The United States Postal Service has certainly been making headlines lately. Between the ongoing pandemic and the upcoming election, the mail is having a moment. Sending letters and care packages has long been a lifeline for those separated from friends and family by geographic distance—and more recently, social distance. With the presidential election now hanging in the balance, there is a newfound urgency in the need to send and receive mail through the Post Office.
This got me thinking about a unique mail-related item that was accessioned this time last year. In reviewing potential new acquisitions, we always consider gifts in comparison to what is already in the collection. Does it add something new? Does the Museum have the same or similar items? Is it a duplicate of something but perhaps in better condition? Does it have a unique provenance? Upon first sight, there was no doubt that this postal delivery vehicle was unlike anything in the collection. Olive green with gold trim, a cast iron Harley-Davidson Parcel Post delivery motorcycle leaves a memorable impression.
Handling the motorcycle is a hefty reminder that toys aren’t made the way they used to be. This one has some serious weight behind it. The model was made by the Hubley Manufacturing Company from 1928 until 1933 and was an officially licensed Harley-Davidson product. During this time, Hubley was known for its cast iron toy vehicles and the attention to detail and complexity in its line of products. Those details are evident here from the attached sidecar with embossed “Parcel Post” in raised letters on both sides, the hinged rear door with embossed “US,” the Harley-Davidson logo along the body of the motorcycle, and the grooved rubber tires, to name a few.
Cast iron was commonly used for toys from the late 1800s into the 1930s. The casting process involved first creating a form in wood or metal. The form was then pressed into finely compacted sand to create the impression for molding. The molten cast iron was poured into the mold, cooled, and rough edges would then be filed away before painting on the final details. The motorcycle joins other cast iron toys in the collection, including horse drawn fire engines and carriages, early automobiles, and even a miniature train set.
While not in pristine condition (it has some wear and tear and the rider is missing), the motorcycle has its own stories to tell. At one time, it may have been a fixture in “Brownsville,” a miniature town with buildings, roads, and an airport built around an O-gauge model train. The town was the creation of Charles B. Brown III of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. As a teenager, Charles took over his family’s basement to create the town, even engineering a system for cars to “drive” down the highway. Last September, his sister Marilyn Justice donated the motorcycle along with other toy vehicles from his collection in his memory. Charles was an avid collector of more than toys though. His collection of music boxes and antique music machines can be seen at Bayernhof Museum in Pittsburgh.
Getting back to the mail though, around the time that Hubley first started manufacturing the Harley-Davidson parcel post motorcycle, these vehicles were fading from use in the actual USPS. The 1928 Post Office Annual Report was the last year that motorcycles were listed in the fleet of vehicles delivering mail. Prior to that, they had been in common use for mail delivery since the early 1900s, especially for rural routes. In 1916, it was mandated that motorcycles could only remain in use for delivery if they had a waterproof commercial body to protect the mail, hence the significance of the sidecar on the Hubley Harley. But just as cast iron began to fade from use in toy production, motorcycles began to disappear as more automobiles took to the roads.
Although the means of transport has changed over the years, mail delivery is still going strong and remains vital these days. And toys are uniquely capable of reminding us of and illustrating history. Whether we lived during the time or not, they can spark a deep dive into a different era. I wonder what toys, games or other items will one day evoke our present moment in time. Oh, wait, I think the mail is here…
Mail fun facts:*
The United States Postal Service was started in 1775 and predates the Constitution. Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790) was the first postmaster general.
Mail in voting first started during the Civil War (1861-1865).
Currently the USPS is the third largest employer in the United States only outnumbered by Amazon and Walmart.
*For more facts on the USPS and to learn more about mail in voting, listen to the At Liberty podcast: https://www.aclu.org/podcast/polls-will-fate-usps-affect-voter-access-ep-2
Identifying cast Iron toys: https://www.realorrepro.com/article/Cast-Iron-Toys
Hubley Manufacturing Company: https://www.hobbytalk.com/threads/hubley-manufacturing-co-diecast-production-history.592171/
Motorcycle use in the Postal Service: https://about.usps.com/who-we-are/postal-history/motorcycles-moved-mail.pdf
Bayernhof Museum: https://www.bayernhofmuseum.com/history.html