The U.S. Postal Inspection Service

Rural Free Delivery

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Map of the first Rural Free Delivery route organized on a county-wide basis. The route was in Carroll County, Maryland.

Rural Free Delivery (RFD) was established on an experimental basis in 1896. In 1902, it became an official part of the Post Office Department’s services. Postal inspectors were critical to the service’s success. The Department assigned inspectors temporary duty as “special agents,” a term that had been synonymous with postal inspectors in the mid-19th century, responsible for determining the practicality and even design of RFD routes in areas under consideration for the new service. A number of factors went into an inspector’s decision, such as creating routes so that carriers did not end up using the same road twice in the same day, each route had to reach at least 100 families, and the roads had to be passible throughout the year.

When agents had made their determinations, they would send their notes and route maps back to Department headquarters in Washington, DC, where the final decision was made on granting the route. Getting a route started did not end an inspector’s duties. They inspected the routes twice a year to make sure that everything (carriers, mailboxes, and roads) met the Department’s specifications. As Postal Laws and Regulations Applicable to the Rural Mail Service noted in 1915, “Postmasters, clerks, employees, contractors, and others associated with the postal service are subordinate to post-office inspectors.”(1)

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Photograph of a family in Westminster, Maryland, receiving mail on the first day of Rural Free Delivery service in Carroll county.

Through the second half of the 19th century and well into the 20th, the Post Office Department was more than just the nation’s primary communication medium. It was also a political patronage machine. Parties in power nationally often took advantage of the breadth and depth of the Post Office Department to name political friends to postal jobs. Maneuvering through the RFD route assignments was a difficult job made trickier by superiors in Washington, DC, pushing for one route over another as a “thank you” to local political supporters.

Locals anxious to be added to a RFD route were excited at the arrival of the inspectors in their towns. Newspapers often noted such arrivals. Once in the area, inspectors could find themselves inundated with leaders from neighboring communities that wished to be included on new routes.

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Postcard captioned, “Our Mail at Sterlingworth, Lauderdale Lakes, near Elhorn, Wis.” The image shows rural patrons crowding a Rural Free Delivery wagon, hoping for mail.
  1. United States Post Office Department, Postal Laws and Regulations Applicable to the Rural Mail Service (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1915) p. 2.