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Date: Sun, 5 Mar 2000 15:26:42 -0800 (PST)
From: Philip Downey,
Dead medium: Farm produce Postal system
Source(s): The New Yorker, Dec 6, 1999. pg. 115. "Clicks and Mortar" by Malcolm Gladwell.

"The Post Office told rural mailmen to gather the names and addresses of all those farmers along their routes who wanted to sell their produce by mail. Those lists were given to city mailmen, who delivered them along their routes, so interested customers could get in contact with interested farmers directly. Because customers wanted to know what kind of produce each farmer had to sell, local postmasters began including merchandise information on their lists, essentially creating a farm-produce mail-order catalogue. A California merchant named David Lubin proposed a scheme whereby a farmer would pick up colored cards from the post office--white for eggs, pink for chickens, yellow for butter--mark each card with his prices, and mail the cards back. If he had three chickens that week for a dollar each, he would mail three pink cards to the post office. There they would be put in a pigeonhole with all the other pink cards. Customers could come by and comparison shop, pick out the cards they liked, write their address on these cards, and have the postal clerk mail them back to the farmer. It was a pre-digital eBay. The scheme was adopted in and around Sacramento, and Congress appropriated ten thousand dollars to try a similar version of it on a large scale.

"At about the same time, an assistant Postmaster General, James Blakslee, had the bright idea of putting together a fleet of parcel-post trucks, which would pick up farm produce from designated spots along the main roads and ship it directly to town. Blakslee laid out four thousand miles of produce routes around the country, to be covered by fifteen hundred parcel-post trucks. In 1918, in the system's inaugural run, four thousand day-old chicks, two hundred pounds of honey, five hundred pounds of smoked sausage, five hundred pounds of butter, and eighteen thousand eggs were carried from Lancaster, Pennsylvania, to New York City, all for $31.60 in postage. New York's Secretary of State called it 'an epoch in the history and the world.'

"Only it wasn't. The Post Office had devised a wonderful way of communicating between farmer and customer. But there is more to a revolution than communication, and with a few years the farm-to-table movement, which started out with such high hopes, was dead. The problem was that Blakslee's trucks began to break down, which meant that the food onboard spoiled. Eggs proved hard to package, and so they often arrived damaged. Butter went rancid. In the winter of 1919-20, Blakslee collected a huge number of orders for potatoes, but, as Wayne Fuller writes in his wonderful history of the era, 'RFD: The Changing Face of Rural America,' the potatoes that year 'were scarce, and good ones even scarcer, and when Blakslee's men were able to buy them and attempted delivery, nothing but trouble followed. Some of the potatoes were spoiled to begin with; some froze in transit; prices varied, deliveries went astray, and customers complained loudly enough for Congress to hear. One harried official wrote Blakslee that he could "Fill the mails with complaints from people who have ordered potatoes from October to December."...Some people had been waiting over four months, either to have the potatoes delivered or their money refunded.'"