|By Don Johnson
When the United States Postal Service first required badges to be worn by letter carriers in the 1880s, it set in motion the creation of a series of items that are now highly sought by USPS collectors. Those badges, however, weren’t used from the start.
Mail delivery began in large U.S. cities in 1863, although uniforms worn by letter carriers weren’t authorized by Congress until five years later. The first official outfit consisted of a sack coat, pants, a single-breasted vest, a cap and a cape. It would take nearly two decades for a badge to be added.
In 1887, the postal service began requiring each letter carrier to wear a numbered badge on his hat, cap or helmet. Prior to that, some post offices mandated letter carriers wear badges to identify themselves as Post Office Department employees, but that decision was at the discretion of each postmaster.
The design of the first badge featured a U-shaped wreath. Attached to horizontal bars at the open center were numbers just over half an inch high. Being metal, the piece could withstand the variety of elements faced by letter carriers. Slight variations were used by different post offices, with insignificant changes to the design, size, material and color. For the most part, however, early badges had the same look.
A prominent change came in 1922, when the letter-carrier’s badge underwent a complete redesign. The new version was elliptical, topped by a spread-wing, shield-breasted eagle. The inside edge of the oval was lettered “U.S. Postal Service” and had the name of the city or town in raised letters, with a five-point star at the left and right side, separating the text. At the center was a raised number. The piece was slightly curved, fitting headgear worn at the time.
Over the years, slight changes were made, but the design remained largely the same. The city name was dropped for a generic “Letter Carrier” title, and the badge number was stamped into the metal.
The letter carrier’s badge was a mainstay of the Postal Service until 1982, when a baseball-style cap was introduced. After 95 years, the numbered metal badge was discontinued.
Although those worn by letter carriers are the most prolific Postal Service badges found on today’s market, a variety of other examples have adorned uniforms of other USPS employees. Designs were often unique, whether the employee was a postal inspector or a desk clerk.
“The Department demanded accountability for the mail from everyone who touched it, including those individuals who merely drove trucks full of mail between post offices and railroad depots in large cities,” wrote Nancy Pope, historian and curator at the Smithsonian National Postal Museum, in her “Pushing the Envelope” blog.
While the vast majority of badges were metal, during the mid 20th century plastic pinbacks were issued for temporary postal workers, such as holiday help.
Even some non-USPS employees had badges.
“Sometimes individuals who were not required to wear a badge by the Department did so on their own accord,” Pope wrote. One example was a badge created by the National Star Route Carriers’ Association, which did contract work for the Postal Service.
Few people know postal badges better than veteran USPS employees-turned-collectors. Among them is Lew Palmer of Mishawaka, Ind. Palmer, who retired from the Postal Service in 2009, collects a variety of USPS memorabilia. A vintage automobile was the link to his pursuits.
Palmer wanted to own a Model A mail truck. In 1990, he found a chassis for a 1931 example that had been on the ground since 1958. After acquiring what was left of the vehicle, he spent the next 11 years restoring it. His broad collection of USPS memorabilia came about as he assembled a uniform to match the time period of the mail truck. He exhibits additional Postal Service collectibles he found – including uniforms, badges, patches and buttons – whenever he displays the truck.
Along the way, Palmer discovered others who enjoyed the hobby.
“There are collectors out there,” he told AntiqueWeek. “They seem to be more closet collectors, out there in the shadows.”
Among the key items sought are badges, having entered the collectibles market a number of ways.
“Some were given to employees as they retired. Some were sold off with obsolete equipment,” he said.
Palmer’s buyers range from people who specifically collect letter-carrier badges having a city name to those who want an example of all types made, regardless of the worker’s job.
Prices run the gamut. He noted common cap badges begin at $8, while those having a city name usually bring $150 for examples with a low number. (The lower the number, the older the badge.) Value, he added, is generally determined by rarity.
At a recent show, his inventory included a variety of nickel-plated badges:
•United States Postal Employee, shield-shaped breast badge worn by a clerk who sorted mail, circa 1920s, $35.
•U.S. Post Office Department Custodial Service, shield-shaped badge topped with a spread-wing eagle, late 1920s or 1930s, $35.
•U.S. Post Office Department Mail Equipment, shield-shaped badge topped with a spread-wing eagle, $45. This branch made keys and locks through the 1960s.
•Post Office Department Railway Mail Service, oval topped by a spread-wing eagle clutching arrows and olive branches, early 20th century until 1970s, $125.
•Post Office Department Postal Transportation Service, oval topped by a spread-wing eagle clutching arrows and olive branches, 1960s to about 1972, $125.
•U.S. Mail Motor Service, motif of a wooden-spoke wheel, 1920s, $65. This branch consisted of mechanics and garage workers.
•U.S. Mail Post Office Department Motor Vehicle Service, circular design topped by an eagle, depicting a 1940s truck, $65 to $75; same design with a van-type truck, 1950s to 1960s, $60.
•Cap badges with route numbers, worn from the beginning of World War II, without a city name, $15. As a general rule, higher route numbers are worth more than lower numbers. “Every town has a Route #1,” Palmer explained.
When it comes to finding Postal Service badges, pay special attention to material in showcases. “Take the time to look through display cases,” Palmer advised. The small size and unique nature of badges make them perfect material to be kept under glass.