RFD: To the Country

RFD: To the Country explores the history of Rural Free Delivery. Beginning in 1896, this service helped put rural Americans in better touch with the world.

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Today we take daily mail service for granted. But in the 1890s, it was an event when the carrier brought a letter to your front door. Unfortunately, home delivery was confined to the cities and two out of three Americans lived in rural areas.

It's hard to imagine just how isolated rural Americans felt a century ago. There was no radio, no daily newspaper, often little contact with the world outside. Farmers were expected to pick up their mail in town, winter and summer. When the weather turned bad, it might be weeks between visits. Yet farmers paid the same postage city folks paid.

At meetings of the National Grange, "the farmers best friend," voices began to be raised. It wasn't fair! Responding to pressures from the Grange and sympathetic postal officials, Congress finally appropriated enough money in 1896 to experiment with Rural Free Delivery in several communities.

RFD caught on immediately. And though some senators complained that it would bankrupt the nation, petitions requesting new mail routes poured into the Congress. And all those farmers could vote. In 1902, Rural Free Delivery became a permanent part of the postal system.

But it wasn't easy. Less than a hundred years ago, most of rural America was connected by only the rudest of roads. Yet rural carriers, who had to buy and maintain their own vehicles, were among the first to invest in the new, "horseless carriages." a 25 mile route could take a long time on roads like these! Postmasters had the power to refuse delivery to areas with impassable roads. So the farmers organized to build new ones, helping to spark a "good roads movement." Its impact was felt all over the nation. Still the Postal Service would carry only small packages. Giant express companies with powerful allies in Congress controlled parcel delivery. The fight was long and bitter but popular sentiment won again, and Parcel Post service began in 1913.

RFD with Parcel Post transformed rural America. It brought the farmers closer to the markets, and gave them more control over when to sell their crops. RFD enhanced the value of their lands too. But it did more than that. By bringing farm families newspapers, magazines, and mail-order catalogs, it brought the world to their door. Life in rural America wasn't isolated anymore.