Rural Free Delivery Brought Mail to Rural Communities

'Neither Rain nor Snow nor Dark of Night' kept rural mail carriers from delivery the mail


| October 1999



Pulling a wagon mounted on sled runners

Pulling a wagon mounted on sled runners

Every day (except Sundays and holidays), those of us who live in the country walk to the mailbox and collect our mail. The rural mail carrier delivers letters, packages, magazines, and picks up any mail we want to send, all free of charge to us. Postage fees are the same whether a piece of mail is delivered to a mailbox 20 miles from town, or picked up at the Post Office.

We accept the daily arrival of the mailman as a matter of course, even complaining when he (or just as often, now, she) is late. Very few people remember the days before Rural Free Delivery. One man who did, William Groves, wrote in the 1960s: "I was playing under the apple tree with my toys when I noticed a man in a buggy driving a team of horses along our rutted, dusty country road. The stranger stopped his team at the corner of our driveway, took some papers out of a sack, and deposited them in a tin box, which my father only that morning had nailed to a convenient post. I ran into the house and told my mother about the exciting occurrence. My mother informed me that the stranger in the buggy was the mailman. 'From now on, he will bring our mail from town every morning,' she explained. Thus rural free delivery was born in our community."

Early American colonists who wished to send a letter between far-flung colonies had to hire an intrepid woodsman to carry their messages through the trackless wilderness between the settlements. Governor Winthrop of Connecticut pushed for the development of a Post Road between Boston and New York. In January of 1673, the first post rider took two weeks to travel the 250 miles from Manhattan Island to Boston with a packet of mail. This link was often cut due to troubles with the New York Dutch and raiding Indians.

Ben Franklin became postmaster general of the northern colonies in 1753 and things began to happen. He extended and improved post roads, put the post riders on a schedule, and started overnight service between New York and Philadelphia, while turning a profit for the Crown.

Letters and newspapers could now be regularly sent between cities, but weren't delivered to homes. After the Revolution, the new U.S. Government set up a Post Office Department that was much the same as the pre-Revolutionary system. Mail was transported only between post offices, and people had to visit the office to get their mail. It was said that at some of the smaller post offices, the incoming mail-bags were dumped on tables and people rummaged through the stack looking for their letters.

In a few of the larger cities, letters could be delivered to a customer's home for two cents per item during the early 1800s. Starting in July 1863, free city delivery began in 49 cities with the letter carriers walking their routes seven days a week, regardless of weather. City folks loved the new service, but rural dwellers began to grumble to their congressmen. These rural congressmen proposed free delivery in their areas, but cost and the opposition of small-town postmasters, who were political appointees of the party in power and thus had some clout, kept the proposals in limbo for many years. Farmers continued to receive their mail only when they went to town to pick it up.