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Ask Rufus: No sidewalk, no mail


A 1909 postcard view of Third Street South in Columbus showing the “cement sidewalks” whose construction began in 1898 in order to insure free residential mail delivery by the post office.

A 1909 postcard view of Third Street South in Columbus showing the “cement sidewalks” whose construction began in 1898 in order to insure free residential mail delivery by the post office.
Photo by: Courtesy photo



Rufus Ward



From its founding, the United States has provided for mail delivery across the country.  


At first, mail was only delivered to local post offices. It was left up to people to check at the post office to see if they had any mail and pick it up there if they did. To inform people of what letters had arrived but had not been picked up, local newspapers would periodically publish the names of those who had unclaimed letters waiting on them at the post office. 


The first residential mail delivery in the United States did not occur until 1863 and then only in Northern cities which had a population greater than 10,000. As residential mail delivery expanded in the late 1800s safety requirements for postmen transformed the appearance of America's towns. 


Interestingly, the first mention of Columbus I have seen in a newspaper was a June 1820 listing of postal routes in Alabama. At that time a new post road had opened from Tuscaloosa to Columbus. Many of the early roads opened or were improved in order to facilitate the movement of mail between towns. In 1820 the post office at John Pitchlynn's Plymouth Bluff residence had closed and a new post office had been established in Columbus. It was not until late 1820 that the state line was surveyed and it was discovered Columbus was not in Alabama as believed but was actually in Mississippi.  


With the commencement of limited free residential mail deliver in 1863, the post office began to attach strings to mail delivery. Not only was free delivery based on population and later on a town's postal receipts but also on improvements to streets and walkways. As the service expanded, there were requirements placed on towns before the post office would introduce residential service. Towns were required to number houses, have street lights, sidewalks and named streets. The demand for the new service resulted in a nation-wide boom in the installation of street lights and sidewalks. 


In rural areas free mail delivery began in the 1890s and by 1902 the service had spread across the country as RFD or Rural Free Delivery. That service also came with local requirements. There had to be all-weather roads with both roads and bridges in good repair before the post office would implement the service. 


By 1896, a Richmond, Va., real estate firm was advertising lots for sale in a new development that boasted of having free residential mail delivery. The firm stated that the post office provided the service because the development had good streets with street lights and sidewalks and was thus entitled to "free United States mail delivery." 


The August 1905 Columbus Dispatch Pictorial and Industrial Edition commented on the requirement for good sidewalks before the post office would allow free residential mail delivery:  


"Many Mississippi cities which are entitled by their post office receipts to the convenience of mail delivery are barred from the immediate service of carriers by the lack of suitable sidewalks. The United States government insists on good sidewalks as an essential prior to instituting free mail delivery." 


Kelly, Pope & Rather began constructing "cement sidewalks" in Columbus in 1898 and by 1905 had constructed over 15 miles of sidewalks. The reason given for Columbus having the excellent "cement sidewalks" was to insure the continued free delivery of residential mail in the city by the post office. The Columbus Dispatch reported in 1905 that the firm was continuing to build sidewalks and curbs in Columbus and were also constructing sidewalks in Corinth and Okolona. 


The next time you are walking down a well-lit street at night on a good sidewalk you might want to thank the post office.


Rufus Ward is a Columbus native a local historian. E-mail your questions about local history to Rufus at [email protected]


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