Archiver > MONTGOMERY_CO_OH > 2002-03 > 1016084894

From: "Arlene Gregory" <>
Subject: Re: Form SS-5 question
Date: Thu, 14 Mar 2002 00:48:14 -0500
References: <>

There are a number of sites that deal with the history of RFD. This is just

Research Reports No. 89 Summer 1997

Postal History

Sharing the story of 100 years of Rural Free Delivery in America


In commemoration of the 100th anniversary of Rural Free Delivery in America,
the U.S. Postal Service issued this 32-cent stamp in 1996 showing an early
delivery conveyance.

Rural Free Delivery- RFD as it is known to many was the response over a
century ago to the notion that rural Americans were as entitled to having
mail brought to their homes as were their city-dwelling counterparts. After
all, urban dwellers had been getting their mail delivered by letter carriers
since the Civil War, when Joseph Briggs, an Ohio postal clerk, thought of
the idea: he could no longer bear watching wives and families receive tragic
news of their loved ones at war in the public domain of the post office.
Rural Free Delivery is a service offered by the U.S. Postal Service to
people who live in remote parts of the country. Before RFD, the 30 million
Americans who lived in rural areas in the late 19th century had to travel to
the nearest post office to send and receive mail, and often these post
offices were miles away.

A rural mail delivery service frightened Congress, says Nancy Pope, a
curator at the National Postal Museum. "Many deemed the nation too large and
believed that such a service would bankrupt the country. It would require an
infusion of cash from Congress, new roads and more postal employees to
implement the service." After 100 years, the service is still going strong.
Rural Free Delivery became a critically important means of linking farm
families with the rest of the world.

To mark the centennial of Rural Free Delivery, the Postal Museum has
commissioned two permanent videos about the history of rural mail delivery
for its "Rural Free Delivery" gallery. The videos celebrate both the past
and present-day history of Rural Free Delivery. In addition, the museum has
opened a major exhibition about pioneers of the mail-order business.

One of the videos, To the Country, offers a comprehensive history of how RFD
was established and highlights its early years and farmers' struggles to
gain the service. The video also discusses the outpouring of support through
petitions orchestrated by the National Grange Patrons of Husbandry. It
reveals how the "good roads movement" was inspired by Rural Free Delivery
due to a need for better delivery routes, forever changing the nation's
landscape through the construction of new, solid roads.

The video also brings to light the introduction of parcel post service to
rural mail delivery in 1913, which led to the major commercial growth of the
U.S. Parcel Post. The film shows how the service, which allowed carriers to
deliver packages and parcels, along with the mail, offered a breakthrough
for the nation's farmers because they were brought closer to the rest of the
world through items such as newspapers and mail-order catalogs.

Rural Free Delivery linked Americans in small towns and rural communities,
such as Westminster, Md, shown here, to the rest of the world and forever
changed their lives.
Parcel post affected farmers' lives on a variety of levels, Pope says.
Starting with the 'Farmer's Bible'and the Montgo-mery Ward and Sears Roebuck
catalogs. These catalogs outfitted farmers' homes. Farmers could order
furniture, clothing, hardware and food that the general store did not
necessarily have. It broadened what they could have in their homes.
On another level, Pope continues, rural Americans began to receive
newspapers and magazines, whereas before, all news was local. Being able to
get a newspaper from a larger city, or getting a national magazine, brought
them closer to the national pulse of the country. For the first time,
farmers in North Dakota could read the same information as someone in the
rural areas of Florida. Rural Free Delivery, she adds, was one of several
factors that led to the good roads movement. There were other contributing
factors, Pope says, but it was important to have the support of the Post
Office Department because it had the right to refuse mail delivery until the
roads were repaired.

You even had farmers fencing off their land over a road, making travel very
difficult, she says. The postmaster was able to say that you couldn't fence
off a public road. The Post Office was instrumental in helping enforce road

Postmaster General John Wanamaker, an entrepreneur and founder of Wanamak-er
stores, sought to create a free, national rural delivery system. He
consulted with groups, such as the National Grange Patrons of Husbandry,
National Farmers Congress and State Farmers Alliance, which represented the
interests of farmers. All were in unanimous agreement that rural Americans
would benefit from and were entitled to home delivery.

Experiments for the service began in 1891 in different communities, but it
would take three succeeding postmasters and five more years of haggling
before Congress would release ample funds to test the service.

Finally, on Oct. 1, 1896, experimental service was inaugurated in the West
Virginia towns of Halltown, Uvilla and Charlestown, as well as in 29 states
thereafter, using a $60,000 congressional appropriation. Within six months,
service was established in scores of new towns, and within a few years,
thousands of applications and petitions were pouring into Congress for
additional routes to create the service.

By 1901, Rural Free Delivery had grown so rapidly that President William
McKinley, in his address to Congress that year, called it "the most striking
new development in the continued and rapid growth of the postal service."
The following year, $3.5 million was appropriated for the service, and
Congress made Rural Free Delivery a permanent feature of the Post Office
Department. Using the stories of four rural delivery carriers who work in
Carroll County, Md., the second video, "The Second Century," spotlights
contemporary service. Carriers are seen on the job and interacting with
members of their communities. The video also reveals how these rural
carriers perceive the existence of suburban communities today, which are a
product of expanded land development over the last three decades.

Rural Free Delivery sleds were used at the turn of the century to deliver
mail during the winter to the northern sections of the country. RFD carriers
had to buy their own wagons and sleds and were expected to use their own
horses, providing care and feed for them.

Things have changed so much, Pope says, but the service manages to be not
all that dissimilar from the service at the beginning of the century, where
people in the community still stop and chat with their letter carriers. It's
just a wonderful feeling. The carriers are such a part of the community, and
people still know them. Whether or not the carrier's work is still going to
resemble that of their predecessors remains to be seen.
Both videos are a collaboration of James Bruns, director of the National
Postal Museum, and Pope. Both Bruns and Pope have written extensively on the

The new, 111.5-square-meter (1,200-square-foot) permanent exhibition, titled
What's in the Mail For You! uses an impressive array of computer-driven,
state-of-the-art, hands-on displays to examine some contemporary aspects of
direct mail, the mail-order business and commercial mailers.

The exhibition looks at the roots of the mail-order catalog, a concept
pioneered, in part, by Aaron Montgomery Ward in the mid-1800s. Ward, a
prominent retailer, was among the first to conceive of the idea of goods
sold through the mail. He was eventually followed by a number of other
entrepreneurs, including L.L. Bean, who sold outdoor wear; Charles Tiffany,
a hardware provider; and W. Atlee Burpee, who, for more than a century, sold
seeds and farming tools to farmers nationwide.

Historical accounts of Ward, Bean, Tiffany and Burpee, as well as
testimonials provided by their respective customers, are re-enacted in video
hologram displays in the exhibition. The displays' overriding theme-parcel
post-revolves around the service that allowed these men to flourish and
succeed. Parcel post, coupled with rural mail service, was and still is a
significant contributor to the growth of business and communication.

Delivery systems are changing, Pope says. Parcel post and Rural Free
Delivery transformed the way rural Americans looked at and dealt with life"
These mail services had an impact far beyond the immediate communities that
benefited from the services, she says.

For being only 100 years old, Rural Free Delivery offers a rich and
interesting history about a successful convergence of business, government
and the public interest. Moreover, the service thrives and still enjoys
strong public support today, in addition to the backing of its own labor
union, the National Rural Letter Carriers' Association.

The service itself is also more widely understood today than it was a
century ago. One customer, not fully aware of a rural letter carrier's scope
of service when it was first offered, left the following note: Please feed
our chickens and water the cows and the mule in the stable. And if the bees
have swarmed, put them in a new hive. We have gone visiting.

By Daisy Ridgway
National Postal Museum

Originally published in Research Reports, No. 89, Summer 1997

Return to Research Reports No. 89 Summer 1997


This thread: