The Locks of Rural Free Delivery

Reader Contribution by Richard Williams
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As 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.

Since this farm was located a good distance from the main road, it made sense that they would have had one of these locks for their mailbox. It now serves as an excellent paper weight in my office.

This particular lock has a brass case and shackle and was patented and manufactured by S.R. Slaymaker of Connellsville, Pennsylvania. The company was founded by Samuel Redsecker Slaymaker and John F. Barry in 1888. Slaymaker died in 1940, but many of the locks his company manufactured are still around today and are considered collectors’ items by many. The company eventually evolved into the Slaymaker Lock Company and, in 1973, was sold to American Products Corporation. Unable to compete with the flood of cheap, foreign made padlocks, the company closed its manufacturing plant in 1986.

Though my specimen likely lay in the ground for decades, it would probably still function if I had the key. This is a testament to the quality of the original Slaymaker locks and the work ethic of the 19th century American manufacturers who served a largely rural market.

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