing the three wheelers. Supposedly postmen didn't like them since they didn't go in the snow and a large dog could knock them over. Early ones didn't even have electric horns: they had squeeze bulb bicycle style horns mounted outside the cab.


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