This mail trolley, operated by the Capital Traction Company, served the District at the turn of the 20th century. (Smithsonian Institution)

In the late 1890s, mail transported by trolley was the era’s equivalent of text messaging, with pickups and deliveries up to 12 times a day in the business districts of 13 major cities, including D.C. “There were no phones, and few offices had telegraphs, so mail was the main means of communication,” says Nancy Pope, curator of the “Trolley Car Mail” exhibition at the National Postal Museum. The display, though small, is packed with photos, anecdotes and letters documenting the system.

Mail trolley beginnings
The idea of distributing mail from a trolley arose in St. Louis in 1891, when the city’s postmaster decided to take the U.S. Post Office’s intercity Railway Mail Service and adapt it locally. “In the railway mail system, there were clerks on board sorting the mail,” Pope says. “The idea was to sort mail on trolleys like they did on trains.” Because trolleys ran on electricity, those on busy lines even had electric stamp-canceling machines. At designated stops, postal workers on the trolleys would hand off mail to horse-drawn wagons for delivery. In order to differentiate between mail and passenger trolleys — so weary commuters didn’t accidentally try to jump on the wrong one — mail trolleys were painted white.

Mail trolleys come to D.C.
The mail trolley concept arrived in D.C. in 1895. At first, the mail was delivered via cable cars; these were replaced by trolleys, which are electric. Because they ran on the same lines as the passenger trolleys, mail cars were sometimes attached to passenger cars. “This was not popular with passengers or postal officials. Neither liked having to make stops that weren’t theirs,” Pope notes.

Save the mail!
Trolley crashes were regular occurrences in D.C., Pope says. But postal workers were dedicated: “The No. 1 thing a postal employee would tell you after a crash is how much mail was saved,” Pope says. Keeping the mail unharmed was serious business. “Only postal employees were allowed in the [mail] cars. The motorman and engineer were only allowed in if the oil lamp spilled and the car caught fire,” Pope says. That’s something that actually happened, in 1896, downtown on 15th Street NW. Postal authorities were proud to report that all of the mail was rescued, and only a few letters got oil on them.

The end of mail trolleys
D.C.’s system was shut down in 1913 “and the mail trolleys were replaced by trucks,” Pope says. Although the trucks lacked the trolleys’ sorting facilities, they were much faster at delivery. Of all the mail trolley systems in the U.S., Baltimore’s was the last to go, in 1929. “One of the things I love about the mail trolleys is that it’s such an interesting history, but so brief,” Pope says. Elena Goukassian (for Express)

National Postal Museum, 2 Massachusetts Ave. NE; Fri. through Sept. 10, free.