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FreightWaves Classics: Free rural delivery helped improve roads

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The first experimental routes for rural free delivery (RFD) mail were established by the United States Postal 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 served six terms in the United States House of Representatives (1882-1895). He was Postmaster General from 1895 to 1897. After leaving government, Wilson was appointed president of the University of Washington and Lee.

An American letter carrier delivers mail in rural areas free of charge.  (Photo: National Postal Museum / Smithsonian Institution)
An American letter carrier delivers mail in rural areas free of charge. (Photo: National Postal Museum / Smithsonian Institution)

Origins of RFD

Residents of rural areas had to go 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 department store in Philadelphia, was Postmaster General before Wilson. Wanamaker was a strong supporter of RFD, as were thousands of Americans who lived in rural communities across the country.

Background

In 1800, 94% of the American population lived in rural areas of the country. This percentage fell to 65% in 1890 and to 60% in 1900. However, although the percentage declined, it was still the majority of the American population.

Free mail delivery to American cities did not begin until 1868. The Post Office first experimented with RFD on October 1, 1891 to determine its viability. It started with five routes spanning 10 miles, through the towns listed above in Jefferson County, West Virginia.

One of the first RFD carriers, his cart and his horse.  (Photo: National Postal Museum / Smithsonian Institution)
One of the first RFD carriers, his cart and his horse. (Photo: National Postal Museum / Smithsonian Institution)

The adoption of a nationwide RFD system has been contested by many. Some opposed the proposal because of its cost. However, private express carriers believed that “inexpensive rural mail delivery would wipe out their business, and many traders in the city feared that the service would reduce weekly visits by farming families to the city to obtain goods and merchandise or that mail order merchants selling by catalog, such as Sears, Roebuck and Company, could present significant competition.

The oldest agricultural organization in the country – the Grange Nationale de l’Ordre des Patrons de l’Elevage (La Grange) was a supporter of the RFD nationwide. Fayette County, Indiana claims RFD birthplace status; Milton Trusler, a prominent county farmer, began championing the idea in 1880. Trusler was also president of Indiana Grange; he frequently spoke to farmers statewide about the RFD until it became a reality in 1896.

An RFD porter, his horse and his carriage.  (Photo: unionmills.org)
An RFD porter, his horse and his carriage. (Photo: unionmills.org)

The US Postal Department initiated RFD experiments in 1890. But in 1893, US Representative Thomas E. Watson (D-GA) succeeded in pushing through Congress legislation making the RFD mandatory. Nationwide implementation of RFD began in 1896; it was a massive undertaking and it took until 1902 to be fully implemented. RFD remains “the largest and most expensive company” ever established by the US Postal Service.

RFD meant that rural families had easier and faster methods of communicating beyond their farms; they could use RFD to connect to the world.

In 1896, 82 rural roads were put into service. By 1901, the mileage traveled by RFD carriers had risen to over 100,000; the cost was $ 1,750,321 (almost $ 64 million today) and over 37,000 carriers were employed to deliver RFD mail. In 1910, the mileage was just under 1 million miles; the cost was $ 36,915,000 and 40,997 carriers were employed. The delivery of postal parcels began in 1913; this caused another boom in rural deliveries. The parcel post service meant that national newspapers and magazines could be delivered. Parcel post was also responsible for millions of dollars in mail order sales to rural customers. In 1930, more than 43,000 rural roads served approximately 6,875,321 families (nearly 25.5 people), at a cost of $ 106,338,341.

A family in Westminster, Maryland receives mail on the first day of the free rural delivery service in Carroll County.  (Photo: National Postal Museum / Smithsonian Institution)
A family in Westminster, Maryland receives mail on the first day of the free rural delivery service in Carroll County.
(Photo: National Postal Museum / Smithsonian Institution)

Postal routes

The RFD service used a network of rural routes (called postal routes) traveled by carriers to deliver mail and collect it from roadside letterboxes.

Hundreds of years ago, a postal route was designated for the transport of postal mail. In the past, only large cities had a post office, and the routes used by postmen or post buses to transport mail between them were particularly important. Over time, postal routes were considered to be the equivalent of a main road, a royal road or a highway.

In the North American colonies of Great Britain, postal routes became the primary method of communicating information between the colonies. The Articles of Confederation (adopted after the War of Independence) authorized the new national government to establish post offices but not post routes.

The passage of the US Constitution replaced the Articles of Confederation and rectified the omission of postal routes. In Article I, Section Eight, known as the Postal Clause, it specifically authorizes Congress the enumerated power “to establish post offices and postal routes.” This has generally been interpreted liberally, to include all public roads. United States Supreme Court Justice Joseph Story defended the broad interpretation that had become dominant in his influential comments on the United States Constitution, published in 1833.

With the RFD and the generalization of the postal service, the distinction given to a postal route is blurred.

Customers in Sterlingworth, Wisconsin surround their carrier Rural Free Delivery. (Photo: National Postal Museum / Smithsonian Institution)
Customers in Sterlingworth, Wisconsin surround their carrier Rural Free Delivery.
(Photo: National Postal Museum / Smithsonian Institution)

RFD has led to better roads

Around the same time that free rural delivery was starting in the United States, the first automobiles were starting to proliferate. As RFD spread, the condition of the roads on which mail was transported became more problematic. As noted in a recent FreightWaves Classics article, the roads outside of major cities across the country were mostly dirt and in poor condition. At the start of the 20th century, calling them “roads” was a compliment. It was often just muddy trails in the rain and dusty the rest of the time. Any long automobile trip required not only time, patience and ingenuity, but also tire repair equipment, tools, spare parts, as well as emergency food and fuel.

US Representative 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 enacted by President Woodrow Wilson on July 11, 1916 .

The cover of an American publication.  (Image: Library of Congress)
The cover of an American publication. (Image: Library of Congress)

The bill was debated at length in the House. The bill demanded “that the United States help states build rural postal routes.”

Republican House Member Edward Everts Browne of Wisconsin spoke in favor of the legislation, saying:
“Our road network is totally inadequate to meet the demands of this 20th century civilization. He argued that the federal government depended on the postal service and was therefore obliged to equip its letter carriers. He also said the effect of the bill “would extend far beyond more efficient mail delivery.” He referred to debates over internal improvements made during President Andrew Jackson’s administration – whether to use federal funds to pay for what would otherwise appear to be state and local concerns. Browne stressed that improving the roads would generate more trade which ultimately would benefit the whole country.

One of the first RFD carriers and his automobile.  This photo appeared in a 1905 issue of Popular Mechanics.
One of the first RFD carriers and his automobile. This photo appeared in a 1905 issue of Popular Mechanics.

After six days of debate, the bill was passed by the House by a vote of 283-81 on January 25, 1916. The United States Senate made a number of amendments to the bill, so both houses Congress convened a conference committee to iron out the differences. When President Wilson signed it, the law allocated $ 85 million to build roads in rural areas and national forests under the direction of the Secretary of Agriculture and state road departments.

This 1916 legislation was the first federal legislation that allocated federal funds for highways across the country, and set the precedent for all future highway laws.

American postal routes began before the American Revolution.  (Photo: SPUI / wikicommons)
American postal routes began before the American Revolution. (Photo: SPUI / wikicommons)


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