In 1896, before the advent of radio and telephones, television and e-mail, rural America was a terribly isolated place. Farms were miles apart and poor roads made travel an all-day chore. Trips into town 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 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.
As farmers across the country learned that all they needed were 100 signatures on a petition requesting the service, petitions began to flood the Post Office Department. In the department's 1902 annual report, postal officials noted that "the people are demanding the service with impatient earnestness." That year, it 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.
Rural Free Delivery Service even helped promote the "good roads" movement at the turn of the century. Postmasters had the right to refuse service to any route with poorly-kept roads, which encouraged citizens to build, maintain and repair local roads and bridges. And, rural carriers carried more than the mail. They could provide the latest local news or the current price of goods in town. Patrons expected a lot from their carriers, who were asked to run errands, help with small repairs or even write letters for those who could not read or write themselves. On a more official level, rural carriers continue to operate traveling post offices out of their vehicles. The operator of this sled would have carried a metal cashbox that held money, stamps, money orders, and postal stationery which patrons along the route could purchase as needed.
Rural Free Delivery brought the world to the American countryside, wagons and sleds bearing the words "U.S. Mail" on their sides were welcome visitors to lonely rural farms. Finally, farmers could get timely livestock quotations and produce price information, which allowed them to sell their stock and goods at the best time. Weather forecasts were delivered directly to farmers, along with newspapers, magazines and mail-order catalogs from Sears and Montgomery Wards. Rural no longer meant isolated. In 1898, when the postal service asked for citizen evaluation of the experimental phase of Rural Free Delivery, Nathan Nicholson of Newcastle, Indiana noted that "I am taking two daily papers now and took none before. I send and get more letters since this has started. We can keep better posted on the war, markets, weather, politics, etc. It has got me spoiled."