Good Roads and Good Bye?

13-cent Rural Mailbox stamp
A Rural Free Delivery box decorates this 13-cent 1977 US Christmas stamp.

Among the arguments for the creation of Rural Free Delivery service was that it would help preserve farm families. America’s rural youth had been abandoning their farms for the city in ever increasing numbers in the late nineteenth century. Almost every argument for RFD service contained the expectation that by bringing the world to rural America, fewer young people would feel the need to leave the farm for the big city. This argument was used again as part of the plea for Parcel Post Service (if families can have the goods of the world delivered to their door, why leave?), and finally at the turn of the twentieth century, in a plea for better road conditions.

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This 8-cent Rural Mail Delivery stamp is part of the 1973 Postal Service Employees issue.

The Good Roads movement of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century was yet another struggle for rural Americans in their quest for better conditions. The Post Office Department became a valuable ally in the fight for better roads. Postmasters had the right to refuse service to anyone living along an impassible road. Rural agents dispatched to examine roads in order to reestablish service noted that with the threat of no mail deliveries hanging over their heads, farmers would be out in force building new bridges and repairing roads to keep an old route or gain a new one. The Department estimated that between 1896 and 1908, rural areas had spent over $70 million on road repair or building.

Unfortunately for those seeking to keep their kids on the farm, neither RFD nor Parcel Post Service were instrumental in aiding those efforts. And instead of keeping more people on the farm, those good roads became one-way routes out of town.