The first experimental routes for the rural free delivery (RFD) of mail were established by the United States Post Office Department 125 years ago, on October 1, 1896. The first routes were in West Virginia – from Charles Town, Halltown and Uvilla. The experimental routes were in West Virginia because Postmaster General William Lyne Wilson was from the state.
Prior to being appointed Postmaster General by President Grover Cleveland, Wilson had served six terms in the U.S. House of Representatives (1882-95). He served as Postmaster General from 1895-97. After leaving the government Wilson was named President of Washington and Lee University.
Origins of RFD
Rural-area residents had to travel to a designated post office to pick up their mail or pay for delivery by a private carrier until the late 19th century. John Wanamaker, owner of a major department store in Philadelphia, served as Postmaster General prior to Wilson. Wanamaker was an ardent advocate of RFD, as were thousands of Americans who lived in rural communities around the nation.
In 1800, 94% of the U.S. population lived in rural areas of the nation. That dropped to 65% by 1890, and 60% by 1900. However, although the percentage was declining it was still the majority of the U.S. population.
Free delivery of mail in U.S cities did not begin until 1868. The Post Office Department first experimented with RFD on October 1, 1891 to determine its viability. It began with five routes covering 10 miles, in the towns listed above in Jefferson County, West Virginia.
Adopting a nationwide RFD system was opposed by many. Some opposed the proposal because of its cost. However, private express carriers thought “inexpensive 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 or that mail order merchants selling through catalogs, such as Sears, Roebuck and Company, might present significant competition.”
The nation’s oldest agricultural organization – the National Grange of the Order of Patrons of Husbandry (the Grange) was a proponent for nationwide RFD. Fayette County, Indiana lays claim as RFD’s birthplace; Milton Trusler, a leading farmer in the county, began advocating the idea in 1880. Trusler was also president of the Indiana Grange; he spoke to farmers statewide frequently about RFD until it became a reality in 1896.
The United States Post Office Department started RFD experiments in 1890. But in 1893 U.S. Rep. Thomas E. Watson (D-GA) succeeded in getting legislation that mandated RFD passed by Congress. Implementation of nationwide RFD began in 1896; it was a massive undertaking and took until 1902 to fully implement. RFD remains the “biggest and most expensive endeavor” ever instituted by the U.S. postal service.
RFD meant that rural families had easier, faster methods to communicate beyond their farms; they could use RFD to connect to the world.
In 1896, 82 rural routes were put into operation. By 1901, the mileage covered by RFD carriers had increased to over 100,000; the cost was $1,750,321 (nearly $64 million today) and over 37,000 carriers were employed to deliver RFD mail. By 1910, the mileage was just under 1 million miles; the cost was $36,915,000, and 40,997 carriers were employed. Parcel post delivery began in 1913; this caused another boom in rural deliveries. Parcel post service meant that national newspapers and magazines could be delivered. Parcel post also was responsible for millions of dollars of sales in mail-order merchandise to rural customers. By 1930, over 43,000 rural routes served about 6,875,321 families (nearly 25.5 persons), at a cost of $106,338,341.
RFD service used a network of rural routes (known as post roads) traveled by carriers to deliver mail to and pick it up from roadside mailboxes.
Hundreds of years ago, a post road was designated for the transportation of postal mail. In the past, only major cities had a post house and the roads used by post riders or mail coaches to carry mail among them were particularly important. Over time, post roads were considered the equivalent of a main road, royal road or highway.
In Great Britain’s North American colonies, post roads developed as the primary method of communicating information across and between the colonies. The Articles of Confederation (adopted after the Revolutionary War) authorized the new national government to create post offices but not post roads.
The adoption of the U.S. Constitution superseded the Articles of Confederation and rectified the omission of post roads. In Article I, Section Eight, known as the Postal Clause, it specifically authorizes Congress the enumerated power “to establish post offices and post roads.” This was generally interpreted liberally, to include all public highways. U.S. Supreme Court justice Joseph Story defended the broad interpretation that had become dominant in his influential Commentaries on the Constitution of the United States, which was published in 1833.
With RFD and the spread of postal service, the distinction given to a post road was blurred.
RFD led to better roads
At about the same time that rural free delivery was beginning in the United States, the earliest automobiles were beginning to proliferate. As RFD spread, the condition of the roads that the mail was carried on became more of an issue. As noted in a recent FreightWaves Classics article, the roads outside of the nation’s major cities were primarily made of dirt and in poor condition. Well into the 20th century, calling them “roads” was a compliment. They were often little more than trails that were muddy in the rain and dusty the remainder of the time. Any long trip by automobile required not only time, patience, and ingenuity, but tire-patching equipment, tools, spare parts, and emergency food and fuel.
U.S. Rep. Dorsey Shackleford (D-MO) chaired the House Committee on Roads from 1913 to 1919. Shackleford introduced the Rural Post Roads Act of 1916 on January 6, 1916. It was signed into law by President Woodrow Wilson on July 11, 1916.
The legislation was debated in the House at great length. The bill mandated “that the United States shall aid the States in the construction of rural post roads.”
Republican House member Edward Everts Browne of Wisconsin spoke in favor of the legislation, stating,
“Our road system is wholly inadequate to meet the demands of this 20th century civilization.” He made the argument that the federal government depended on the mail service and was therefore obligated to equip its mail carriers. He also stated that the effect of the bill “would extend well beyond more efficient mail delivery.” He brought up the debates over internal improvements that were made during the administration of President Andrew Jackson – the question of whether to use federal funds to pay for what would otherwise appear to be state and local concerns. Browne made the point that improved roads would generate more trade which, ultimately, would benefit the entire country.
After six days of debate, the bill passed the House by a vote of 283-81 on January 25, 1916. The U.S. Senate made a number of amendments to the bill, so the two houses of Congress convened a conference committee to iron out the differences. When President Wilson signed it, the law appropriated $85 million to build roads in rural locales and in national forests under the direction of the Secretary of Agriculture and state highway departments.
This 1916 legislation was the first federal legislation that appropriated federal funds for roads around the nation, and set the precedent for all future road/highway legislation.