Many things we take for granted today used to be luxuries — telephones, automobiles and even free mail service. While many city dwellers have been receiving free delivery service since the 1860s, the same can’t be said for those in rural areas.

It wasn’t until Oct. 1, 1890, that Congress authorized $10,000 to test the practicability of delivering mail to small towns of 300 to 5,000 people. Even so, rural free delivery (RFD) became a political football as politicians began making promises for votes. And then, not everyone liked the idea. Some worried about the cost of the service. Private express carriers feared inexpensive rural mail delivery would put them out of business. Local merchants worried it would reduce farmers’ weekly trips to town for supplies and mail order houses like Sears would take all their business.

The first experiment consisted of twelve communities where the postmaster hired a man for an hour or two a day to deliver the mail. Meeting with success, the Post Office Department, on Oct. 1, 1891, began five routes covering ten miles in Jefferson County, West Virginia. With continued success, RFD became an official service in 1896. Between Oct. 1 and Dec. 21 of that year, 24 states began RFD. Missouri was one of them, and Cairo was the first on Oct. 15.

Soon farmers were helping the post office by putting out containers for the mail. Lard pails, syrup cans, and even old apple, soap, and cigar boxes were used. By 1901, it was obvious that service would be much improved with standardized boxes. Specifications to manufacturers were:

box must be made of metal, 6x8x18 inches and weather-proof;

boxes should be constructed so they can be fastened to a post at a height convenient to the carrier without alighting; and

keys for customers’ boxes should be easy to use by a carrier with “one-gloved hand in the severest weather.”

By 1902, having a box was required for mail delivery.

Rural free delivery took many years to implement. Nevada, on Dec. 1, 1903, was the last continental state to get RFD, and Hawaii didn’t get theirs until March 1, 1918.

Elizabeth Davis was born and raised in Cooper County, Missouri, and has written HISTORICALLY YOURS for the Boonville Daily News since April 2008, She has covered the War Between the States, U.S. history, and Cooper County history. In celebration of Missouri’s upcoming Bicentennial, she has syndicated her column statewide and encourages readers all over the Show Me State to submit topic suggestions for future columns to HistoricallyYours.davis@gmail.com.