IN THE DAYS before telephone, radio, and television, the only network of public communication which could reach remote farmers was the mail. But the postal network, essential to the making of consumption communities, had spread over the nation only slowly and unevenly. Although the Federal Constitution in 1787 had given the Congress the power “to establish Post Offices and post Roads,” not until the era of the Civil War did the outlines of the modern system appear.
In the beginning, postal charges were paid by the recipient, and charges varied with the distance carried. Then, in 1825, Congress permitted local postmasters to give letters to mail carriers for home delivery, but these carriers received no government salary and for their whole compensation depended on what they were paid by the recipients of individual letters. This meant, of course, that the carrier would not leave letters in mailboxes, but had to find each recipient in person or lose his fee. People who did not want to pay these fees could instruct the postmaster to keep their mail at the post office. This system lasted for about forty years, down to the very era of the Civil War.
In 1847 the Post Office Department adopted the idea of a postage stamp, which of course simplified the payment for postal service but caused grumbling by those who did not like to prepay. In Philadelphia, for example, with a population of 150,000, people still had to go to the post office to get their mail. The confusion and congestion of individual citizens looking for their letters was itself enough to discourage use of the mail. Besides, the stamp covered only delivery to some post office and did not include carrying to a private address. It is no wonder that during the years of these cumbersome arrangements private letter-carrying and express businesses developed, some delivering a letter anywhere in the city for a penny. Although their activities were semilegal, they thrived, and actually advertised that between Boston and Philadelphia they were a half-day speedier than the government mail. The government postal service lost volume to private competition, and was not able to handle efficiently even the business it had.
Finally, in 1863, Congress provided that the mail carriers who delivered the mail from the post offices to private addresses should receive a government salary, and that there should be no extra charge for that delivery. But this delivery service was at first confined to cities, and free home delivery became a mark of urbanism. As late as 1887, a town had to have 10,000 people to be eligible for free home delivery. In 1890, of the 75 million people in the United States, fewer than 20 million had United States mail delivered free to their doors. The rest, nearly three quarters of the population, still received no mail unless they went to their post office.
FOR THE FARMER, then, regular trips to the village post office were part of the rhythm of his life. And the village postmaster was commonly the keeper of the village general store where the post office itself was located. The trip to town to get the mail was also a shopping trip to pick up supplies. The role of the postmaster, ever since colonial times, had been peculiarly important in this newly settled, sparsely populated country of great distances. Colonial postmasters (who commonly were also the “Publick Printers,” who printed legal notices and the official texts of statutes) had used their control of the channels of communication to gather information for the newspapers which they published. Now, similarly, the postmaster-storekeeper used his privileged position to draw in customers. And there were thousands of small merchants all over the country who had a vested interest in the old postal system, and especially in the nondelivery of mail to rural addresses. Other villagers, too, liked the old system, for it brought business from farmers who loitered before and after the arrival of the irregular and uncertain mail. Some bluenoses actually made this an argument for free delivery direct to the farms. “Our men and boys,” a seventy-year-old lady Granger complained in 1891, “would not so often be tempted to spend time and money in the billiard rooms and other similar places while waiting for the mail.”
After free delivery was tried in the cities, the farmers began to ask the same for themselves. But the economy-minded found the proposal outrageous. What could be more ridiculous than hiring an army of federal employees to travel miles across the countryside to deliver an occasional letter to a farmer who would probably not even be interested in its contents? “The Farm Journal wants, and the people want … 1-cent postage. We don’t want our country roads overrun with half paid federal officials delivering 2-cent letters at a cost of 10 cents a letter.” Not until the energetic Philadelphia merchant John Wanamaker became Postmaster General in 1889 did the movement for rural free delivery gain momentum. After local experiments, Wanamaker decided that nationwide rural free delivery was feasible. Endorsed by the National Grange in 1891, rural free delivery was supported by scores of petitions to congressmen for their rural constituencies.
The demand for free delivery to the farm—RFD—became the suffering farmer’s battlecry, and before long, rural politicians were competing to be called “Father of RFD.” The man who made the biggest political capital was Tom Watson, the “agrarian avenger” from rural Georgia who during his single term in Congress introduced the first resolution to be passed (1893) providing for rural free delivery. But the struggle was only beginning. Those were the days of “In God we trusted, in Kansas we busted” chronicled by Hamlin Garland in the bitter pages of Main Travelled Roads (1891) and A Son of the Middle Border (1917). It took a shattering farm depression, when “more midland farmers’ wives died of mortgage than of tuberculosis and cancer together,” to rouse Congress to favor the farmer with a service long since provided to the city dweller. How or why RFD would fundamentally improve the farmer’s lot was not quite clear. But it was a desperate time when the new People’s Party was threatening “not a Revolt but a Revolution,” and RFD was the safest kind of radicalism.
The system was haphazard until 1898, when it was announced by the Post Office that RFD would be provided for groups of farmers who petitioned their congressmen. The elaboration of the system was, of course, hastened by this vast new opportunity to enlarge party patronage. In the postal bureaucracy, rural agents, route inspectors, and rural mail carriers multiplied, and in one year they actually laid out nine thousand new routes. The “rural agents,” who gathered the information for laying out the RFD routes and then supervised them, were a valuable new source of up-to-date facts of rural life for government officials, sociologists, and reformers. At this time, too, the Postmaster General, after a struggle against the lard pails and soapboxes that farmers put out for their mail, and against the usual charge of “monopoly,” approved the familiar design for the rural mailbox, which has remained a symbol of farm life. The successful organization of RFD was one of the great administrative achievements of the later nineteenth century. By 1906 the essential routes had been set up, and rural agents were incorporated into the general postal service.
THIS WAS THE LEAST HERALDED and in some ways the most important communications revolution in American history. Now for the first time it was normal for every person in the United States to be accessible by cheap public communication. For the rural American (more than half the nation’s population by the census of 1910), the change was crucial. Now he was lifted out of the narrow community of those he saw and knew, and put in continual touch with a larger world of persons and events and things read about but unheard and unseen. RFD made these everywhere communities possible. From every farmer’s doorstep there now ran a highway to the world. But at the price of dissolving some of the old face-to-face communities.
RFD led to the combining of post offices and the abolishing of many of the little fourth-class post offices which had given their name and their focus to hundreds of village communities. In Reno County, Kansas, for example, sixteen post offices disappeared in ten years. With the village post office often went the general store that had housed it, and there was commonly nothing left. Across the country RFD created ghost villages. For example, about 1900, in the southern half of Cortland County in central New York, there were some fifteen active neighborhood-communities known by such flavorful rural names as Texas Valley, Barry Hollow, Merrill Creek, Quail Hollow, and Hunts’ Corners. At least five of these neighborhoods had their own post offices, stores, and social organizations. Then, after the turn of the century, RFD was introduced and all the rural routes for that region went out of the town of Marathon. Within twenty-five years almost all the other neighborhood communities of the area had lost their post offices and their stores. Attendance at their separate churches and Granges declined, and the villages disappeared. Marathon had become the postal and shopping center for people who no longer saw one another’s faces.
“The regular arrival of the papers and magazines….,” Postmaster General John Wanamaker urged in 1891, “will not only keep many of the boys and girls home and make them more contented there, but add to their ambition and determination to make the old farm pay.” Extending rural free delivery, a congressman argued in 1902, would “destroy the isolation and loneliness of country life and stop the constant and deplorable drift from country to town. We can never do too much for the rural sections of this great country, whose people feed and clothe the world.” These enthusiasts forgot that breaking down the “isolation” of the farm also meant introducing the farmer to the charms of the city. While the isolated farmer may have been an unhappy farmer, the unisolated farmer often ceased altogether to be a farmer.
In 1908 President Theodore Roosevelt appointed a Commission on Country Life to see what could be done to improve the living conditions of the farmer, “to do away with the disadvantages which are due to the isolation of the family farm, while conserving its many and great advantages.” This nice balance proved impossible. There would be no greater forces drawing farmers off the farm than the efforts of the well-intentioned champions of rural life, through RFD, through improved highways, and through increased farm circulation of newspapers and magazines, to make farm life more pleasant. The Country Life Commission commended RFD and recommended its extension. For a time, a back-to-the-farm movement gained momentum. Newspapers and magazines rang with declarations and stories of the virtues of farm life—often by romantic urbanites who were disgusted with city life and who liked to believe that what they could no longer find in the city they might still find down on the farm. But “farmers’ sturdy sons” kept moving in ever larger numbers to the cities.
Another innovation that aimed to reduce the farmer’s isolation eased the farmer’s way into nationwide consumption communities. Even after RFD brought letters and printed matter to rural mailboxes, the farmer still had to pick up any but the lightest parcels from the nearest railroad freight station. We forget how difficult it was to send a package before parcel post. Before 1913, the maximum weight for an individual parcel in the domestic mail was four pounds; if you wanted to mail twelve pounds of goods you had to send three separate packages, and the charge was $1.92 regardless of distance. The profitable business of carrying the nation’s parcels was conducted by private express companies—Adams Express, American Express, United States Express, and Wells, Fargo—which went back to pre—Civil War days.
Postmaster General Wanamaker repeatedly, and unsuccessfully, urged a government parcel post. “In point of fact,” he reported to the President in 1891, “there are but four strong objections to the parcel post, and they are the four express companies.” This issue remained politically explosive. At the turn of the century, despite the efforts of the single-minded James I. Cowles, “The Fighting Father of the Parcel Post,” and of Populist politicians, congressmen and senators were still wary even of allowing any article that advocated parcel post to be printed in the Congressional Record, to which no folly had been alien. Opponents warned that for the government to deliver packages “is likely to change fundamentally our conception of government.”
But the farmers’ lobby eventually prevailed. And within a month of the inauguration of parcel post on January 1, 1913, the Postmaster General pronounced it a success—“the greatest and most immediate ever scored by any new venture in the country.” Within twelve months, packages were being mailed at the rate of three hundred million a year. The main argument for the system, oddly enough, had been to help the farmer by promoting shipments of his produce to the city. As his first parcel post package President Woodrow Wilson received eight pounds of New Jersey apples. This “farm-to-table” movement did not flourish, but the factory-to-farm movement did. The mail-order houses, introducing farmers to the ways and things of the city, prospered as never before. In the first year of parcel post, Sears received five times the number of orders it had the year before, and the increase at Ward’s was nearly as dramatic.
Parcel post sealed the doom of the rural merchant. There were desperate efforts to save the old country store—including a widespread “buy at home” movement, an “antimonopoly” movement, and a last-ditch campaign in the era of World War I, which actually tried to make buying at the local store a touchstone of “loyalty” and labeled the catalogue buyer a “traitor” to his community. But soon the old general store was as romantic (and as unrealistic) a symbol of the vanished charms of rural life as the saloon was of the evils of the city.
THE TRIUMPH OF MAIL ORDER, and its new literature, brought visions of new ways of living which were a triumph of a larger over a smaller community. It was a victory of the market over the marketplace. And it spelled the defeat of the salesman by advertising. In a word, it was a defeat of the seen, the nearby, the familiar by the everywhere community. It depended on a new confidence of the rural American in the city businessman. And the Iowa corn farmer who sent his money to Mr. Sears in Chicago was not merely putting his faith in the faraway merchant; by doing that he was joining with the Georgia orchard grower and the Arizona rancher.
In the century after the Civil War, mail-order enterprises using the power of their Big Book became another of the unplanned forces of attenuation, thinning out the differences between all places and times and seasons, assimilating the ways of the country and of the city. Americans were coming to think of the improvement of life as whatever made life where they were more like life everywhere else. And by the turn of the century that everywhere else was the city.
RFD gradually citified the country, and changed the pace of the farmer’s life. When a weekly trip to the village post office was the farmer’s only way of receiving mail, it was pointless for him to subscribe to a daily newspaper and periodically receive an armful of stale news. Then his needs were best served by the country weeklies. As early as 1902, Editor and Publisher noted that “the daily newspapers have never had such a boom in circulation as they have since the free rural delivery was established.” Areas with RFD were quickest to subscribe to dailies. Some farmers who never before had a chance to receive a daily ration of fresh news from the city, gorged themselves with two or even three daily papers. In 1911 more than a billion newspapers and magazines were delivered over rural routes; by 1929 the figure had reached nearly two billion.
Some of the new country dailies, like the Emporia Gazette (edited after 1895 by William Allen White), were daily versions of the old country weeklies. But for the most part, the city dailies which now reached the farmer for the first time brought him the news and advertisements of a wider world. This was a more cold-blooded world, where the happenings concerned people the farmer never knew and would never see. The country weekly which he had once picked up himself at the rural post office had brought him what William Allen White called “the sweet, intimate story of life.” And White was not merely being sentimental in 1916 when he described the dissolving world of the country newspapers:
When the girl at the glove-counter marries the boy in the wholesale house, the news of their wedding is good for a forty-line wedding notice, and the forty lines in the country paper gives them self-respect. When in due course we know that their baby is a twelve-pounder named Grover or Theodore or Woodrow, we have that neighborly feeling that breeds real democracy. When we read of death in that home we can mourn with them that mourn…. Therefore, men and brethren, when you are riding through this vale of tears upon the California Limited, and by chance pick up the little country newspaper … don’t throw down the contemptible little rag with the verdict that there is nothing in it. But know this, and know it well; if you could take the clay from your eyes and read the little paper as it is written, you would find all of God’s beautiful, sorrowing, struggling, aspiring world in it, and what you saw would make you touch the little paper with reverent hands.
The old world, where so much of “news” concerned people one knew, the world of the neighborhood community, was slipping away. In its place there was forming a world where more of the communities to which a man belonged were communities of the unseen.