Reaching Rural America

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Rural Free Delivery Mail sled

In 1896, before the advent of radio, telephones, television or e-mail, rural America was a terribly isolated place. Farms were miles apart and poor roads made travel into town an all-day chore. Trips to pick up or send mail were rarely made more than once a week. That year, with the majority of Americans still living in rural areas, the Post Office Department began to experiment with a Rural Free Delivery Service.

This Rural Free Delivery sled was probably built by local craftsmen in New Hampshire, where it was put into use in 1900, while the service was still in its experimental phase. Early rural letter carriers made their rounds on horseback, in buggies, and during snowy winter months, in sleds. Unlike their city counterparts, rural carriers were, and still are, responsible for purchasing their own vehicles. Early carriers, including the owner of this sled, were also responsible for supplying, feeding and stabling their horses.

In 1902 Rural Free Delivery became an official service. By the next year, the postal service had approximately 11,650 rural free delivery routes in operation, covering about one-third of the continental United States. The service's growth in the first decades of the 20th century was astounding. By 1906, rural carriers covered well over 700,000 miles of rural America. By 1915, the number stood at well over one million miles.