Rural Free Delivery
"Rural Free Delivery service is no longer in the experimental stage; it has become fixed policy."
-President Theodore Roosevelt, Annual Address, December 1902
If you live in a city, you very likely have your mail delivered to your door every day. If you live in a small town, you might walk to the post office to get your mail. If you live in the country you probably walk to the mailbox near the road to pick up your mail. But getting the mail wasn’t always that easy. Before rural free delivery (RFD) people who lived in the country had to hitch up a team of horses and travel over dirt roads that might be very muddy or snow-packed.
Employing a person to deliver the mail in rural areas was once a radical idea. Most people believed it would be too expensive and complicated for the federal government to provide this type of mail service. But by the end of the 19th century many people wanted mail service to farm homes. The 1910 census showed that Iowa was the only state in the country losing population. Any changes in rural life that might keep people living on productive farms were welcomed. As Iowa historian Roy Atwood states, “Great expectations existed for rural free delivery to perhaps cure this rural isolation and loneliness.” People thought free mail delivery to farms might encourage people to stay on the farms.
Early Postal System
During the 1700s and 1800s postal carriers traveled long distances on rough roads to scattered post offices. Letters took a long time to reach their destination. From Philadelphia a letter took 32 days to reach Kentucky and 44 days to reach Tennessee! Other countries such as England, Germany, France and Italy all had better rural postal services than the United States.
Gradually, the government tried to improve mail services for town customers. But farmers were left mostly on their own. Farmers wanted postal contact for business matters. But farm families also depended on letters from family and friends to help cure their loneliness.
In 1873 postmaster John Stahl suggested free rural delivery to individual farms. But it was much later before the federal government seriously considered the idea. Congressman James O’Donnell of Michigan introduced in 1894 a bill to the U.S. House of Representative’s Committee on Post Offices for $6 million to experiment with Rural Free Delivery (RFD). Soon after the bill was introduced the congressional committee turned it down. As one committee member commented, “The time may come when we shall have rural free delivery... that time has not arrived.”
By August 1895 O’Donnell convinced Congress of a trial period and asked for $10,000 to experiment with rural delivery. Farmers felt they deserved some support from their government. Some believed the federal government had turned from supporting farmers and workers to giving government support (subsidies) to railroads and banks. Farmers’ protests resulted in the RFD experimental funding being increased to $20,000 in 1895, then $40,000 in June to 1896, to finally $50,000 in 1898. In the fall of 1896 through the spring of 1897, 82 pioneer routes were established in 28 states. By 1899 Iowa had established 23 routes.
The plan was that each route would be 25 miles long and serve 100 families (about 4 families per mile). But all this planning was hard to put into place, especially in very rural areas of the Great Plains. Even in Iowa, a state since 1846, distances between farms could be considerable.
An Iowa Route
One route in Iowa during the early days of RFD is a good example of the complex, twisted routes. This route extended from Eldora “to the Frank school to the county line, down another line to Schoolhouse No. 9, over to the southwest corner of Section 21, over to Finster’s Corner, and back to the post office” for a total of over 25 miles serving 71 families. This long Iowa route was still short of the ideal 100 families. Kansas and Nebraska routes were even longer per carrier.
At the start of the 20th century over 24,000 rural routes were established in the United States, and Rural Free Delivery had become a permanent government service by 1902. Iowa had 292 rural routes then. The new mail service not only brought bills directly to farmers’ homes, but more importantly newspapers, letters, and packages from Sears and Montgomery Ward. Rural free delivery also brought to Iowa farmers market reports, weather forecasts, railroad schedules and political news. According to a Davenport post office official, much of the rural mail was letters between women. Some people even thought that RFD may have helped keep young people on the farm. Or did the availability of products from catalogs only add to “the lure of the city” for young rural kids?
By 1926 the number of routes in Iowa consisted of 2,221 with the total mileage at 61,260. Only Illinois, Missouri, Ohio and Texas had more routes. Only Illinois, Ohio and Texas had more mileage than Iowa’s rural routes.
In 1898 over 2,753,581 pieces of mail were delivered on RFD, an average of 18,000 per route. By 1903 over 40,932 pieces of mail were delivered per route. By 1929 a grand total of 4,441,656,000 items were delivered on RFD.
In 1897 Postmaster James A. Gary expressed his beliefs about Rural Free Delivery in this way, “It would be difficult to point to any expenditure of public money which has been more generously appreciated by the people or which has conferred greater benefit in proportion to the amount expended.”
Rural Delivery Brings Changes
Still, Rural Free Delivery proved more complicated for rural communities than originally expected. Land values did increase for land that was located next to mail routes. Iowa land sometimes increased $2 to $5 per acre for land located on a mail route. But development of routes led to the closings of many fourth class post offices in scattered small villages. In 1909 Iowa lost 207 post offices along with most of the general stores located next to them. Iowans storeowners also lost a great deal of business to mail order companies. Iowa’s small town business owners started “trade at home” campaigns to compete with Sears and Montgomery Ward. They purchased ads in the local newspapers encouraging shoppers to buy from their local stores.
Some historians believe that rural free delivery actually increased depopulation and rural decline—the very problems rural free delivery was supposed to solve.
- Roy Alden Atwood, “Routes of Discontent: Cultural Contradiction of Rural Free Delivery in Southeastern Iowa, 1899-1917,” The Annals of Iowa 48 (1986): 264-273.
- Cook, Thomas L. The Development of the Rural Free Delivery Movement in the United States. Thesis: Iowa State College, 1927.
- Fuller, Wayne E. RFD: The Changing Face of Rural America. Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press, 1964.
- Schwieder, Dorothy. Iowa: The Middle Land. Ames, Iowa: Iowa State University Press, 1996.