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Rural Free Delivery


Mail. In 1847 railroads carried only about 10 percent of the U.S. mail while their remainder was transported by steamboat, by stagecoach, and on horseback. In 1855 the railroads began using special mail cars and central distribution points. By the 1870s the U.S. Postal Service was the largest and one of the best in the world even though it was irregularly administered.

Urban Free Delivery. Before 1825 there was no home delivery service. In that year the postmaster general was authorized to begin delivery in cities with populations of more than ten thousand. A carrier was not paid a salary and depended on collecting a one-or-two-cent fee from the recipient, an awkward arrangement for everyone involved. This system lasted until 1863, when in the midst of the Civil War, Congress deemed that the carriers should be paid by the government. Other reforms soon followed. In 1879 Congress passed the Postal Act, which clearly defined what constituted second-class matternewspapers, authorized a one-cent-a-pound rate for such material. In the late 1870s and early 1880s stamps cost two cents for first-class domestic letters, five cents for foreign letters, and ten cents for special delivery.

The Trip to Town. Until the 1890s more than 75 percent of Americans lived in rural areas or small towns, and for these people collecting the mail often took a half-day trip to the nearest post office. Youngsters were some-times recruited to collect and deliver the mail. After home delivery had become a fixture in the cities, rural Americans began to think about the advantages of such service.

Political Hay. As early as 1879 small-town journalist John Stahl advocated rural free delivery, or RFD. In 1981, two years after his appointment by Republication president Benjamin Harrison, Postmaster General John Wanamaker, a self-made department-store magnate, began to champion RFD. Opponents believed that it was a poly to win votes, and even farm journals pointed out the high costs of such a vast undertaking. Wanamakers fellow Republications said it smacked of socialism, a charge fueled when the rural Populist movement embraced RFD as consonant with its demands for a postal savings bank and government ownership of telegraph and telephone lines.

Pro and Con. Newspapers supported RFD as a means of expanding distribution, and many farm families were excited at the prospect of receiving world news, weather forecasts, and market prices on a daily basis. The National Grange endorsed RFD in 1891, and many farmers alliances passed resolutions supporting it. With the help of Congressman James ODonnell, a Republican from Michigan and a newspaperman, Wanamaker drafted a bill to send to the Congress. They asked for $6 million, but Congress voted a mere $10,000 for experimentation. Georgia Populist Tom Watson supported RFD, and in the presidential campaign of 1892 the Republicans endorsed it. After Democrat Grover Cleveland was elected, he appointed his crony Wilson Bissell to the office of postmaster general. Bissell quickly pronounced that RFD would bankrupt the nation, ignored the $10,000 already appropriated, and declined to discuss the issue further.

A Political Football. During the 1890s the farmers list of grievances with the federal government was a long one, and the mail-delivery system was to them plain evidence of discrimination in favor of the privileged few: bankers, manufacturers, and city dwellers. In fact some urban businessmen had their mail delivered not just once but twice a day. In 1895 Congress directed Bissell to spend $20,000 on a feasibility study and to report during the next session on extending postal service throughout the country. Bissell refused to do so and then resigned. Cleveland replaced him with the well-loved William L. Wilson of West Virginia, a former Confederate soldier, university president, and congressman. The 1896 postal appropriation amounted to $40,000, and experiments were finally conducted. That year farmers hung their hopes on presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan, a Populist who had captured the Democratic nomination with his legendary Cross of Gold speech opposing the gold standard as contrary to the interests of the common man. Bryan was defeated, and the farmers had to wait another six years for the beginning of gradual implementation of RFD nationwide.


Alfred D. Chandler Jr., The Visible Hand: The Managerial Revolution in American Business (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1977);

Wayne E. Fuller, RFD: The Changing Face of Rural America (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1964).

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RURAL FREE DELIVERY (RFD), a service designed to bring mail directly to people living in rural areas, was initiated on an experimental basis in 1896. Cities had enjoyed mail service for decades, but the cost of building a delivery network in remote areas, along with opposition from local merchants and postmasters, had delayed service to rural towns. Subscription magazines and mail-order stores had become staples for a growing middle class, and their emergence put new pressures on the federal government to expand its mail services. In addition, farmers' advocacy groups, well organized in the 1890s, amplified the call for reform.

Rep. Thomas E. Watson of Georgia, a friend of the Farmers' Alliance and vice presidential candidate for the Populists in 1896, was the author of the first free rural delivery legislation, enacted in 1893 and providing $10,000 for an experiment. (An earlier bill, based on the proposal of Postmaster Gen. John Wanamaker, would have provided $6 million, but the House Committee on Post Offices and Post Roads deemed it too expensive and killed it.) Opposition to RFD remained fierce. Service was delayed three years because of the intransigence of the new postmaster general, Wilson S. Bissell.

Congress had added $20,000 in 1894 and directed the postmaster general to make a report. The search for a postmaster general willing to start the experiment caused further delays. In the meantime, petitions poured in to Congress from local and state organizations of the National Grange and from other organizations of farmers. In 1896, Congress added another $10,000 appropriation, and Postmaster Gen. William L. Wilson, Bissell's successor, decided to test five rural routes in his home state of West Virginia. Between the autumn of 1896 and the spring of 1897, mail flowed along eighty-two pioneer routes, scattered through twenty-eight states and the territory of Arizona. Wilson laid the first routes in both sparse and populous areas, to better gauge the cost of the project. He estimated that extending the service nationally would cost between $40 million and $50 million.

After Wilson left office, Perry S. Heath, the first assistant postmaster general, and August W. Machen, superintendent of free delivery, adroit politicians who favored extension of the system, began active promotion of RFD. Securing an appropriation of $150,000 in 1898, they announced that any group of farmers wanting a mail route need only petition their congressman for it, sending a description of their communities and their roads. Congressmen were overwhelmed with petitions. In 1902, there were not more than eight thousand routes in the nation; three years later there were thirty-two thousand.

By 1915, the number of rural mail carriers was 43,718, as against 33,062 city mail carriers. Routes continued to be organized until the mid-1920s, and in 1925 the number of rural mail carriers reached 45,315. Afterward, consolidation of routes based on the use of automobiles brought sharp declines. In 1970, there were 31,346 rural routes extending 2,044,335 miles, or an average of about 65 miles per route.

Rural free delivery—by bringing daily delivery of newspapers with coverage of national and world events, changing fashions, and market quotations and by delivering mail-order catalogs—was of major importance in breaking down rural isolation. The rural free delivery system also contributed to the development of a parcel post system and played an important part in the good roads movement. True to some of the dire predictions of its early opponents, however, RFD cut into the profits of main street retailers; brought an exotic and sometimes threatening urban culture into rural living rooms; and added to the growing sense that residents of small towns lived at the margins of a consumer economy dominated by America's biggest cities.


Barron, Hal S. Mixed Harvest: The Second Great Transformation in the Rural North, 1870–1930. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1997.

Fuller, Wayne E. RFD: The Changing Face of Rural America. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1964.

Gladys L.Baker/a. r.

See alsoAdvertising ; Mail-Order Houses ; Post Roads ; Postal Service, United States ; Rural Life .