Postal systems have been improved throughout their existence by the use of technology. While many collectors are suspect of ‘newfangled things’ and change, technology has always been a critical part of making the movement of the mail stream faster and more efficient. The focus of this Stamp Smarter feature is the United States ‘Highway Post Office’ (HPO).
The movement of mail throughout the country is a fascinating part of our nation’s postal history. Before the invention of automobiles and other horseless vehicles, the early long distance movement of mail was often done by the railroads. It is interesting to note that railroad route agents often also served as the town postmaster with the daily arrival of the mail train being significant in many small towns across our nation. During the early and mid-1800s, the railroad station was also often the only place in town with an accurate clock so the station typically drew many visitors each day. Mail transported by the railroad from this period can often be identified by a ‘R.R.’ postmark which designates either the railroad or the termination location of the route agent run.
By 1865, the United States Post office created the Railway Mail Service which combined simply transporting the mail with actually processing and sorting the it as it was intransit. When the train arrived at either a connection or termination station, the mail was already organized in pouches without the need for further sorting. This era marked the beginning of the use of the ‘R.P.O.’ cancellations. In 1875 a notable new development evolved, the ‘Fast Mail’ first class mail service. Mail from these runs used a special marking ‘Fast Mail’ (or some variant of ‘Fast Mail’). The late 1800s were the heyday of mail moving by train and is represented by well over 10,000 different RPO cancels. RPO mail trains continued in operation until 1977 when the last run, between Washington and New York was completed. The ‘Mobile Post Office Society’ (APS chapter) offers additional information for collectors interested in this part of US postal history.
Mail still needed handling between the railroad and the post offices and between post offices themselves; horse drawn wagon were often used. In 1896 the Post Office extended the use of horse drawn wagons in several large cities (New York and Washington) to include a ‘Collection and Distribution Wagons’. These specialized wagons were outfitted to allow two mail clerks to postmark and sort mail. The NY route was 3 miles and the Washington route was 1.75 miles long. As the wagon plied along their routes, they would stop at collection boxes and smaller post office stations to collect mail. The routes terminated at a railroad station and was sent on to more distant cities. Since the driver of the wagon was not a postal employee, he was not allowed inside the wagon and drove the wagon from the outside.
By the turn of the century, the invention of the automobile and other self-powered road vehicles began to change the fabric of our society. The automobile facilitated large population movements out of the cities and into more rural areas. As dirt roads gave way to paved highways in the 1930s and 1940s; alternatives to railroad mail services became feasible. In the 1920s, post office officials began receiving offers and quotes for using modified buses as ‘moving post offices’. By the mid-1930s, Post Office officials saw the hand writing on the wall with the decline of railroad service. Working in conjunction Congressional members, postal officials began formulating plans using motor vehicles for transporting and sorting the mail. During this inception period they called the plan the ‘Mobile Post Office of the Highway’. Ultimately the plan became reality when Congress passed Public Law 740 and the President signed into law the Highway Post Office Service on July 11, 1940.
This law stipulated that motor vehicles and supporting equipment be purchased and operated by the government or by privately owned companies under contract. Due to pressure brought by the railroad special interests, the law also include wording which disallowed Highway Post Office Services in any area which already had adequate railroad facilities. The specifications required that bus-like vehicles be equipped in similar fashion as the previously successful Railroad Post Office cars.
The first route was established on February 10, 1941 with a route between Washington D.C. and Harrisonburg Virginia. Two additional routes were added in 1941 before the war interrupted the addition of new routes. Post war, the number of routes grew to over 20 routes by 1950. During the 1950s, many routes were added, changed, or discontinued. The routes ranged from single daily two-way trips to multiple daily trips depending upon the size of the mail volume. The routes themselves were typically under 150 mile in length to avoid stops for refueling. Highway Post Office schedules and timetables were exacting and an on-time trips were stressed.
By the 1970s the Post Office took advantage of new automation sorting and handling technology and changed the foundational distributional system it was using. They established region based Sectional Centers and semi-trucks delivered large volumes of mail between them.; the advantage of sorting and processing mail en route evaporated. The last Highway Post Office route, Cleveland to Cincinnati, made its final trip on June 30, 1974.
Highway Post Office covers are a fascinating part of US postal history but beyond that there are a number of good reasons to collect them. Due to the low volumes of HPO cover for some routes and trips, some covers are quite challenging to find. Yet because the demand is not high, collecting them is quite affordable. HPO covers were not mass produced and promoted by large companies to the uninformed.
Many collectors begin collecting with First Trip covers. Since First Trips were typically given special attention and fanfare, these covers often carry cachets and First Trip cancellations. Collecting Last Trip covers are a bit more daunting to collect; while some Last Trips received special attention others were more quietly ended. Last Trip covers often do not carry cachets or special cancels, collectors need to be aware of the Last Trip date to recognize the cover. Lastly, some collectors seek out ‘normal’ or commercial HPO covers. These non-philatelic covers are those which were carried during the normal HPO service.
Beyond the scope of this project are HPO covers which carry the signatures of postmaster, assistance postmasters, clerks, drivers and other PO officials. This effort also does not cover the plethora of cachets or auxiliary markings that may be found on HPO covers.
This catalog covers all Highway Post Office routes and trips. It utilizes the new chronological Mobile Post Office numbering system with an enhancement which includes a unique number for every trip in both directions. This allows collectors to exchange and communicate the specific covers/cancels without missteps. The original route numbers are also presented to assist collectors who may already be familiar with the older designations. The online catalog also supports search feature, filtering capabilities, route maps, and many additional details.
While a large number of routes and trips are represented with actual scans, some cancels/covers have been digitally generated to emulate the actual cancels/covers. These are identified but if you have scans/images for these and would like to see them added to the catalog, please email them to my attention.
Catalog values are based upon current market ‘sold’ listings but it should be noted that due to the very low quantities of some of these covers the value can be very 'demand sensitive'.
The route maps utilized road maps from 1949 through 1960. The routes are shown in yellow highlight and the stops are highlighted in green. There are some routes which do not have any highlighting; these are under discovery and will be updates as the information is uncovered.
Users can access the online catalog at any time but can also download a printable PDF copy in either an illustrated or condensed version. Additionally, the convenience checklist is also available in both an illustrated or condensed format.
Updates and enhancements to this effort will be added over the next few months so please check back often. If you have any corrections, updates, new images or other information you think would improve this catalog please use the contact form on this website.