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Of Santa, Ben Franklin and the CRV

January 3, 2006, by Bill Cawthon

Happy New Year! I hope your holidays were wonderful and that 2006 has lots of great things in store for you.

Edmund Gwenn's Kris Kringle was saved from a one-way trip to Bellevue by the U.S. Post Office in "Miracle on 34th Street." 20th Century Fox movie still.

One of my favorite holiday movies is "Miracle on 34th Street" with Natalie Wood, Maureen O'Hara and Edmund Gwenn, who was the only actor to ever win the Academy Award for playing Santa Claus.

One of the film's big moments comes when Jack Albertson, playing a postal clerk, suggests sending all the letters children have written to Santa to the New York County courthouse where the state is trying to prove Kris Kringle is insane. In fact, the Post Office Department was almost as much the hero of the film as John Payne, who starred as Fred Gailey, the defense attorney.

During his statement to the court, Gailey cites references to establish the Post Office as an expert authority on identity. He mentions that Ben Franklin was the first postmaster general of the United States which is exactly what the United States Postal Service says. However, that claim technically depends on when you say the United States became an independent nation. Franklin was named Postmaster General by the Second Continental Congress in July 1775 but at that time the thirteen colonies still belonged to Great Britain and the Declaration of Independence was almost a year in the future. The Articles of Confederation that served as the basis of the United States government until the ratification of the Constitution were not adopted until November 15, 1777, over a year after Franklin had left the post and been replaced by his son-in-law, Richard Bache. Bache was postmaster general when the Articles of Confederation were finally ratified in 1781. Ebenezer Hazard was postmaster general when the British surrendered at Yorktown and the colonies truly became the independent United States and Samuel Osgood was the first postmaster general to be named by the President of the United States.

Nitpicking aside, Franklin is unique in that he served in the post both for the English Crown and the Continental Congress and there is no denying he made enormous contributions to the postal service in the early days of the United States. And, as the three-hundredth anniversary of his birth is the 17th of this month, I thought it would be a good time to mention a few of those contributions.

In the early days of the American colonies domestic mail, such as it was, was carried by friends, traveling merchants and cooperative Native Americans. Of course, there was still a lot of correspondence between the colonists and their families in Europe which was carried by ships. In order to bring some organization to the transatlantic mail service, the General Court of Massachusetts in 1639 designated a Boston tavern owned by Richard Fairbanks as the official point for delivery of mail going to or from Europe. This may seem a strange choice today, but at that time it was the custom in much of Europe to use taverns as mail drops.

As the colonies grew, local officials would designate postal routes so people would know where and when mail could be dropped off and picked up. (Home delivery of mail is a relatively recent service that was first offered to residents of a few major cities in 1863 and did not become universal until the early 20th century.) In 1673, Francis Lovelace, the governor of New York, set up a monthly run between New York and Boston. Ten years later, William Penn opened the first post office in Pennsylvania.

It wasn't until 1692 that the British government got directly involved. In return for six shillings and eightpence a year, Thomas Neale received a royal grant to establish a postal system. Neale, who never even visited the colonies, appointed Alexander Hamilton, the colonial governor of New Jersey, as his representative over here.

In spite of the low cost of the grant, Neale was unsuccessful in making any money from the mail and died heavily in debt.

Portrait of Benjamin Franklin from the Perry-Castañeda Library at the University of Texas at Austin. In 1847, Franklin's likeness appeared on the first postage stamp ever issued by the United States Post Office.

The British government bought back the rights to handle the mail in 1707 and appointed Governor Hamilton's son to be Deputy Postmaster General of America. John Hamilton served for fourteen years and was succeeded by South Carolinian John Lloyd in 1721.

Franklin's official involvement with the American postal system began in 1737 when Alexander Spotswood, the third Deputy Postmaster General, appointed the successful young printer and newspaper publisher to be postmaster of Philadelphia. Newspaper publishers were often named as local postmasters as it helped them gather the news and because newspapers and letters comprised the bulk of the mail carried in those days.

In 1753, the Crown named Franklin and William Hunter, postmaster of Williamsburg, Virginia to be joint postmasters general for the American colonies.

Benjamin Franklin made a number of major improvements to the mail service. He traveled extensively and set a major reorganization in motion. In order to improve service and speed delivery, surveys were conducted resulting in new, shorter routes. Milestones were placed on the principal routes and post riders began to carry mail at night between Philadelphia and New York.

By 1760, Franklin's changes paid off as the postal service recorded its first profit. By that time there were numerous post offices serving the colonists with post roads connecting them from Canada to Florida and there was regularly scheduled mail service between American and Europe.

Despite the fact Franklin was quite popular in England, his political leanings caught up with him in 1774 and he was dismissed from his post.

By this time, the Crown was reacting to uprisings and widespread discontent among the colonists. Recognizing that messages sent through the official mail system were liable to be intercepted, William Goddard, a former postmaster, set up the Constitutional Post. It was funded by the colonies and profits were used to improve the service. When the Second Continental Congress met in Philadelphia in May 1775, there were already thirty post offices providing service from Portsmouth, New Hampshire to Williamsburg, Virginia.

It had been only three weeks since the battles of Lexington and Concord but the Second Continental Congress realized secure mail service was vital to the cause of independence. The representatives created a committee, headed by Benjamin Franklin, to create a new postal system for the united colonies. The committee delivered its report on July 25, 1775. It took only a day for the Congress to accept to the committee's recommendations and name Franklin as the new Postmaster General. Future Postmaster General Richard Bache was named comptroller. Until the end of the Revolutionary War, the new American postal system was primarily focused on providing mail service between Congress and the military forces. In recognition of the value of their service, postmasters and post riders were exempt from military duty.

Benjamin Franklin resigned from his post on November 7, 1776 and became the United States' emissary to France.

In 1790, the first full year for which statistics are available, the U.S. Post Office Department had 75 post offices and did $37,935.00 in business.

Contrast that to today. In 2004, the most recent year for which statistics are available, the United States Postal Service had almost 28,000 post offices and revenues in excess of $69 billion. It handled 44% of the letters and postcards mailed in the entire world.

While the Post Office came to Santa's rescue in "Miracle on 34th Street," that's certainly not the only connection between Hollywood and the U.S. mail. Bing Crosby, Rock Hudson and Sherman Helmsley were all postal employees at one point in their careers and Will Hays, president of the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America, also served as Postmaster General. Walt Disney was a substitute letter carrier in Chicago. Other notable Americans have their own postal histories: Novelist William Faulkner was a postmaster in Mississippi and Conrad Hilton held the same post in New Mexico. Knute Rockne was a postal clerk in Chicago and Noah Webster was a special agent with the Post Office. Both Abraham Lincoln and Harry S. Truman served as local postmasters.

The most recent carrier route vehicle was the Ford Flexible Fuel Vehicle (FFV). Built on an SUV chassis, the FFV features an aluminum body built by Utilimaster. Photo courtesy of Utilimaster.

In about five days, those of us in the United States will be paying more to mail packages and letters. It's only been four years since the last rate increase, but even I have to admit the postal service is facing some hefty cost increases, including millions of additional dollars for fuel. As the operator of the world's largest fleet of civilian vehicles, the USPS used 93,625,449 gallons of gasoline in 2004 plus 3,434,436 gallons of diesel and 1,541,547 gallons of alternative fuels like biodiesel, compressed natural gas and E85 (a mixture of ethanol and gasoline). The USPS estimates it pays an additional $8 million every time the price of fuel rises by a penny and average gasoline prices are currently about forty-four cents higher than they were a year ago.

USPS trucks are seen every day on American streets and highways. The most common are the little trucks driven by individual letter carriers. Postal Service calls these carrier route vehicles and they make up the vast majority of the Postal Service's fleet. The current CRVs are normally either the Ford Flexible Fuel Vehicle (FFV) which has an aluminum Utilimaster body on an Australian Ford Explorer chassis with right-hand-drive and a 6-cylinder flexible-fuel engine capable of using E85 fuel (85% ethanol) or the Grumman/GM Long-Life Vehicle (LLV) which uses a Chevrolet S-10 chassis and a GM 4-cylinder engine. The Grumman LLV made its debut in 1986 and was built through 1995. It was replaced by the Ford FFV in 1999. The Postal Service is already looking for a replacement for the FFV and calls its latest project "Generation 3."

Probably the most familiar CRVs are the various Jeep Dispatcher models built by Willys, Kaiser and AM General beginning about a half-century ago. Up until the 1950s, mail trucks generally delivered both letter carriers and their mail to the beginning of the routes. From there, the postman was on foot. Postwar suburban sprawl soon made this method of delivering the mail very impractical. As a result, the Post Office, which had needed to modernize its fleet for years, began conducting tests to find a suitable vehicle for suburban deliveries. Three vehicles made it all the way through and were acquired in fairly large numbers, but the Jeep was the one that outlasted them all.

Originally, the Post Office used a right-hand drive version of the Jeep station wagon, but was soon asking for a smaller, less expensive vehicle. By this time Kaiser-Fraser had purchased Jeep from Willys and was looking to capitalize on its new brand. It developed the Jeep DJ-3 Dispatcher. The DJ-3A was essentially a two-wheel-drive CJ-3A with a column-mounted shifter and a full body with sliding doors. Unlike regular DJ-3As which had the same high driver entry cutout as the CJ-3A, the vehicles built for the Post Office had a cutout that extended to the passenger compartment floor. Beginning with the DJ-3A in the mid-1950s, the Post Office and the Postal Service used Jeeps for more than thirty years.

In 1961, Jeep added a small van body to the CJ-3A to create the FJ-3 Fleetvan. Only slightly longer than a basic CJ-3A Jeep, it was highly maneuverable and could handle a 1000-pound payload. The Fleetvan was produced from 1961 to 1965 when it was replaced by the DJ-5. In the late 1960s, Lindberg made a model of the Fleetvan many consider to be HO but in reality it was somewhat larger than 1:87 scale.

The DJ-5 replaced the DJ-3A in postal fleets beginning in 1965. The DJ-5 used by the Post Office Department was also known as the Dispatcher 100 and was based on the extremely successful CJ-5. Two years later the Post Office switched to a DJ-5A that was built by Kaiser Defense and Government Products Division and came equipped with a Chevrolet 4-cylinder engine and a GM Powerglide 2-speed transmission. When American Motors bought Jeep from Kaiser in 1970, it switched the engine to one of its own inline sixes. AM General, American Motors' government products division, produced over 150,000 DJ-5A through DJ-5L Dispatchers for the Post Office and Postal Service.

The last deliveries of Jeep-based vehicles took place in 1983 but some of these can still be seen in use. Postal employees who do not have a government-issued vehicle often buy these at surplus auctions to use on their rounds.

While replicas of postal Jeeps have been offered in larger scales, those of us who prefer 1:87 scale have been left out. There are plenty of models of the larger trucks used to transport mail between post offices but not a single carrier route vehicle.

Richard Olson built this USPS carrier route vehicle starting with one of the Roco Jeep CJ-5 models produced in the mid-1980s. You could also use the Roco No. 713 M38A1. Richard scratchbuilt the hardtop and doors and modified the grille and hood. The decals are West Coast decals from BS Design. Photo by Richard Olson. Used by permission of Richard Olson and the 1:87 Vehicle Club.

It is possible to make a reasonable replica of the Jeep DJ-5 by using the Roco #713 model of the M38A1 and some sheet styrene. The shapes are not particularly complicated and careful sanding will provide the necessary rounding. While striping is available from a variety of sources, the only decals of modern USPS logos of which I am aware are BS Design's West Coast Decal set WE 3-17. Unfortunately, I don't know of a North American source for BS Design decals. Since the entire vehicle is white, it's only necessary to reproduce the color graphics so it should be possible to make your own decals using a personal computer and an ink-jet printer.

But what about the chances for ready-to-run models of 1:87 scale postal delivery vehicles? Unfortunately, they're not very good. With the exception of the various Jeep Dispatchers, the majority of carrier route vehicles produced since the 1950s have been custom trucks built to postal specifications. This means there are very few opportunities for modelmakers to reissue them in other liveries and recoup their investments more rapidly.

However, one should never say "never," especially at the beginning of a year that holds lots of promise for new models in 1:87 scale. There are manufacturers looking for new projects and a Dispatcher might be very tempting especially considering it takes only a couple of body styles to cover the period from the end of the Transition Era to modern times. Perhaps a word or two to your favorite modelmaker might be in order?

See you next time!

- Bill Cawthon

Bill Cawthon is a modeler and collector. His primary hobby interests are vehicle models in 1:87 and 1:160 scales and model railroading. He is senior editor of Route 1-87, the magazine of the 1/87 Vehicle Club, and a columnist and product reviewer for Model Railroad News. He is one of the creators of the award-winning "Grimy Gulch" model railroad layout.

In real life, Bill is a marketing and public relations consultant for MARK III Systems, a successful information technology company. He also writes for, an international auto industry publication, reporting on the U.S. light vehicle industry.

He lives in Houston, Texas with his wife, Marge, and their children.

Bill's columns appear twice monthly on Promotex Online. To learn more about him, click here.


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published by Cadabra Corp. This page was lasted updated: January 05, 2006