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Ozark Children Getting Mail

Ozark Children Getting Mail from RFD Box, 1940. Photographer: John Vachon. Library of Congress FSA Collection

A little while ago, I reviewed a new book entitled Ozarks RFD, by Jim Hamilton. Coincidentally, a friend recently asked me something about the old TV show, Mayberry RFD. Naturally, these events started me thinking about “RFD” itself.

Most of us know that the initials stand for “Rural Free Delivery,” which began in spots in the late 19th century to provide mail service to rural residents. Free delivery had been established in cities over 10,000 in 1863, but it wasn’t until 1895 that Congress appropriated money for some test routes in rural areas. Rural Free Delivery gradually caught on across the country, with the support of farmers’ groups driving the expansion.

Curiously enough, not all rural people supported the idea. Two main groups opposed it: small-town merchants, who rightly recognized that one effect of free mail delivery would be that farmers would make more use of mail-order companies like Montgomery Ward and Sears Roebuck; and, ironically, postmasters at the smallest post offices. The opposition from small postmasters, typically political appointees, resulted from their recognition that Rural Free Delivery could lead to the elimination of many of their positions, as indeed it did. But farmers loved it, and by 1902 it was established all over the country.

Mailboxes

Mailboxes, 1936. Photographer: Russell Lee. Library of Congress FSA Collection.

Like rural electrification a generation later, Rural Free Delivery was a huge leap forward in the betterment of rural life. Farm families could stay in touch with the wider world more easily. They had access to market information and thus were less susceptible to the manipulations of distant capitalists. They could buy more things from faraway places, subscribe to publications more easily, and participate in the national discourse more fully. Free daily postal delivery, which most of us take for granted, was a powerful enrichment to the lives of rural people.

Nowadays, of course, we hear talk about how the Postal Service has become outmoded, superseded by messenger services, private package delivery companies, and the Internet. There is even talk about letting the Postal Service go broke. But for many rural inhabitants, the daily mail is still a lifeline. Rural broadband remains a mirage in many areas, and just try to get FedEx or UPS to deliver to a rural route. It always distresses me to hear politicians talk about how much they love rural people and embrace rural values, and then to watch as they lay siege to the things that make rural life possible.