Welcome to this week's edition of Postal History Sunday! Before you sit down to read, bury those troubles in the back yard for a time and grab a favorite beverage or snack. If you have some fluffy slippers and you like to wear them, go right ahead, I won't judge if those same slippers have bunny ears attached to them. Let's see if we can learn something new today.
This week, I am actually responding to a question - sort of. I was asked about some of my strategies for learning about the postal history of letter mail between two countries. It turns out I have five such strategies to share:
- Find examples of typical/common mail items between the two countries (scans or the actual items).
- Find resources that describe postal rates, routes and other specifics about the mail for those two countries (both internal and between nations).
- Learn a little bit about the history of that area during that time period.
- Ask questions.
- Try to explain what you think you know to yourself and to a willing audience.
To illustrate, I thought I would show the results of a project I started in 2018. I was attempting to understand how mail between Switzerland and France worked in the 1860s.
Shown above is a folded letter that was sent from Basel, Switzerland, to Paris, France, on May 29, 1860. There are two postage stamps totaling 80 rappen in postage. There is a "P.D." marking that was an indicator by the Swiss postal clerks to the French clerks that this letter's postage was fully paid. The red marking tells us the letter entered the French mails at St Louis on May 30 or 31 (I am not certain which). A postmark on the back of this letter tells us it arrived in Paris on May 31.
When I first noticed this item, it was clear to me that this letter was an overweight letter, weighing more than 7.5 grams. This is indicated both by the amount of postage and the red "2" just under the postage stamps. But the only reason this was perfectly clear was because I had taken time to learn what simple letters from Switzerland to France looked like during that time period. Once I knew what the most common letter mail of the period looked like, I could begin to recognize things that were a bit different too.
Postal agreements between Switzerland and France
I admit that I usually prefer to find a couple of inexpensive examples of the area I want to study because it gives me extra motivation to do the research. But that usually happens after I've learned enough to know what is likely to be a typical simple letter (a simple letter is one that only cost a single rate of postage) from one country to another. Once I have a couple of items in hand, I usually have enough desire to hunt down resources that can tell me more.
Prior to the General Postal Union (which became the Universal Postal Union) in 1875, the mail exchange between two nations was often determined by a postal treaty or agreement between them. I found two such agreements for Switzerland and France that applied during the period I was researching (the 1860s).
Before I get in too deep, I should point out that Switzerland, as we know it now, was actually several independent cantons until the Swiss Confederation came into being in 1848. It took some time to develop new postal arrangements with other nations that would apply to all parts of the new confederation, so mail was exchanged with each canton using the agreements they had used before the new agreements were activated.
Postal Convention of November 25, 1849
This convention was completed in November, but it was not until April of the following year that the convention was ratified by both parties. On first glance, reading the treaty (page 638) in the convention, I find no specific mention of an active date. It may be there, but I have not found it yet. Other literature suggests a July 1, 1850 date.
To give you an idea of the flavor of these documents, I grabbed a couple of sections. Let me first tell you that the plot is a little dry and the authors often take the round-about way to get to the point. Oh, and they are in French. That's why I included some interpretation below their text.
|Article III||Article V|
Postal Convention of March 22, 1865
This new treaty was ratified in Paris on August 14 of the same year. If a person reads the first convention and then immediately reads the second convention (page 207), it becomes clear how much more comfortable nations were in developing postal agreements.
Well, it becomes clear if you can read some French. Again, this stuff is not light "bed-time" reading. It really helps to have some goal in mind when you start looking. It also helps to find people who have already figured these things out so you can get a boost for your learning.
|Article III fixing the new rate of postage and weights.|
Prepaid Letter Rates from Switzerland to France
I will admit that I don't REALLY enjoy reading postal conventions just for the fun of it. What I enjoy is getting the information I need so I can understand how the mail got from here to there. That's why I try to simplify the information so I can more quickly figure a new cover out when I see it.
What follows below is a table that summarizes the postal rates effective during these two postal conventions.
|Effective Date||Treaty Rate||Unit||Rate
|see * about prior rates|
|Jul 1, 1850 First Period||40 rappen/centimes||7.5 grams||(a)||10 rappen|
|Jan 1, 1852 Second Period||40 rappen/centimes||7.5 grams||(b)||15 rappen|
|Sep 14, 1854 Third Period||40 rappen/centimes||7.5 grams||(c)||15 rappen|
|Aug 15, 1859 Fourth Period||40 rappen/centimes||7.5 grams||20 rappen|
|Oct 1, 1865||30 centimes||10 grams||20 centimes|
|Jan 1, 1876 (GPU)||30 centimes||15 grams||20 centimes|
|May 1, 1878 (UPU)||25 centimes||15 grams|
|Oct 1, 1907 (UPU)||25 ctm / 15 ctm||15 g / add'l 15 g|
* Switzerland was "unified" in 1848. The 1849 convention is the first
such between France and the new government. Prior to this,
postal agreements depended on the canton.
- (a) certain rayon combinations qualified for a rate lower than treaty allowed amounts **requires more research**
- (b) as above
- (c) as above
For my purposes, we can ignore all of the stuff that lands prior to August 15, 1859. During that period, the cost of mail from Switzerland to France varied depending on the distance the letter had to travel in Switzerland before it got to the French border. Maybe some day, we'll explore that. But, today is not that day.
40 centimes per 7.5 grams - Aug 15, 1959 - Sep 30, 1865
So, here we are. A typical simple letter mailed in Switzerland to France. There is a green 40 rappen stamp that pays the postage for a letter to France that weighed no more than 7.5 grams. There is a postmark in black ink that tells us where the letter originated (Fluerier, Switzerland). There is a red postmark that tells us where it entered the French mails (Pontarlier). And, there is a marking that tells postal clerks down the line that the postage is fully paid (P.D.).
I also am guessing that a few of you are staying "Wait a minute there Rob! You tell us the postage rate is 40 centimes per 7.5 grams and then you tell us they used a 40 rappen stamp to pay for it?"
Yeah. I guess I glossed over that, didn't I?
First, take a look at the stamp itself.
One of the neat things about Switzerland is that they have multiple official languages, including German, French, Italian and Romansh. Swiss money was based on the Swiss franc, which was divided into 100. The German speakers would refer to these as rappen, the French speakers as centimes, the Italians speakers as centesimi and the Romansh speakers as rap.
Since we are talking about mail between Switzerland and France, it actually makes more sense to discuss all of the postal rates in centimes. And, another neat thing? The next issue of Swiss postage stamps solved the problem of multiple names for their coinage by simply displaying the number "40." Each person could fill in the blank for themselves!
The back of this folded letter includes a Swiss railroad transit marking (Neuchatel to Pontarlier) and a receiving postmark for Paris.
And that is the anatomy of a simple letter in the 1860s (this one is 1862) from Switzerland to France. So, let's look again at our first example.
Things are actually pretty similar. The most notable differences are - two postage stamps instead of one, and the number "2" just under those stamps.
Then we see something like this one!
|Basel Oct 31, 1864 (Bad Bahnpost)
Suisse St Louis Nov 1, 1864
Lyon Nov 2, 1864
7 A-E-D (see below)
This letter was mailed in 1864 from Basel, Switzerland to Lyon, France. Our other examples both went to Paris. So, unlike them, this item would likely have headed by rail to Dijon and then south to Lyon after it got to St Louis.
There are also a couple of different markings here that, because they are a bit different, might tell us some different stories!
The Bad Bahnpost marking reveals an interesting historical aspect. Baden and Switzlerland entered a treaty agreement on July 27, 1852. This allowed for the development of a railway station that would be run by the Baden rail on Swiss soil in Basel. A simple history exists on wikipedia that can serve as a starting point for those who have interest. So, this letter was either posted at the Baden station or on the train itself. Our other letter from Basel read "Basel Briefexpedition." This would have been a Swiss post office marking.
The 7 A-E-D marking found on the front of this cover seems to be an artifact from earlier postal procedures in France.
- AED = Affranchi a l'Etranger jusqu'a Destination (Foreign mail paid to destination)
- The numeral ('7') indicated the exchange office.
It seems odd that this particular item has a plethora of paid markings. There are two differnt "P.D." markings applied. It seems fairly obvious by inking and placement that the boxed PD was applied on the mobile post office on the Baden Bahnpost train. The 7 AED marking looks like the same ink as the St Louis exchange marking, so I would not be surprised to learn that "7" stands for St Louis. The final P.D. marking could have been applied in Lyon or on the train from St Louis to Lyon. Regardless, it seems the agents felt a great need to indicate this item was paid more than once. Sometimes it's good to be thorough, I guess.
30 centimes per 10 grams - Oct 1, 1865 - Dec 31, 1875
Once we get to 1865, things get a bit more interesting from the perspective of routes because both France and Switzerland continued to add new railway lines. Suddenly, the shortest route wasn't always the best route. For example, if the shortest route only had one train a day, but a slightly longer route had four trains a day, it was possible that the second route would get the mail to its destination faster!
I have found that the period from 1865 to 1868 is best for studying these different routes. As we go into 1869 and the 1870s, the French and Swiss postal services spend less time putting postmarks on their mail. For example, France stopped worrying so much about putting a marking on each letter indicating where it crossed the border. Instead, Paris used a marking with the word "Etranger" to indicate a letter had originated outside of France.
Here is an example of a letter that left Switzerland at Geneva and crossed the border at Bellegarde.
|Zurich Jun 13, 1866
Geneve Jun 14 66 (verso)
Geneve - Sion - Geneve Jun 14 66 (verso)
Suisse Amb Marseilles Jun 14 66
Marseilles Jun 15 66 (verso)
These postal conventions helped to define which exchange offices in Switzerland could process mail with certain exchange offices in France. In this case, the Swiss exchange office would be represented by the "Geneve-Sion-Geneve" postmark or the "Geneve" postmark on the back of this folded letter. The first was a railroad marking for the Geneva - Lausanne traveling post office and the second was a post office marking in Geneva. Both were authorized to exchange mail with the ambulant (traveling) post office to Marseilles.
I was able to find some old rail schedules and found that there was only one French mail train departure a day for this particular exchange of mail at 4:30 PM. The Geneva marking gives us a time with "3S" (3 PM). Which would be about right to catch the French train. This train was scheduled to arrive at Lyon at 10:27 AM the next day and should have had no trouble getting to Marseilles later that day.
Marseilles was to the South and West, but our next letter went to the South and East.
|Nyon Mar 5, 1868
Geneve A Mar 5 68 (verso)
Geneve - Sion Mar 5 68 (verso)
Suisse Amb M Cenis Mar 6
Grenoble Mar 6 68 (verso)
This letter also went through Geneva, but it crossed into France at St Julien. The French exchange office was another traveling or ambulant post office on the Mt Cenis train. I suppose I could spend some time trying to find and dig out rail schedules for this one as well. But, sometimes proof of concept is all I need.
Look. If you want to spend YOUR time figuring out the train schedules for each of the rest of these letters, go right ahead! If you're feeling charitable, you can send them my way. If you're not, you can smugly hold on to that information for your own nefarious devices.
And the only reason I wrote that last paragraph is because someone challenged me to get the word "nefarious" into my next Postal History Sunday. Who said Postal History Sunday had to be perfectly serious?
So, shall we move on to one of my favorite covers from Switzerland to France?
Basel May 8 68 (verso)
Suisse Mulhouse May 8 68
The simple letter shown above would have taken the same rail line from Basel as the other items with the Saint Louis exchange marking. However, because the letter was addressed to Mulhouse and because Mulhouse was fairly close to the border - it served as the French exchange office with Basel. It is likely Mulhouse only processed mail destined for its surrounding area. I would be very surprised to see a Mulhouse exchange for a letter destined for Paris, or Marseilles... or most anywhere else for that matter.
According to the regulations for the 1865 convention, the Mulhouse exchange office would correspond with three Swiss exchange offices, the Basel main office, the Basel branch office (succursale) and the Olten-Basel traveling office. Zurich was an exchange office only with Paris, so Zurich had to send the letter to the main Basel office to be processed there.
The letter left Basel on the second mail train to Mulhouse the following day. There were five opportunities for mail to travel from Basel to Mulhouse each day. The first chance for the letter to leave Basel on the 8th, left at about 5:10 AM and was scheduled to arrive at Mulhouse at 6:22AM. The Basel marking includes a "9" after the date, which seems to indicate the 9 AM train departure (the second of the day taking Mulhouse mails) which was scheduled to arrive 54 minutes later. The other three departures were scheduled for 10:15 AM, 2 PM and 5:05PM. Scheduled travel times ranged from 54 minutes to 75 minutes.
Border Crossings and Exchange Offices
|Article I of the 1849 Convention|
Shown above is the part of the 1849 postal agreement that set the pairings of offices to exchange the mail. The list here is fairly short (9 pairs). However, the convention language leavds it open for the creation of new exchange office locations when it was judged to be "necessary." This gave the postal administrations the power to figure out new pairings (and new exchange offices) as transportation opportunities presented themselves over time.
The 1865 postal convention does not include a similar list. However, the post office instructions include a very substantial listing of exchange office pairings and routes - sometimes providing expected rail schedules.
The 1849 convention list of exchange offices were as follows from North to South (French location - Swiss location):
- Saint-Louis - Basel
- Delle - Porentruy (local mail - SE of Montbeliard)
- Miache - Seignelegier (local mail - E of Besancon)
- Morteau - les Brenets (local mail - N of Verrieres)
- Pontarlier - les Verrieres
- Pontarlier - Sainte Croix (local mail - S of les Verrieres)
- Jougne - Ballaigue (local mail - half way between Verrieres and Geneve)
- les Rousses - Saint Cergue (local mail - N of Geneve)
- Ferney - Geneva (west of Geneve)
Basel-St Louis border crossing
The Paris to Basel rail lines carried a significant amount of correspondence. The Paris to Basel (Bale) provided fast service between the two cities and this mail train carried foreign mails from England (and points beyond) which were funneled through Paris and on to Calais.
|Bradshaw's Monthly Guide May 1866 (click for larger version)|
Mulhouse was the location for the rail line split either towards
Strasbourg or Dijon. According to Bradshaw's Handbooks, trains to Basel
(Bale) would have either gone through Strasbourg or via Troyes and
coming in just North of Montbeliard on its way to Mulhouse.
Verrieres de Suisse crossing
Pontarlier on the French side of the border is clearly the largest settlement in the area. Neuchatel or La Chaux-de-Fonds are relatively close on the Swiss side. Significant mail volumes, including foreign mails frequently took this crossing.
The Bellegarde crossing from Geneva would seem to be the favored routing for mails in the Southern France from Marseilles westward. And, mail to western and northern France may also have taken this route. The Annemasse crossing was used for northern Savoy, while St Julien appears to have connected with the Mt Cenis railway - so mail to southeastern France would have gone this way most of the time.
The Big Finish
What you got in today's Postal History Sunday is a brief view into all of the things that a postal historian might consider as they try to figure out how mail traveled from here to there in any period of time. You can either view it all as daunting or wonderfully interesting - and I will readily admit that there have been times when I waver between the two.
To understand postal history in a certain location for a given time period you have to get some idea of each of the following:
- The area's general history.
For example, it was helpful to know a bit about Switzerland's unification in 1848. And, it is good to know that some of the social history of that confederation includes peoples who speak four different official languages.
At the very least, being able to picture the shared borders of France and Switzerland play a big role in figuring out the challenges and opportunities for exchanging mail. But, this only helps if you learn the borders for the time period you are studying. In the 1850s and 1860s, some of these borders changed - and that can be important to know because these big events can provide us with some of the best stories!
- The state of transportation
In the late 1840s, much of the mail shared between France and Switzerland crossed the borders on horse-drawn mail coaches. By the mid-1860s, mail cars on trains handled most of the mail traffic.
- Money systems
If you don't know the basics of the money used to pay for postage, you're going to have a pretty rough time understanding the postal rates!
- Postal regulations, procedures and rates
And then there's this. This is often the crux of what postal historians claim to study. The cool part of this is that we can study actual artifacts - honest to goodness letters - that traveled in these mail systems during the time periods in the locations we hope to study.
Remember, each of these items were about 160 years old. And we can hold or view them today. Using them as a window, we can transport ourselves back in time to another place. And maybe we can understand some things about people who live there in that time.
- De Clercq, M, "Recueil des Traites de la France," p 638 holds the 1849 postal convention.
- page 207 of Volume 20 has the 1865 treaty.
- Les Tarifs Postaux Francais: Entre 1848 et 1916 by Jean-Louis Bourgouin
- Bradshaw's Monthly Continental Railway, Steam Transit and General Guide for Travelers Through Europe, May 1866.
- Mitchell, Allan, the Great Train Race: Railways and the Franco-German Rivalary, 1815-1914, Berghan Books, 2000.
- Richardson, Derek J, "Tables of French Postal Rates 1849-2011," 4th ed, France and Colonies Philatelic Society of Great Britain, 2011. Only useful for foreign rates from France once the General Postal Union is formed in 1875.
Thank you for joining me today! Have a fine remainder of your day and an excellent week to come.
Postal History Sunday is published each week at both the Genuine Faux Farm blog and the GFF Postal History blog. If you are interested in prior entries, you can view them, starting with the most recent, at this location.