October 1996 | Volume 47, Issue 6
On October 1 the Post Office inaugurated rural free delivery (RFD) in the area surrounding three West Virginia towns. For years the Post Office had been putting branches in increasingly remote locations, but many backcountry residents still had to travel long distances to send or pick up mail. Farmers envied the convenience of daily delivery that city dwellers had enjoyed since 1863, and with their growing political prominence, they were able to secure congressional appropriations and overcome bureaucratic inertia and an economic panic. Postmaster General William L. Wilson honored his hometown of Charles Town by making it one of three pilot sites, and the local carrier sneaked out a few days early to make sure he would have nearby Uvilla and Halltown beaten.
Within a year eighty-two rural routes had been established in twenty-eight states and the Arizona Territory. Carriers rode on horseback or in carts or buggies; where roads were smooth enough, bicycles could be used. Besides their statutory function, they often served as messengers or deliverymen and played an important role by spreading information and gossip in areas with no telephone service. The system got an enormous boost in 1898, when the Post Office announced that any group of farmers served by adequate roads could qualify for service by submitting a petition. The policy spurred on road improvements in many areas. A year later RFD had spread to all but four states. By 1902 some eight thousand rural routes were in operation, and three years later the figure had quadrupled. RFD picked up the pace of rural life, giving farmers regular access to daily newspapers for the first time. The mail-order business also flourished.
Yet even as RFD broke the isolation of rural dwellers, it weakened ties with their neighbors. Postal administrators realized that large areas could be served from a single point, and as routes proliferated, many small post offices were eliminated, with the total number declining steadily after 1901. Automobiles accelerated this process of consolidation, and before long the crossroads post office/general store had been eclipsed as a rustic meeting place. Like today’s Internet, RFD opened new worlds while dissolving some of the bonds that had held the old one together.