October 1896: Rural Free Delivery

This Month in North Carolina History

On the 23rd of October, 1896, J. B. Goodnight of the United States Post Office set out from China Grove, in Rowan County, North Carolina to deliver the mail. A routine task today, in 1896 Goodnight was taking part in an experiment which would launch the postal service on the biggest and most expensive endeavor in its history and help change the life of rural America.

At the turn of the twentieth century some parts of American mail service had taken on a recognizably modern form. The old system of charging postage based on the number of pages in a letter and the distance it had to travel had been replaced by a flat rate fee. Instead of the receiver of the letter paying the cost, the sender of the letter paid the postage in the form of stamps. For a few pennies one could send a letter from border to border or coast to coast, and, if you lived in a city of 10,000 or more, the mail would be delivered to your door. Postal service in rural areas in the United States, however, had changed little. Postal routes extended outward from towns and cites to small rural post offices which were often part of a store. Many farmers could not pick up their mail more than once or twice a week. and resented their urban cousins who got mail delivered daily to their home. Unhappy farmers complained to their congressmen, and Congress put pressure on the Post Office. In 1896 the Post Office agreed to try an experiment in which mail would be delivered to rural residents over a total of forty-four special routes scattered among twenty-nine states. West Virginia had the first experimental route established, and the second route was created in Rowan County, North Carolina, part of the district of Congressman John Steele Henderson, chairman of the Post Offices and Post Roads Committee of the House of Representatives. In his annual report for 1897 Postmaster General James A. Gary declared the experiment in rural postal service a success. Mail was being delivered daily to enthusiastic recipients. Over the next few years Rural Free Delivery extended to all parts of the country. In the end it was the most expensive program ever created by the United States Postal Service and one of the most popular. Ironically, considering it got the second RFD route in the country, North Carolina was initially less excited about the service than other states. Carrier Goodnight of China Grove complained that farmers on his route were suspicious and unwilling to accept the service. China Grove’s postmaster, J. C. Deaton, reported that he had to “beg the people to let us deliver their mail.” As late as 1901 there were only 11 RFD routes in North Carolina compared with 42 in South Carolina, 93 in Georgia and 142 in Tennessee. In the end, however, Rural Free Delivery was accepted with enthusiasm and, along with the improvement in rural roads that it helped foster, RFD broke down the isolation of rural North Carolina.

Fuller, Wayne E. The American Mail; Enlarger of the Common Life. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1972.

Scheele, Carl B. A short history of the mail service. Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1970.

History of the North Carolina Rural Letter Carriers’ Association. [North Carolina ?: The Association, 1965?]