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Along came trolleys

The list: 5 facts about classic mail cars

Black and white photo of men with trolley
A trolley conductor and motorman pose with postal clerks aboard a railway mail car of the St. Louis and Meramec River Railroad Co., circa 1900. The company was one of several in St. Louis that provided trolley mail service.

If you didn’t get a chance to see the National Postal Museum’s recently concluded exhibition on mail trolleys, relax. “The list” has you covered with these five facts:

1. The success of “rail mail” led to the trolleys. In the mid-19th century, the Post Office Department launched the Railway Mail Service, which dramatically reduced delivery times by sorting mail en route in special cars. St. Louis Postmaster John Harlow took note and started experimenting with a specially built trolley car that carried mail instead of passengers.

2. The first trolley was tricked out. Clerks used built-in racks, tables and pigeon holes to sort the mail while the trolley moved through St. Louis. It became an official part of the city’s delivery network in 1892.

3. Other Postmasters said, “We want trolleys, too!” By June 1896, there were mail trolleys in almost a dozen cities, including Brooklyn, Boston, Chicago, Cincinnati, New York, Philadelphia, San Francisco and Washington, DC. About 75 clerks worked on mail trolley cars nationwide.

4. All good things must come to an end. (Even mail trolleys.) While the trolleys were considered a great success, their use was short-lived. Automobiles soon proved cheaper and more efficient for mail transportation, while most street car companies could make more money hauling passengers. Most cities stopped using mail trolleys by 1919, though Baltimore kept them in use until 1929.

5. Trolleys are rolling again — online, that is. The National Postal Museum’s online exhibit has more information about the trolleys, while YouTube has a lecture by Curator Nancy Pope.

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