Organizations such as the National Grange, the National Farmers’ Congress and State Farmers’ Alliance were all pushing for a free rural delivery system by the early 1890s. The struggle pitted farmer and rural associations against some Members of Congress who feared providing free delivery for the nation’s still rural-based population would be too expensive.
- Bringing the World Home
- Benefit or Deficit?
- A Postal Push for Rural Delivery
- Money, But No Support
- Getting Started
- The Right Stuff
- Carriers' Burdens
- "The Postman"
- Setting up Shop
- The Early Years
- Growing and Learning
- From Curiosity to Necessity
- Finding Their Rhythm
- The World at Their Door
- Shop From Home
- Kicking and Screaming
- Driving into the 20th Century
- Good Roads and Good Bye?
- Wherefore RFD?
Bringing the World Home
Long after city dwellers first enjoyed free home mail delivery in 1863, rural Americans still traveled to their local post office to pick up their mail. At a time when the majority of Americans lived in rural areas, only the minority who lived in cities were able to receive free home mail delivery. Rural Americans continued to ride or walk considerable distances over ill kept dirt roads pockmarked with potholes in dry seasons or muddy swamps after rains, all with no assurance that there would be mail waiting for them.
As postage rates were the same for city and rural delivery, farm families argued that the system was unfair. Organizations such as the National Grange, the National Farmers’ Congress and State Farmers’ Alliance were all pushing for a free rural delivery system by the early 1890s. The struggle pitted farmer and rural associations against some Members of Congress who feared providing free delivery for the nation’s still rural-based population would be too expensive.
Benefit or Deficit?
Rural Americans were not the only ones who urged free rural mail service. Newspaper publishers quickly came to envision a newspaper in every farmer's mailbox each day, offering them the most precious news of all - daily weather reports and market quotes. With such valued information, farmers would no longer have to guess when rain was expected, or when to get the best price for their crops.
In a January 14, 1892 editorial, the Atlanta Constitution echoed the sentiments of many supporters when it noted that the service “would increase correspondence and cause more newspapers and periodicals to circulate in the country. [Rural Americans] would be brought in touch with the progress of the great world. They would be more contented, and better able to improve their condition. . . . Give the farmers this convenience, and the inevitable effect will be more and better schools, more enjoyable social conditions, and a more prosperous business and industrial outlook.”
Benefit or Deficit?
While supporters waxed poetic of the service’s possible benefits, fourth class postmasters and small town merchants were less enthusiastic. Postmasters feared losing their jobs in the new service, and merchants feared giving their rural customers one less reason to come into town.
A Postal Push for Rural Delivery
One vocal supporter of rural delivery was President Benjamin Harrison’s postmaster general, John Wanamaker. The Philadelphia department store magnate served as postmaster general from 1889 to 1893. Wanamaker was unable to raise much support for the new service in Congress, even after he ordered the Post Office Department to test the service briefly on its own in 1891. In his Annual Report to Congress, Wanamaker argued that there was a great need for free mail service to rural Americans. The current system, he noted, “obliges people to go or send for mail, and that means, in the winter or stormy seasons, and for families of aged people, the depredation of going w/out letters & periodicals (hardly less valuable) that lie in post offices for long periods not called for. We shall look back with astonishment before many years that the present system had to be suffered so long.”
Wanamaker argued the tests showed support for the service, Congressional opponents declared the results inconclusive. Some questioned Wanamaker's motives. Opponents raised fears that Wanamaker only wanted the service to build a wide scale customer base for a mail-order service in his family’s store. With Grover Cleveland’s rise to the presidency in 1893, Wanamaker was replaced by Cleveland’s former law partner, Wilson S. Bissell. Neither Bissell nor Cleveland supported free mail delivery to rural Americans. Cleveland even called the idea a “crazy scheme.”
Money, But No Support
On March 1, 1895 President Cleveland appointed William L. Wilson as his new postmaster general. The former Chairman of the US Committee on Ways and Means broke with many of his former allies in his support for free rural mail delivery. By 1895 at least three rural free delivery bills had been introduced in congress. In 1893, a bill authored by Tom Watson of Georgia called for the appropriation of $10,000 for an experimental service. Postmaster General Bissell had refused, saying it was not a Department priority, and added that the service would require $20 million to begin.
Unlike his predecessor, Wilson believed that a $10,000 Rural Free Delivery (RFD) experiment was possible. On October 1, 1896, the Department began that experiment in Wilson’s home state of West Virginia. The successful results led the Department to extend the experiment and by April 1, 1897, the rural residents of Hope, Indiana; Clarkesville, Arkansas; China Grove, North Carolina; Tempe, Arizona; Brunswick, Maine; and North Yakima, Washington were receiving free home mail delivery. As praise from happy residents hit the ears of Members of Congress and the Department officials began expanding the service to more counties and states across the continental US.
The Post Office Department set up a system to handle community requests for the service. First, farmers had to forward petitions with at least 100 signatures to their representative asking for the service. If approved, the petition was forwarded to the Department for action. Approved petitions were forwarded to one of eight rural delivery regions. A rural agent from that region would be dispatched to the farmers’ district to inspect the area. If he determined that the conditions were suitable for a rural route, the process would begin.
Agents would set up a route that could serve 100 families over approximately 25 miles. In order to create economically viable routes, agents could recommend the consolidation of local post offices, a move that would result in at least one 4th class postmaster losing a job. Because of this threat to their livelihood, few small town postmasters were enthusiastic supporters of the new service. Even those who kept their postmaster jobs could find fault with RFD service. Farmers would not need to come into town as often, which meant fewer purchases from those many 4th class postmasters who also ran general stores.
The Right Stuff
Once the route was organized, rural carriers needed to be hired. The Postmaster General urged postmasters to look to their community for hiring. War veterans (Civil War and Spanish American War at first, World War I later) were given hiring preference. But in truth the Department was seeking any man (women were not originally considered as suitable candidates) who knew and was trusted by the people along the route. Carriers were to be of the highest moral quality, neat and tidy, and not prone to bouts of drinking. As one postal official put it, carriers should “bring no disgrace upon the service with which they are connected.”
Image: Lebanon, Tennessee's first rural letter carriers pose for a formal portrait. They are: Front row, left to right, Turner Jones, Jim Armstrong, Owen Reich, Al Golden. Back row, left to right, Cecil Phillips, Sam Tolliver, Marshall Phillips, Sheila Bryant, Jim Ferrell, Dee McClain.
Rural letter carriers differed from city carriers in both look and operation. Rural carriers were not required to wear uniforms, although some purchased badges or other uniform pieces on their own. And unlike city carriers, rural letter carriers were required to purchase, operate, and maintain their own transportation. This meant not only purchasing the wagon (and sled in cold climates), but also buying and feeding the horse(s) needed to pull the wagon or sled.
The first carriers used the vehicles they had at hand, wagons quickly crafted by local carpenters, or wagons drawn up to early Post Office Department specifications by manufacturers eager to tap a potentially lucrative new market.
Rural carriers were not well paid in comparison to their city brethren. In 1897 rural carriers made an annual salary of $300, at least $500 less than city carriers at the time. From that salary a carrier might have to pay on the bank loan needed to buy the mail wagon, the cost of purchasing a horse, blankets and harness, blacksmith’s bills and feed each month, veterinary services and wagon repairs. One carrier noted in 1902 that after the year’s bills were paid, his annual salary amounted to $25.
“The Postman” was one of a number of manufactured wagons marketed to rural carriers. This is one of five quarter-sized specimen wagons built by the Terre Haute Carriage and Wagon Company in the late nineteenth century for the Post Office Department’s Rural Free Delivery (RFD) service. This is one of two Rural Free Delivery wagon models produced by the company for the Department that is the in National Postal Museum’s collections. A working model, it has the sliding doors and windows of the finished product. According to company advertising “The Postman” also had “Sarven, non-malleable wheels, cushion springs, and a 1,000 mile long-distance axle.” The four-wheeled wagon was designed to be used with either one or two horses, was equipped with sliding doors and “storm proof” windows, built-in drawers for holding postal supplies and pigeonholes for mail. The wagons, made from hickory and ash with poplar panels, were painted by hand.
In 1899 the company, located in Terre Haute, Indiana, created these quarter-size working models for use by the Department in helping to convince the US Congress to increase appropriations for rural mail service. RFD, which began as an experiment in October 1896, did not become a permanent service until 1902. When the company built the wagon models, they were investing in the Department’s long-term success in hopes of creating a new market for their goods.
The company ran a series of advertisements for “The Postman” in rural publications. Rural carriers responsible for providing their own equipment were the company’s target audience. Summer ads touted the wagon as ready for “straw berry, straw hat and wheat straw weather” while winter ads noted that the wagon was perfect for “cold, chilly, freezing” winter. The 1903 winter ad boasted that “all weathers are alike when you roll along the highway in the 1903 POSTMAN - the the old reliable - the first completely costly RFD Wagon - the wagon the cheap factories are trying to imitate.”
Setting up Shop
Unlike their city counterparts, rural carriers had to post a bond before being eligible for hiring. This requirement, along with standard arguments of the day regarding women’s strength and abilities, kept the job in men’s hands at first. As time passed, women gradually joined the ranks of RFD carriers, unofficially at first, as substitutes for ill husbands, fathers or brothers, but soon on their own merit, and with their own bonds.
Male or female, RFD carriers faced the challenge of keeping warm in freezing cold winters, keeping wagons or sleds moving across rutted, snow-filled, or muddy roads, and of course successfully completing their daily rounds. Many carriers found small heaters to be an absolute necessity during cold winter months, others found comfort in blankets and lap robes. Local newspapers and national carrier and postmaster publications were filled with a variety of goods aimed at the keeping RFD carriers warm, and their wallets empty.
Image: Women slowly joined the ranks of RFD carriers. This female RFD letter carrier used a horse-drawn sleigh to make her daily rounds through deep snow.
The Early Years
The early, poorly-paid carriers, discovered they could make extra money as traveling salesmen. After all, they were visiting each home on their route already. Many reasoned, so why not make extra money selling items or providing services? In the early years, the Post Office Department even encouraged carriers to supplement their income as long as the mail was not delayed. Carriers distributed advertising cards which informed patrons that errands or merchandise from town would be exchanged for goods, such as eggs, or money. Parcels larger than four pounds in weight were not yet allowed through the mail, and businesses were quick to discover the possibilities of using carriers’ contacts to expand their market. A variety of businesses ran ads in carrier publications offering “big money for information” about potential customers on their routes, or to pay carriers for taking orders for goods, distributing free samples or even selling insurance.
An Iowa representative mentioned in the 1903 Congressional Record that one Iowa RFD carrier’s business was so large he was said to have had three large wagons following him as he delivered the mail. In 1904 the New York Sun complained that carriers “sell provisions, dry goods, furniture, horseshoes, farming implements, fertilizer, chocolate caramels, and tar roofing; take subscriptions for newspapers, magazines, and turf investment bureaus, insure lives and houses, erect lightening rods, and put down driven wells.”
Growing and Learning
By 1902, when Rural Free Delivery was made an official service, postal officials had begun to crack down on the carriers’ extracurricular activities. They successfully pushed for legislation that forbad carriers from soliciting business or carrying mail order parcels outside of the mail.
While cutting down on rural carriers’ other business opportunities was aimed at improving delivery speed, there were other factors at play that were not addressed by any legislation. For many, the RFD carrier was often the only regular visitor to their homes. In the early years of the service rural carriers found themselves being asked to help fix machines or take care of farm animals. Others opened mailboxes to find grocery lists and coins for buying the goods. The most common sights were coins or goods such as eggs or butter left alongside outgoing letters in mailboxes to pay for their postage. The latter was so common that carriers around the country pleaded with postmasters to ask patrons to purchase stamps directly from carriers and not leave scattered payments (of any kind) in their mailboxes.
From Curiosity to Necessity
The first rural mailboxes were odds and ends. At that time, rural mailboxes appeared in almost every shape and size imaginable. People used any container they could find: empty coal oil or syrup can, an apple, soap, or sugar box, a lard pail hung on a fence post. Such homemade containers were often the wrong size for the mail and placed in a variety of heights. Many were difficult to open or close and some even held remnants of oil or syrup which came off on the letters. Frustrated rural carriers and local postmasters appealed to the Post Office Department to impose certain requirements for rural mailboxes.
From Curiosity to Necessity
In 1901 postal officials asked manufacturers to design a mailbox that could become a standard for the service. Among their requirements for the design was a box that was made of metal, 6” x 8” x 18” in size, weather proof, and easy to fasten to a post. Hundreds of designs deluged postal headquarters, with only a few acceptable to the Department. By the next year, the Department required customers to have these boxes. Unfortunately, not all postal patrons purchased the suggested boxes. Many simply made their own, which as one mailbox advertisement observed, were "better fitted for rat traps or puzzles for the insane."
The familiar tunnel-box design that continues to hold rural mail to this day was designed by Roy Joroleman, a Post Office Department engineer. The box included a signal flag that was attached to the mailbox, which the carrier raised once the mail had been placed inside. Customers also raised the signal flag when they placed outgoing mail in the mailbox to make sure the carrier would stop. The signal was appreciated by all, especially on frosty or stormy days.
Finding Their Rhythm
In 1897, there were 1,843 miles of rural routes in the nation. By 1904, RFD routes covered over ½ million miles in the continental US. Rural Free Delivery had become an outstanding success. Even Members of Congress who had been reluctant to experiment with the idea of free rural delivery found themselves now eagerly forwarding petitions for the service to the Post Office Department. Each petition of at least 100 local signatories, held the potential for an equal number of happy voters once the service was enacted.
Image: Over the years, a number of rural carriers have bent the rules of "only stamped mail" being placed in mailboxes. Many left their patrons Christmas and holiday postcards. From time to time, carriers who did not pre-stamp those cards found themselves in trouble with postal officials.
The World at Their Door
The United States was the last major industrialized nation to adopt the Parcel Post Service. The service was debated in Congress from the 1880s to 1912. Farmers associations, including the National Grange, sought to expand rural contact through the addition of a parcels service. Private express companies and their powerful Congressional allies, helped bottle up or defeat each attempt at the service for decades. The service was finally approved and enacted on January 1, 1913. Small-town merchants, the farmers' traditional suppliers, feared that the service would be their ruin.
Among the first users of the service were The Woodrow Wilson Club of Princeton, which mailed 11 pounds of apples to the New Jersey home of President-elect Woodrow Wilson just after midnight on January 1, 1913.
While Parcel Post Service had its greatest impact on farm families who could now order goods from anywhere, urban Americans found interesting uses for the new service. Within a matter of days, one Chicago restaurant began sending prominent business leaders their lunch by mail. The 300 meals to bankers, brokers and real estate agents were delivered in pasteboard packages. Initially tried as an experiment, according to the Paris (Illinois) Beacon, the lunch by mail scheme proved successful.
Shop From Home
With Parcel Post Service underway, letter carriers began to deliver all sorts of things in the mail. An industry quickly arose to offer farmers convenient packing boxes for their produce. These boxes were made especially for particular products - eggs, butter, or vegetables - or a combination of items.
A "farm-to-table" postal program enabled farmers to sell and ship directly to city dwellers via Parcel Post, bypassing delivery agents. Postmasters invited farmers to provide their names, addresses, and available produce. These lists were placed in city post office lobbies and newspaper advertisements. The US Department of Agriculture “Farmer's Bulletin” showed farmers how to arrange and pack produce to make it appealing to buyers. But farmers did not always pack their produce properly, and customers did not always pay promptly, and the farm-to-table program faded out of existence.
Image: Mail order egg containers were available in a number of sizes and were frequently found in parcel mail sacks.
Kicking and Screaming
President Wilson’s postmaster general, Albert Burleson, was not a fan of rural carriers. From almost the moment he took office Burleson began looking for ways to cut RFD costs. He encouraged Congress to transfer the entire service to contract “Star Routes,” which would mean the elimination of all RFD carrier positions. Even with a Democratic Congress, Burleson was unable to win any support for this idea. Unable to hand the service off to contractors, Burleson sought to use a new transportation tool to cut costs and speed up the service - the automobile. The Department had been testing automobiles to carry the mail as early as 1899. By 1915, Ford’s Model T and a number of other vehicles were becoming common sights along American roads.
In 1915, Burleson decided to switch rural carriers from horses to horsepower. He tasked postal officials with consolidating routes, moving horse-drawn carriers from 24-mile long routes to 50-mile long automobile routes. In the next two years, 939 rural routes were eliminated, along with most of the carriers. Rural carriers protested loudly to the switch. Even those who could afford to purchase automobiles for their routes were unhappy with the switch. The Department did not have enough postal inspectors to send out to help with route consolidation, so Burleson’s staff relied on changes made in Washington, DC, by officials using maps that in some cases were 10 to 20 years old. As one unhappy congressman put it, “new routes were established were there were no roads, over creeks where there were no bridges, over roads that are impassible.”
Driving into the 20th Century
For rural carriers who were already carrying the financial burden of a wagon and horses, the notice that they needed to purchase an automobile to keep their jobs was unwelcome news. Examinations of the Congressional Record of 1916 and RFD files at the National Archives and Records Administration show complaints from hundreds of carriers across the country. Even patrons wrote to complain about the switch. In some cases, they were asked to relocate their mailboxes and change their address as new routes switched road access. An Iowa carrier complained that even though he had switched to using an automobile on his new 50-mile long route, weather forced him to use horse and wagon for the majority of the year. Not a hardship on the old 24-mile long route, but now he had to cover twice the ground, and in bad weather!
Not one to back down, Burleson ignored these complaints and continued to advocate for the new automobile service. Fortunately for the carriers, who by this time had formed a lobbying association (the National Rural Letter Carriers Association, or NRLCA), Congress took pity on their plight and removed Burleson’s power to reorganize and classify rural routes. They then created two types of routes, a horse-drawn route that would be 24-miles long, and an automobile route 50-miles in length. In addition, a new motor route could only be established if a majority of families along the route petitioned for the change.
Image: This Model-T has been modified with a "Snowbird" attachment for winter use as a motorized sled.
Good Roads and Good Bye?
Among the arguments for the creation of Rural Free Delivery service was that it would help preserve farm families. America’s rural youth had been abandoning their farms for the city in ever increasing numbers in the late nineteenth century. Almost every argument for RFD service contained the expectation that by bringing the world to rural America, fewer young people would feel the need to leave the farm for the big city. This argument was used again as part of the plea for Parcel Post Service (if families can have the goods of the world delivered to their door, why leave?), and finally at the turn of the twentieth century, in a plea for better road conditions.
Good Roads and Good Bye?
The Good Roads movement of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century was yet another struggle for rural Americans in their quest for better conditions. The Post Office Department became a valuable ally in the fight for better roads. Postmasters had the right to refuse service to anyone living along an impassible road. Rural agents dispatched to examine roads in order to reestablish service noted that with the threat of no mail deliveries hanging over their heads, farmers would be out in force building new bridges and repairing roads to keep an old route or gain a new one. The Department estimated that between 1896 and 1908, rural areas had spent over $70 million on road repair or building.
Unfortunately for those seeking to keep their kids on the farm, neither RFD nor Parcel Post Service were instrumental in aiding those efforts. And instead of keeping more people on the farm, those good roads became one-way routes out of town.
America’s rural routes survive today, although they can be harder to spot just by looking at addresses. While farms, homes, and ranches have not moved into the city, numerous communities have moved their addresses out to include rural areas. Since the late twentieth century, many of these rural addresses from the past, RR2 Box 92-H, RR3 Box 236, etc., have been replaced with “unambiguous, locatable” designations that are indistinguishable from urban addresses. Many rural Americans have found their home, still dozens of miles from town, now sporting addresses such as 46522 Maple or 24061 66th Street.
The transformation of rural addresses has been at the behest of county and civil organizations seeking better ways of making homes easily recognizable for public utilities and fire or emergency services. The US Postal Service continues to work with communities to help them make the desired changes.
While the address may change, the service remains. Millions of Americans can count on a RFD carrier in his or her vehicle making the daily rounds. Carriers continue to bring postal services with them, and will still sell a stamp or money order, arrange for registered mail, or even stop for a brief chat about current events and the community.
Created by Nancy A. Pope, National Postal Museum