Short History of Post Office
Mid-1800’s Mail Delivery Systems
By 1845 many different types of mail systems had evolved, including:
Horse and Sulky
Saltwater Mail System
Stage Coach Companies
The stage coach originated in England in the 13th Century. Stage coach travel was dusty, bumpy and brutal. Most stage coaches seated about nine people on three seats inside the coach. The springless coaches provided for a rough ride over the dirt roads of the time. The stage coach acquired its name because travelers completed their journey in “stages.” Typically, teams of two to six horses pulled the coaches, which could weigh in at about 2.000 pounds. Baggage and mail was stowed in leather compartments called boots at the front and rear of the compartment. More luggage and mail could be placed on top of the coach behind the driver. Leather curtains provided some protection against dust while the leather seats provided little leg room. There was no back support, so passengers riding in the middle of the seat had to cling to a leather strap suspended from the ceiling of the coach.
Most stage coach lines had several stops along the way. Minor stops, called “swing” stops, allowed a stop of about ten minutes. These were about twelve miles apart. The stage driver had a small brass horn he tooted before arriving at the stop to alert the attendant the stage was coming. Once at these stops, the horse team would be changed and the passengers allowed out for a few minutes of welcome relief. About every fifty or sixty miles the stage coach stopped at a “home” station. These stations were bigger and usually had a cabin or house for the passengers to catch a few hours sleep and a meal before proceeding on. Sometimes there was a blacksmith on the site. A Butterfield stagecoach could cover about 110 miles per day traveling at about 5 miles per hour.
The stage coach lobby evolved into a powerful lobby in Washington D. C. Generally, the Post Office awarded contracts for mail delivery to stage coach companies for four years. In 1838 stage coaches carried mail 29,593,192 total miles for a total cost to the Post Office of $1.889,792. This amounted to about $.06 per mile. Although the bids were supposed to be competitive, allegations existed about rigging in the awarding of these contracts, which could be quite lucrative. Many government officials regarded postal contracts as a way to unofficially subsidize stage coach lines.
Sulky Transportation of Mail
A sulky is a two wheeled cart pulled by one horse and one seat for the driver. Much of the mail during this era was carried on horseback or by sulky. In 1838 sulky mail routes covered 11,575,918 miles at a cost of $831,038. This works out to about $.07 per mile.
Primitive railway systems began emerging in the United States around 1830. The first public railway, the B & O commenced operations on May 24, 1830 with the opening of 24 miles of track over which horses pulled wagons mounted on tracks. The legendary race between the steam engine Tom Thumb on August 28, 1830 began the move to steam power even though the horse defeated the locomotive in the race. Post Office officials began utilizing the new technology on November 30, 1832 when they awarded a contract to a stage coach line that operated between Philadelphia to Lancaster, Pennsylvania. The post office granted the company a $400 per year allowance to carry the mail for a short distance by rail. This practice increased over time. By 1838 the combined mileage for mail carried by rail and steamship totaled 2,413,092 miles at a cost of $410,488. This worked out to about $.17 per mile, however rail was much faster.
1838 – Railroads Designated Post Routes By Congress
The first recorded use of railroads for mail delivery was in Great Britain in 1830. Specially adapted railway carriages were used to carry mail kon the Liverpool and Manchester Railway. Historical lore suggests that the South Carolina Rail Road carried the first bags of mail in 1831. Stage coach contractors Samuel Slaymaker and Jesse Tomlinson received the first recorded grant to use the railroad to carry mail regularly in the United States in 1832 from Philadelphia to Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Railroads saw increased use as mail carriers between 1832 and 1838. The United States Congress passed a law that designated all railroads as post roads on July 7, 1838. The law limited post riders and horse drawn vehicles to carrying mail to post offices that were not on a rail route.
Saltwater Mail System
Crews on board the sailing ships that plied the oceans would go weeks, months, or even years away from homes and sweethearts. A letter from home was a tremendous morale booster. Sailors could spend many hours while at sea composing letters to send back home. Sailors, and their loved ones back home, kept in touch using the Saltwater Mailing System that had evolved over the years.
The Saltwater Mail System was simple in concept and horrendously unreliable. A ship leaving port would take mail bags on board with their cargo. If, by chance, they met another ship at sea they would open the mail bag and see if there were any letters addressed to any of the crewmen on the other ship. The letters generally bore vague addresses like, “William Smith, Pacific Ocean.” If by chance they found one or two letters belonging to crewmen, they would hand them over. They would then take any letters the crew, or officers, had written and add them to the mail bag. When they reached port, they would deposit the mail at that port and take on another bag when they departed. The “post offices,” were frequently taverns near the waterfront that ship’s captains would use as a sort of makeshift headquarters when they were in port. Needless to say, this system resulted in many letters taking months or years to reach the recipient. If they even arrived at all.
Since postage was calculated by the number of pages, numerous systems evolved to put as much information as they could on one sheet. Many used a system called “cross writing,” to double the amount of words they could put in a letter. Basically, they would write the letter from top to bottom, then turn the page 1/4 turn and continue writing, with these lines intersecting those written earlier.
The salt water mail system used by sailors was part of a larger, loose knit system of mail often referred to as the ship letter system. Ship captains, both salt water and fresh water, frequently used a public house, or tavern, as an office. Tavern owners encouraged this practice, as a boat captain hanging out in their tavern generally led to and increase in traffic as people looked to boat captains as a source of news and mail. A visit to a tavern when a captain was in attendance would sometimes yield a letter dispatched from a faraway relative, lover or acquaintance. If you received a letter from a captain, it was common practice to pay the captain a fee for the service. Typically, the sender gave the captain 2 cents and the recipient 6 cents for the service. If you had a letter to mail, you would give it to the captain, he would add it to the growing accumulation of letters in his mail bag. Especially in the colonies, the ship letter system was slow and often unreliable. Many times letter writers would make several copies of an important letters and send them on different ships to increase the odds at least one would reach the recipient. Wars between nations could further complicate mail delivery. Ships sunk during naval actions would, of course, never deliver any mail on board. Others were captured and the letters became part of the prize seized by the captors. Piracy could also cause many letters to go undelivered. Ships sunk due to storms were another impediment to mail delivery in this system. A recent effort by the British National Archives to digitize many of the 160,000 letters seized as prize booty during Britain’s wars in the 17th and 18th centuries will cause many of these letters to be digitized. They should provide a valuable insight into life during that time. Many of these letters are still sealed with wax.
In the early days of maritime history ships often sat in port until they had enough cargo and passengers to depart. This could be days, weeks or even months. In 1660 an innovation appeared as regularly scheduled ship departure began carrying mail between Great Britain and Holland. The routes later expanded to include France and Spain. These ships became known as packet ships, because their function in the beginning was to carry packets of mail between ports. At this time, privateers and pirates preyed upon shipping so most of these ships were armed and prepared to defend themselves against attack. Since this was a common danger, the companies offered a standard table of compensation for sailors that lost limbs during an attack. Packet ships were mainly small vessels that plied the oceans, rivers and canals of Europe and the United States. They maintained a regular schedule and eventually evolved into ships capable of carrying freight and passengers as well as mail. The packet trade, as it came to be called, became quite popular, and profitable for ships owners and those that used the service. Packet boats carried multitudes of immigrants to the United States on packet boats. Packet boats on the Erie Canal and others carried immigrants into the interior of the growing nation. By the early part of the Nineteenth Century steamship companies began supplanting packet boats as mail and passenger carriers.
Steamboat Mail Delivery
Robert Fulton and Robert Livingston teamed up to build the first steam powered boat in 1807, forever changing water transportation and the carriage of mail.
Robert Fulton (November 14, 1765 – February 24, 1815)
The son of son of Irish immigrants Robert Fulton and Mary Smith, Fulton received his education at a Quaker school about time he turned eight. His father died in 1774. He became an apprentice at a Philadelphia jewelry shop. While there he developed a talent for painting miniature portraits on lockets and rings. His talent for painting took him to London to seek his fortune in painting. His talent not sufficient for London tastes, he became acquainted with James Watt’s invention, the steam engine. He met Robert R. Livingston and the two teamed up to build the first steamboat in 1807, based on designs Fulton drew. This steamboat, the Clermont, made its first voyage on August 17, 1807. Fulton was also a huge advocate of building the Erie Canal. Fulton died of tuberculosis in 1815.
Fulton’s first riverboats were designed for the deeper eastern American waterways and didn’t fare so well in the shallower western rivers. He built a boat called the New Orleans to run down the Ohio River from Pittsburgh to New Orleans. The New Orleans departed Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in September, 1811. It traveled down the Ohio to Louisville, Kentucky, where it had to wait for the river to rise before it could navigate the Falls of the Ohio region. When the water finally rose, the boat had to navigate in water only five inches deeper the boat drew. Coincidentally, the catastrophic New Madrid earthquake struck as the boat slipped into a pool of water just below the Falls. The shock waves of the quake threw water out of the Mississippi and Ohio rivers, felled trees into the rivers, and just created a general mess. After many delays, the boat finally did reach New Orleans, but it never made the trip again. Rivers like the Ohio, Missouri, and Red Rivers needed boats with shallower drafts. These boats were eventually built, and river traffic at ports along these rivers blossomed.
Ocean Going Paddlewheelers
Paddle wheelers designed to cross the ocean were developed a little later. The Savannah, a converted coastal packet became the first paddle wheeler to cross the Atlantic. It departed Savannah Georgia on May 24, 1819 and arrived in Liverpool, England on the twentieth of June, 1819. Other ships made the trans-Atlantic crossing at irregular times until the British Cunard Line began a regular schedule in 1840. It was 1847 before American ships – the Herman and Washington began service between America and Europe. The ocean going ships of this era were wooden paddle wheelers also equipped with masts to use to take advantage of favorable winds when they occurred. Freshwater paddle-wheelers were limited to the larger rivers and lakes. Canals were narrower than rivers and travel was discouraged because the turbulence induced by the paddles caused bank erosion.
Fulton died of tuberculosis in 1815.
Early Mail Carriage
Fulton’s steamboats carried mail on some of their first voyages, beginning in 1807. Unofficial carriage of mail, without a contract with the Post Office, continued until 1823, when the United States Congress declared the nation’s waterways as post roads, thus outlawing private carriage of mail. Typically, the unofficial carriage of mail used the ship letter system, however the volume of mail carried using this system created a drop in Post Office volume in many port towns by 1813. The Congress responded by passing a law that authorized local post masters to sign contracts with steamship companies to carry mail on February 27, 1815.
First Mail Contracts
The law that authorized post masters to sign contracts with steam ship companies also required all steam boat captains to deliver any mail they carried to the post office in any port at which they docked. This law compelled steamship companies to sign contracts with local post office officials, the first of which were signed later that same year. By the 1830 steam boats carried mail on the Ohio River, along the East Coast, the Hudson River, Erie Canal and the Mississippi River. By 1855 steamships carried mail a total of 14,619 miles. Two years before California achieved statehood, the Post Office authorized the establishment of post offices in that faraway territory in 1848. Since there was as yet no rail service between California and the eastern United States, steamship companies began forming that would provide a vital mail link between the two widely separated regions.
U.S. Mail Steamship Company
Established in 1848, the U.S. Mail Steamship Company transported mail from New York to New Orleans Havana and to the Isthmus of Panama. Mail arriving at the Isthmus was transported overland to a port on the Pacific Ocean and loaded on to a steam ship bound for California or Oregon. The Pacific Mail Steamship Company formed to transport mail from the west coast of Panama to the western United States coast. The U.S. Mail Steamship Company ceased operations in 1859.
Pacific Mail Steamship Company
A consortium of New York businessmen established the Pacific Mail Steamship Company on April 18, 1848, to carry mail from the western coast of Panama to points in California, Oregon and other points along the Pacific Coast. Initially, the steamship line transported mail and farm produce produced in California, however James W. Marshall’s discover of gold at Sutter’s Mill in California set off the California Gold Rush that same year. The steamship line found itself in the right place at the right time as gold fever set in and the rush of forty-niners streamed west. The company expanded its routes in later years, carrying passengers, mail and freight to Oregon, Washington and Alaska. The company closed in 1949.
Many farmers in the Midwest and other regions did not have a much cash on hand and could not afford to send letters via the Post Office. If they wanted to communicate with a family member or friend located in a distant town or city, they would write the letter and hold it until a local acquaintance was planning to travel to that place. They would entrust the letter to that person, who would deliver it free.
Merchants located in large cities like Philadelphia, New York and Boston developed a sort of informal mailing system. Any merchant that had a need to travel from one large city to another would advertise the fact ahead of time. Any businessman that needed to send a letter to that city would contact him and give him the letter to deliver. This service was performed free, as all businessmen had need of the service. Many could achieve almost daily mail service between the large cities using this method.