As I was picking up the mail from our mailbox the other day, I got to thinking about the advantage of having mail delivered to us. In checking through the internet I have found that, according to Google, nearly 4.1 million people, or 66 percent of the American population, lived in rural areas in 1891. It seems that town and city dwellers enjoyed home delivery of mail since 1863, but the rural inhabitants were required to get their mail at the post office. This meant a trip to the nearest town with a post office. And it would sometimes be weeks before a trip to town was made and that was by horse drawn wagon or horseback.
Digging deeper, I found that the postmaster general from 1880 to 1893 was John Wanamaker and he was considered one of the “most innovative and energetic” men to ever be head of the Post Office Department, which was the predecessor of the United States Postal Service. His thinking was that it was “more sense for one person to deliver mail than for 50 people to ride into town to collect their mail” so he suggested rural customers should receive free delivery. However, this change took time.
In March of 1893 a bill appropriated $10,000 to experiment with this rural free delivery. However, nothing was done at this time. On March 1, 1895, the then-Postmaster General William L. Wilson, although agreeing with those who opposed the idea of rural free delivery and thinking it was impractical, agreed to attempt a trial experiment if Congress would make money available. Congress appropriated $20,000 for the experiment and in 1896 another $10,000, which was enough for the Post Office Department to begin the rural free delivery experiment. Thus, rural free delivery began in October 1896 in Charles Town, Halltown and Uvilla, West Virginia. Within a year, 29 states were involved with 44 routes. And in December 1899, the Post Office Department extended this experiment across the entire country.
The backing of the National Grange, National Farmers Congress and Save Farmers Alliance added to the success of this endeavor.
Roads began improving in the 1900s probably because delivery of mail required roads in reasonable condition in order for the mail to be delivered. Mail boxes, put up by farmers, ranged from lard pails, syrup cans, old boxes that had held soap, cigars and apples. In 1901, the Post Office set standards for mailboxes:
— The boxes must be made of metal, 6x8x18 inches and weather proof.
— Boxes should be constructed so they could be fastened to a post at a height convenient for the carrier without alighting.
— Keys for customer’s boxes should be easy to use by a carrier with “one gloved hand in the severest weather.”
The boxes could be square, oblong, circular or semicircular but had to protect mail from rain, snow and dust. I’m sure those first mail handlers delivering to the rural communities would be surprised and impressed with the types and styles of mailboxes that line our rural roads today..
Besides delivering mail, these mailmen sold stamps and money orders, registered letters, actually acting as small post offices. They could deliver packages weighing up to four pounds but nothing heavier. In 1911 this was changed to allow larger packages to be delivered. Eventually over 41 million homes and businesses were served by the Postal Service rural letter carriers.
On March 17, 2022, the National Rural Letter Carriers’ Association membership ratified a new three-year labor contract with the Postal Service. The contract covers more than 132,000 rural carriers represented by the union.
A big thanks and hats off to these men and women who deliver mail to rural residents of the United States. Monday through Saturday mail delivery is something we have come to accept and take for granted. But our ancestors were probably excited the first time they had mail delivered to their home and they didn’t have to wait until they were making a trip to town to pick up their mail at the closest town with a post office. Yes, mail service is becoming more expensive, but it is convenient and handy and something we need to appreciate every day we pick up mail from our individual mailbox.
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