The Locks of Rural Free Delivery


Richard WilliamsAs I relic hunt in Virginia’s historic Shenandoah Valley, I often recover discarded or lost items that teach me intriguing nuances about life in earlier days. The Valley’s rich agricultural heritage is documented in books, essays and journals, but many of the relics and artifacts that shed light on that history remain buried in the ground. Most of these items were often lost by a farmer plowing his field, a housewife hanging out wash or a child sleigh riding down a hill behind the farmhouse. Other items were simply discarded as they were worn out or broken beyond repair. The circumstances that led to these relics being buried in the ground are as varied as the items themselves.

As much as I love recovering these items, i.e., “the thrill of the hunt”, I love restoring and preserving them just as much. But then there’s the history behind such items. I’ve learned a wealth of information and history in just researching the various artifacts I pull from my native sod.


One such item is the R.F.D. lock shown in the image above. It’s a “postal padlock.” These are fairly common finds by relic hunters but they tell an interesting story of Rural Free Delivery (RFD) by the United States Post Office. Nancy Pope of the National Postal Museum writes this explanation: 

Since it began as an experiment in 1896, Rural Free Delivery (RFD) Service enabled an increasing number of rural Americans to send and receive mail from their residences. To receive the service, a family’s mailbox had to be easily accessible, and on the road traveled by their carrier. Families whose homes were far away from their mailbox insured the security of their mail by attaching locks to the mailbox. Local postmasters allowed this practice, as long as carriers were provided with a key.

Manufacturers addressed this need by producing and selling specially labeled “RFD” mail locks. The official-looking locks were neither produced nor provided by the Post Office Department.

1/12/2019 11:44:46 AM

NebraskaDave: Thanks for sharing your thoughts. Yes, much of the trust we once shared has disappeared. Although, there are still remnants of it to be found in America in 2019, particularly in rural areas. At least that's the case where I live. "foreign competition we had to reduce that quality down to the level of their product to compete." I can relate. I worked for a textile company in the early 1980's. It was eventually forced to close due to foreign competition. And it is indeed sad. These issues drive much of the cultural and political debates today - and not just in our country. Thanks again for reading and for taking the time to comment.

12/11/2018 3:43:46 PM

Richard, unfortunately locks are a bit part of our culture today. I live in the city so even more so for me. I carry a ring of keys that are used on a daily basis and have another ring of keys that are not used as much. Sadly I remember the days when the only time we locked the house was when we went on vacation. Cars were never locked and most times the keys were in the ignition. Those days of small town U.S.A. trust are gone. A new day of scams, identity theft, and computer data mining are prevalent. A man's handshake and his word have been replaced with lawyers and pages of legal documents to transact a deal. You mentioned quality and work ethic. I've been retired from the work force for almost 10 years. I worked for the same company for 41 years, retired with a pension, and got to keep my health benefits for a supplementary health insurance to Medicare. I saw the tide turning a few years before my retirement. Companies and employees worked together and respected each other but today I don't think that's so true. Maybe some are still that way but a large number of worker/company relationships are not there. I'm kind of glad that I'm not in the work force any more. I worked for a company that had very high quality standards but because of foreign competition we had to reduce that quality down to the level of their product to compete. It was really sad to see that happen. It was either that or go out of business just like Slaymaker Lock Company. Have a great treasure hunting day. Nebraska Dave

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