The History of Rural Free Delivery

Without Rural Free Delivery, country folk and farmers would still travel miles to town for their mail and news.

| November/December 2013

  • A man delivers mail by horse and buggy in 1908.
    Photo Courtesy Marilyn Jones
  • Before the railroad, mail was delivered by dogsled in winter.
    Photo Courtesy Library Of Congress
  • By 1930, mail was being delivered by automobile.
    Photo Courtesy Marilyn Jones
  • Man collects mail for delivery outside of a small post office.
    Photo Courtesy Library Of Congress
  • Gritty delivers GRIT on his bike.
    Illustration By Brad Anderson

On October 1, 1896, five men on horseback set out to deliver mail along 10 miles of rugged rural terrain in the shadow of the Blue Ridge Mountains. What took place that day in the countryside outside of Charles Town, Halltown and Uvilla, West Virginia, was the beginning of Rural Free Delivery, opening the door to universal service for every American citizen. Within a year, 44 routes were being covered in 29 states.

Up to this point, American farmers had been extremely isolated from the outside world. And this was not an insignificant proportion of the population – in 1890, 65 percent of all Americans lived in rural areas. There were no radios, telephones or newspaper deliveries, and the nearest neighbors were often miles away. To get any news – or mail for that matter – folks had to travel into town by way of unstable roads, sometimes waiting weeks to make the trip when weather was poor. So when Rural Free Delivery came along, it dramatically changed the landscape of early American life.

The long and winding road

Indiana Grange President Milton Trusler may have been the first to demand an answer to why city dwellers received mail delivery to their homes when rural customers did not.  Farm families – who paid the same postage rates as the rest of the nation – began to complain as well, and the National Grange of the Order of Patrons of Husbandry came to their aid, advocating for rural mail delivery on their behalf.

But Congress was reluctant to act, fearing the United States was simply too large for free rural delivery to be anything but a financial disaster. Although today’s postal service operates as an independent business, at the time, tax dollars supported the Post Office Department. Private express carriers also protested, thinking free rural mail delivery would eliminate their business, and many town merchants worried the service would reduce farm families’ weekly visits to town to obtain goods and merchandise.

Rural residents found a long-standing ally in Postmaster General John Wanamaker, a merchant who according to the U.S. Postal Service “became one of the most innovative and energetic people ever to lead the Post Office Department.” He argued that it made more sense to have one person deliver the mail rather than making 50 ride into town and collect it, citing business logic as well as social philosophy.

While Wanamaker blazed a trail for Rural Free Delivery, his proposed mail system never came to pass under his watch. Instead, Congress appropriated $10,000 to experiment with what was called “village free delivery” in 1890, but farmers who lived farther away from town were still without service, and the test died.

Hickory Hill
10/12/2013 8:03:08 AM

Not a bad history, but incomplete. Representative Thomas E. Watson (D, GA) pushed through the $10,000 addition to the Postal Service appropriation bill in 1892 to create the experiment of Rural Free Delivery. He was a big supporter of American farmers and disliked the fact that they couldn't receive their mail for free like city dwellers. RFD had been proposed before, but always kicked out by Congress until then.



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