R.F.D. – Rural Free Delivery was, in its day, one of the great social equalizers bringing to rural America something that had been enjoyed by urban America for years, delivery of the mail. John Wanamaker, of the Philadelphia Department Store fame, who served as Postmaster General from 1889 to 1893 had the very logical idea that it made more sense for one person to deliver mail than for 50 people to ride into town to collect their mail. He cited business logic and social philosophy as reasons to give rural dwellers free delivery
Of equal significance was the political pressure of the National Grange, National Farmers’ Congress, and State Farmers’ Alliance advocating for the farmers and rural America. The actual implementation of Rural Free Delivery came about under the administration of William L. Wilson, Postmaster from 1895 to 1897. On October 1, 1896, rural free delivery (RFD) service began in Charles Town, Halltown, and Uvilla in West Virginia, Postmaster General Wilson’s home state.
Since the RFD carriers simply delivered mail and picked it up to take to the post office in town, these early letters do not carry postal markings to identify them as RFD mail.
However, in August 1900 carriers began marking the mail picked up on their routes with pencil cancels. Within a few years carriers were outfitted with rubber stamps bearing R.F.D. the post office town name and the date plus a bar cancel and a number (known as a Doane Cancel). Use of these cancelling devices was discontinued by June of 1903.
Postal bureaucracy was simpler in those days, but just as important, as the charge to be responsible for the mail was to be taken seriously. Here is a page from the Form 1977 of June, 1913 entitled INSTRUCTIONS TO APPLICANTS FOR THE RURAL CARRIER EXAMINATION. Included is a listing of the possible reasons for not being considered to be admitted to the exam, including a person not a citizen or not owing allegiance to the United States, handicapped persons including insanity, epilepsy, and TB, or one addicted to the habitual use of intoxicating beverages to excess.
Those persons chosen to take the examination and passing signed a CERTIFICATE OF THE OATH OF MAIL CONTRACTOR AND CARRIERS required by Act of Congress of March 5, 1874
Tendering ones resignation from the post of rural letter carrier was done with the Post Office Department form 2520-P which was mailed as official Business bearing penalty mail postage exemption.
Finally, here is a photocopy of a letter from the Postmaster General in 1897 to a Wm.B. Gaitree designating Mr. Gaitree a special agent for the experiment of rural free delivery. Payment is to be $5.00 per day plus up to $4.00 per day for expenses. Employment will cease with the expiration of the special appropriation intended to fund the experiments in rural free delivery.
History is littered with postal and other enterprises that foundered on the rocks of an administration change caused by a different party taking office, RFD survived and expanded beyond humble beginning in West Virginia until in 2012, nearly 41 million homes and businesses were served by the Postal Service’s rural letter carriers.