Checkin’ the Mail Pail—RFD Delivers More than Mail to Rural Areas

Long before the idea of Amazon drones delivering the world to our doorstep, people in rural areas found ways to obtain select items through delivery. Predating online shopping, FedEx, and the Pony Express, and before companies like Montgomery Ward, and Sears, Roebuck, rural folks ordered from the Haynes-Cooper catalog. Used often the catalog earned shortened names like the “H.C. book” or the “Farmer’s Bible.” It became so important in rural life that it often stayed in the kitchen for frequent perusing. The Haynes-Cooper catalog was used in school to teach reading, math, art, and geography using the postal code maps. These catalogs supplied everything from saddles and tack, to rugs or furniture – even brides could be ordered for delivery. Mail-order supplied exceptional products compared to those of standard stock in the closest General Store. But it also provided a common link within regional rural communities.[1]

Frank E. Webner, Pony Express rider~ ca. 1861
(Photo Public Domain. US National Archives & Records Administration)

Modern practices using likes, hashtags, and shares to gather information and promote marketing of products are simply extensions of previously successful, inexpensive, promotional campaigns of “sharing.”  Sears began the idea of sharing their catalogues throughout rural areas through friends and family in 1905. The company sent twenty-four catalogues to established customers in Iowa and asked them to pass along the catalogs to friends or neighbors, and then cleverly asked their customers to send in the names of the people they had given catalogues to; a kind of early 20th century data mining process. Today this approach might be #Iowaization. In return, Sears “monitored who ordered what, giving premiums to those who got new orders from their friends and relatives.” The scheme worked and expanded into other rural areas contributing to increased involvement by rural peoples with the consumer process which helped facilitate the transition from bartering to a “money economy” where “rural patterns of kinship and friends that had developed, in part, by county fairs, thus became capitalistic networks for new ways of buying and selling.”[2] After securing rural marketing and orders, delivery to remote locations was a challenge. The United States Post Office formed in 1775 by the Continental Congress who appointed Benjamin Franklin to serve as the first Postmaster General. The Post Office expanded services into rural areas in 1896 with the Rural Free Delivery (RFD) program.

Rural postman delivering mail to a mountaineer who lives up a creek bed where no cars or wagons can pass. Up South Fork of the Kentucky River, near Jackson, Kentucky[3] Photo by Marion Post Wolcott.

The RFD expansion program was well received by the Grange and other farming organizations. Other businesses like “express companies, local store keepers, and the National Association of Grocers” pushed back, concerned about the new competition.[5] The program was a full-service feature of the USPO with the mail carrier authorized to purchase money orders (also a service of the post office) for the rural customer, placing the order, and mailing it for the consumer. Farmers did not even have to go to town for postal exchange under the new RFD system. Much like today’s online delivery, this was big business. Families in the Midwest “received an average of seventeen mail-order parcels a year.”[6] As was mentioned earlier, items delivered included household products, farm tools, tack, and even for a brief period, children.

Unidentified Letter Carrier circa 1900[7]

Today the modern RFD brand is a new way of bringing together the rural community. No longer a postal branch, the private RFD logo falls under the “ownership” of Rural Media Group, Inc. The Rural Media Group (RMG) still delivers information to audiences interested in and living rural lifestyles. RMG touts a mission of “reconnecting ‘city with country’…[and] is the parent company of RFD-TV, RURAL RADIO Channel 147 on Sirius XM radio, The Cowboy Channel, and RFD-TV The Magazine.” Headquartered in Nashville, Tennessee, RMG reaches more than 100 million homes worldwide.[8]

RMG’s success stems from mirroring rural communities. Much like many rural farms, ranches, and businesses, it shares a history as a family operation. RMG founder Patrick Gottsch’s daughters have executive positions in the company. Also, the programming shows a true awareness of audience interests. For example, the show FarmHer. Now in its fifth season, this show focuses on women in agriculture who make up 32% of the farming industry and are one of the “fastest-growing groups in the United States,” to showcase the individual stories of these women and their influence in agriculture.[9] Furthermore recent endeavors like The Cowboy Channel covering ranching life and by tapping into the continually growing interest in professional rodeo. Sponsoring The American Rodeo held each year in Arlington, Texas has greatly increased RFD’s visibility. 

Rural Delivery in this mode is no longer free. It has however, continued to evolve and contribute to sustaining rural life and agriculture industries while educating the public about rural culture in a unique way. This year, The Cowboy Channel won the Showmanship Award at the 131st Rose Parade, continuing to increase awareness of rural lifestyles. I wonder what the next generation of RFD will bring…

Description: An unidentified rural letter carrier in his wagon stops near a mailbox on his route near Greenfield, Massachusetts. Creator/Photographer: Unidentified photographer Medium: Black and white photographic print Culture: American Geography: USA Date: 1900 Collection: U.S. Postal Employees
Persistent URL: arago.si.edu/index.asp?con=2&cmd=1&id=194276
Repository: National Postal Museum
Accession number: A.2006-24[10]


[1] Thomas J. Schlereth. Victorian America: Transformations in Everyday Life, 1876-1915. (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1992), 155.

[2] Schlereth. Victorian America, 153, 157.

[3] Wolcott, Marion Post, photographer. Rural postman delivering mail to a mountaineer who lives up a creek bed where no cars or wagons can pass. Up South Fork of the Kentucky River, near Jackson, Kentucky. Breathitt County Kentucky South Fork Kentucky River South Fork Kentucky River. United States, 1940. Aug. Photograph. https://www.loc.gov/item/2017805135/. No known restrictions. For information, see U.S. Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information Black & White Photographs https://www.loc.gov/rr/print/res/071_fsab.html

[5] Schlereth. Victorian America, 156.

[6] Schlereth. Victorian America:, 156.

[7] Unidentified Photographer. Circa 1900. Description: This city letter carrier posed for a humorous photograph with a young boy in his mailbag. After parcel post service was introduced in 1913, at least two children were sent by the service (with stamps attached to their clothing, the children rode with railway and city carriers to their destination). The Postmaster General quickly issued a regulation forbidding the sending of children in the mail after hearing of those examples. Source: http://photography.si.edu. Creative Commons Licensing: This media file is in the public domain in the United States. This applies to U.S. works where the copyright has expired, often because its first publication occurred prior to January 1, 1923.

[8] Patrick Gottsch. RFD-TV. 2000. http://www.rfdtv.com/story/24589387/about-us (accessed 1 AUG 2018).

[9] https://www.rfdtv.com/story/31772825/farmher (accessed 1 JAN 2020).

[10] This image was originally posted to Flickr by Smithsonian Institution at https://flickr.com/photos/25053835@N03/2551042942. It was reviewed on 14 September 2016 by FlickreviewR and was confirmed to be licensed under the terms of the No known copyright restrictions.

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