Story: Mail and couriers

Page 3. Mail in the 20th century

All images & media in this story

From horses to motors

The post office began to use motor vehicles for transporting mail at the beginning of the 20th century. Motor lorries were initially used by the Post Office in Wellington in 1909, and by 1913 all horses had been replaced by motorised transport in Wellington. Motorised mail delivery spread rapidly during the First World War and, except for suburban delivery, most mail was transported by motor vehicle.

Horses, trains and automobiles


In 1931 a huge variety of methods were still used to deliver mail to rural communities, including: motor car, lorry, bus, motorcycle, coach, gig, trap, handcart, dray, sledge, dogcart, bicycle, launch, steamer, railway, tram, sawmill locomotive, ballast train, on horseback and on foot. Some routes combined several different modes of transport.


Rural delivery

Rural people had to collect their mail from the local post office until 1905, when they became able to send and receive mail at the farm gate. A delivery fee was introduced in 1922. The rural mailman also brought food items, parcels and newspapers, and handled money orders and postal notes.

Airmail takes off

Aeroplanes provided new possibilities for transporting mail after the First World War. Shortly after the war’s end there were unsuccessful experiments with using aeroplanes for inland mail delivery – at the time it proved too expensive. An air service was established in early 1935 to serve remote rural districts of the South Island. A year later mail planes connected all the main centres, and made the speed of mail delivery considerably faster. In 1938–39 aeroplanes carried two million letters between New Zealand centres. Air transport has remained a key aspect of domestic mail delivery ever since.

Penny post


In 1901 Postmaster General J. G. Ward announced that all mail, whether it was destined for another part of New Zealand or for the other side of the world, would cost only one penny to send. New Zealand was the first country in the world to introduce such a scheme. While most countries in the British Empire accepted the penny stamps, a few such as Australia initially demanded a surcharge. The expense of the First World War pushed prices up again in 1915.


New Zealand mail was first sent to Britain by air in 1931 – though it had first to travel to Australia by ship before it could board an aircraft. A regular airmail service between New Zealand and Australia finally began in April 1940, and expanded after the end of the Second World War.

Aerogrammes, or air letters (light sheets of paper that were folded to form their own envelopes), were introduced in 1945, providing a cheaper alternative to sending regular mail overseas.

Increasing efficiency

There was relatively little change in postal delivery in the mid-20th century. The country’s first automated parcel-sorting machine was installed at the Auckland post office in September 1961, and mechanised mail-sorting machines were gradually introduced to the main centres during the 1960s and 1970s. Postcodes were introduced into New Zealand in 1977 to aid mail sorting.

Banking with the Post Office

From the 1860s an important function of the local post office was issuing money orders and providing a savings bank. In many small towns, the post office was the only financial service available. From the 1960s New Zealand trading banks were allowed to develop their own networks of savings bank branches, and the Post Office Savings Bank was forced to become more competitive.


Postmen were a uniformed and regulated part of the civil service by the late 19th century. Until the mid-20th century posties were almost exclusively men, though women swelled the ranks during wartime. Female posties became more common from the 1960s.

Other than the risks of aggressive dogs and bad weather, being a postie is a good outdoor job, requiring physical fitness and good time management. A number of creative writers, such as James K. Baxter, Hone Tuwhare and Ian Wedde, served stints as posties. The early start and early finish to the working day left them with time for other activities.

How to cite this page:

Tim Shoebridge, 'Mail and couriers - Mail in the 20th century', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 14 July 2024)

Story by Tim Shoebridge, published 11 Mar 2010