Sunday, September 24, 2023

Letters Between Switzerland and France - Postal History Sunday

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:

  1. Find examples of typical/common mail items between the two countries (scans or the actual items).
  2. Find resources that describe postal rates, routes and other specifics about the mail for those two countries (both internal and between nations).
  3. Learn a little bit about the history of that area during that time period.
  4. Ask questions. 
  5. 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.

Convention of 1849
Article III Article V
Article III setting the weight of simple letters (7.5 grams)

First part of Article V setting the postage rate at 40 centimes.
Click on the text image to see a larger version.

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.

Prepaid Letter Rates - Switzerland to France
Effective Date Treaty Rate Unit Rate
Border 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.

If you look at the bottom, it reads "40 rappen."  If you look at the left, it reads "40 centimes," and at the right it says "40 centesimi."  So, I could have selected any of these and been correct.  

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?

Zurich May 7, 1868
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):

  1. Saint-Louis - Basel
  2. Delle - Porentruy (local mail - SE of Montbeliard)
  3. Miache - Seignelegier (local mail - E of Besancon)
  4. Morteau - les Brenets (local mail - N of Verrieres)
  5. Pontarlier - les Verrieres
  6. Pontarlier - Sainte Croix (local mail - S of les Verrieres)
  7. Jougne - Ballaigue (local mail - half way between Verrieres and Geneve)
  8. les Rousses - Saint Cergue (local mail - N of Geneve)
  9. Ferney - Geneva (west of Geneve)
The Instructions for the 1865 Convention give a much more complex picture with a full schedule for departures and arrivals.  Postal History Sunday is NOT the place for such a list.  But, you should note that there is definitely a difference between exchange offices for local mail and exchange offices that would handle mail for larger portions of each country.

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.

Geneva crossings

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.

  • Geography

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.

  1.  De Clercq, M, "Recueil des Traites de la France,"  p 638 holds the 1849 postal convention.
  2.  page 207 of Volume 20 has the 1865 treaty. 
  3.  Les Tarifs Postaux Francais: Entre 1848 et 1916 by Jean-Louis Bourgouin    
  4. Bradshaw's Monthly Continental Railway, Steam Transit and General Guide for Travelers Through Europe, May 1866
  5. Mitchell, Allan, the Great Train Race: Railways and the Franco-German Rivalary, 1815-1914, Berghan Books, 2000. 
  6. 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.

Sunday, September 17, 2023

Too Late - Postal History Sunday

Welcome to Postal History Sunday.  This is where the farmer (Rob) gets to share a hobby he enjoys with you.  It doesn't matter if you collect stamps or postal history or if you just like to learn a new thing or two, all are welcome here.

Now, let's take our troubles and worries and crumple them up into as tight a ball as you can manage.  Give that ball to your cat, or your dog... or your goldfish.  The cat will probably end up batting them under the refrigerator, the dog will chew them up so you won't recognize them anymore, and the goldfish...  well, it probably won't do much, but once you soak your troubles in fishtank water for a few hours, they don't look as impressive as they once did.  Don't have a pet?  Well, we are crumpling up virtual pieces of paper, so give them to your virtual pet - maybe an elephant, if you'd like.

Let's see what new things we can learn this week!


One thing that I think most of us can relate to is the way time can get away from us all.  And the other thing is how valuable time can be to us.  Postal services around the world, for as long as they have been in operation have been intensely aware of both of these things.  They know that we will wait until the last minute to get that envelope full of important, time-sensitive materials (like maybe - a tax return?) to the post office to be mailed.  They also know that their customers pay attention to how long things take to get from here to there!

How have postal services defended themselves when their customers push that time envelope and still expect the miracle of quick delivery to the destination?  I thought it might be fun to look at mail in the 1800s and see how it was handled then.

I'm sorry, but we didn't get this letter in time

During the mid-1850s, speedy and affordable mail services were desired, and even demanded, by the business communities who relied on the post to execute their business.  They were swift to point out failures to deliver in a timely fashion, which encouraged post offices to mark letters and mail that were received after the mails closed.  It was a simple line of defense."Hey!  The people who sent this to you messed up, so talk to them if you got it later than you wanted!"


The French were proud of their rail system and the 'star' configuration that set Paris at its center.  They utilized mail processing cars on these trains and there were complex schedules for mail transit using these rail lines.  

Often, rather than going overland via a shorter distance, mail would travel to Paris on one line of the 'star' and then go outward towards its destination from Paris.  This typically resulted in a faster delivery than a direct coach service might have provided.

The reliance on speedy railway services raised expectations for timely delivery of the mail, which means a May 18 postmark at Cambrai in France was typically expected to arrive on May 19 for delivery at Tournay, Belgium.  And while we are at it, Belgium's rail system actually advanced more quickly than France's.  So, it is possible they were even more likely to expect rapid mail transit than the French.

So, here I am looking at a folded letter that was postmarked on May 18, 1860.  It is properly prepaid with a 40 centime French postage stamp.  The red box with the "PD" marking shows that the postage was recognized as paid.  And then there's that additional marking in black ink:

The words "après le départ" translate to "after the departure."  Post offices had to set a cut-off time after which items could no longer be accepted for that day's scheduled conveyance.  Trains, in particular, had a schedule to keep and the mailbag had to be ready to go and be on time.

The individual who trotted in with this piece of mail was probably breathing heavily and might have even tried to convince the postal clerk that there must be some way to get it on that train.  But, alas!  They were too late, and the postal clerk made absolutely certain to document that fact by putting this marking boldly in the center of the address panel, for all to see.

Arrival at Tournay two days after mailing.

The French postal service was sensitive about their reputation for timely mail service, so they applied the "Apres Le Depart" marking to any item that was received after the scheduled close of the mail.  It is important to recognize that the closing of the mail for a particular departure does not imply that the post office itself was closed for business.  In fact, some post offices had multiple mail closing times to reflect mail bound for different directions or conveyance methods.... or a different train on the schedule.

a sample train schedule from Basel (Switzerland) to Strasbourg (France)

I suppose two days for the delivery of a letter may not seem all that terrible in the grand scheme of things.  But, we need to remember that the post was the primary method of communication between businesses and time... as some have said in business... is money.

The Dutch wanted timely mail too...

"Na posttijd" is translated literally as "after post time," which clearly fits the same purpose as the French marking shown above. This folded letter was mailed in Wageningen on September 6, 1858.

Wageningen and Arnhem were both located on an operating rail line at the time of the posting of this letter in 1858.  So, it seems that it is likely the na posttijd marking was an indicator that the mail train was missed.  Perhaps no such marking was used for coach or other service?

However, 20 km is equivalent to 4 Hollands Mijls, and each mijl was equivalent to roughly an hour long walk.  Technically, any service could have arrived at the destination in one day as long as the letter was received at the post office prior to the carrier's departure!  Sadly, I suspect no one was willing to walk this item to Arnhem, so it waited for the mail train that came through the next day and the letter arrived in Arnhem on September 7.

You might notice that this letter bears no postage stamps, something that is uncommon for items in my collection.  However, it was not at all uncommon in the 1850's for items to be mailed unpaid with the intent that the recipient pay the postage in order to take possession of the letter.  The large, penned "5" on the front of this letter indicated that the 5 Dutch cents of postage were due on delivery from the recipient.

Maybe it wasn't the sender's fault...

In 1855, Milan was part of Lombardy, which was administered by Austria.  Parma was a duchy ruled by a member of the Bourbon line, but had as recently as 1847 been ruled by a Habsburg.

Wait!  What's this Habsburg/Bourbon stuff?

If you are like me, I have only so much brainspace.  And references to the Bourbons and the Habsburgs don't mean much to me without a quick reminder - so maybe the same holds true for you?  The Bourbons have a French origin and the Bourbons in Parma were Spanish.  The Habsburgs, on the other hand, were Austrian.

Remember the Holy Roman Empire? And, yes, I've heard the joke that the Holy Roman Empire was none of these.  Thank you Voltaire

It is this Austrian connection that explains Parma's participation in a postal agreement (Austro-Italian League) that maintained favorable rates for mail between its members.  Members included Austria, the Kindgom of Lombardy & Venetia, Parma, Modena, Tuscany, and the Papal States.  

The letter below was sent from Milan (Lombardy) to Parma, which was both the name of the primary city and the duchy.  Mail between them could be prepaid at rates that were roughly equivalent to Austria's internal postage because they were part of this postal league.

Rail service was still extremely limited in the Italian states because Austria wanted to suppress development of anything that might support a growing sentiment for the unification of Italy.  It would not be until 1859 that the Milan-Bologna rail line, which ran through Parma and Modena, would be fully placed into service.  

This letter was mailed in 1855.  Perhaps there was a short railway spur in Milan that carried this item towards its destination.  But, it probably was carried in a mail coach most of the way to Parma.

Whether this folded letter was put on a train or not, there is a marking in Italian that reads "dopo la partenza" or "after departure."

There is a September 2 postmark in Milan followed by an arrival in Parma on September 4 for a 120 km trip - mostly by coach.  With an average speed of 8 km per hour, it would take 15 hours of continuous travel, but the dedicated mail coaches probably traveled faster than this. So, it is possible a person in Parma might expect to receive a letter from Milan in a single day.

So - perhaps there was another reason this letter was delayed?

There are two slits in this folded letter that are indicators that the item was disinfected at some point on its journey.

The third cholera pandemic had been particularly deadly in 1854 and reached places in Italy where it had not previously been found in the following year (see p 30 of the monograph linked here).  It was at this time that various individuals were discovering that contaminated water was the source for most outbreaks.  But, even so, disinfection of the mail continued, if only to show the public that something was being done to control the disease.

In fact, you can see that I featured this same cover in this Postal History Sunday that talked about treatments of the mail in attempts to halt disease. is possible the reason for the dopo la partenza marking had nothing to do with the late arrival of the sender at the post office and everything to do with the disinfection process itself.

Or maybe, we just missed the boat...

The letter below was mail in February of 1858 from Triest to Pola.  There was no active rail line between these two cities on the Istrian peninsula at that time and the entire area used Austria's postal services.

Nach Abgang Der Post

Triest was a major port city on the Adriatic Sea and there were significant business concerns that utilized mail services regularly in that community.  Pola, at the time this letter was written, was also a port city on the Adriatic*.    Sadly, the backstamp is not clear enough to determine the arrival date with certainty, though it looks like February 9 (after a Feb 6 sending date).   

Another postal service and another language.  This time, our marking on the letter is in German and it reads "nach abgang der post" which means "after the post has left."

It does not seem possible that this marking had anything to do with a train since I cannot find any record of railways there until decades later.  Of course, it is always possible that a mailcoach was missed, but I think that this letter may have missed the boat!

Both cities were reasonably significant ports on the Adriatic Sea and it seems reasonable to expect coastal steamers to carry mail between them.  It is also reasonable to expect that there were also mail coach routes.  So, I can't say for sure whether this missed the next scheduled boat or the next scheduled mail coach.  But, one thing is for sure - it missed something! 

*Pola is now a part of Croatia and is known as Pula.  The distance, via ground routes, is approximately 140 km between Trieste and Pola.

It's nice that you wanted to catch the Asia, but....

Persons who availed themselves of trans-Atlantic mail services in the 1860s were often well-versed in the comings and goings of the mail packets (ships) and would often write a directive on the envelope or wrapper for a particular ship sailing.  On the bottom left of the envelope shown below we see the words "p(er) Cunard Steamer Asia from Boston April 25."  The docketing at the left indicates that the contents were datelined April 24, 1866 but, sadly, the contents are no longer with the envelope.

Generally speaking, the postal clerks at exchange offices (those post offices that handled mail to and from countries outside the United States) were charged with getting the mail to the destination via the fastest available route.  So, the docket indicating which ship this item should sail on was not as necessary as it might have been in prior decades. Still the sender of this piece of mail found it necessary to try to show that an April 25 sailing departure was expected.  

Is it possible they put it there in an attempt to impress upon the recipient that if it did not go that way, the postal service might be to blame for any delay?

It was well known that Cunard Line sailings left on Wednesdays, alternating between Boston and New York.  The next available sailings (by other lines) were on Saturdays.  This Wednesday sailing was in Boston, but the letter was mailed in New York, which means the letter probably had to be in the New York exchange office on Tuesday (Apr 24) to reach the Wednesday ship departure in Boston*.  But, what happens when you get to the post office too late and the mailbags intended for the Cunard Line's Asia have been closed and are no longer available to stuff one more letter into them?  

Well, the postal clerk takes note of your intent for a April 25 departure by putting a marking that reads "Too Late" on the front of your piece of mail.  Then, he strikes the cover with a red New York marking with the date of the NEXT available sailing (April 28), providing an explanation to the recipient that it was NOT their fault that this item arrived a few days later. 

I wonder if the clerk would have bothered with the "Too Late" marking if the sender had not tried to place an intended departure date on the cover?  My guess is that they would not have done so.

*The Appletons' United States Postal Guide gives some of the postal schedules for some of the larger cities including New York and Boston.  However, it only provides a look at the Boston foreign mails and no mention is made of the New York foreign mails.  In Boston, letters destined for a New York sailing were to be posted no later than 7 pm the previous day.


Well, once again, you have frittered away a chunk of time and politely listened (or read) while I shared something I enjoy.  I hope you found parts and pieces of it interesting and perhaps you learned something new.  I hope you join me next week for a new Postal History Sunday.

Hey!  Where did that wadded up ball of troubles go?  Oh, the elephant took it?  Ok, that's fine with me.

A Couple of Resources

There are numerous philatelic and postal history resources out in the world that have helped me get a foothold on some of the things I share here.  Here are two that had some influence on this week's Postal History Sunday.

"Appletons' United States Postal Guide - 1863," D. Appleton & Co, reprint by J. Lee

Lesgor, R, Minnigerode, M & Stone, R.G., "The Cancellations on French Stamps of the Classic Issues: 1849-1876," Nassau Stamp Company, 1948


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.

Sunday, September 10, 2023

Pick One Thing - Postal History Sunday

Welcome to this week's edition of Postal History Sunday.  Grab yourself a snack and a beverage of your choice, put on the fuzzy slippers and banish your troubles to the cellar for a little bit.  If you leave them down there long enough, they might be a bit paler and less daunting when you see them next time.

Meanwhile, I'm going to explore a few postal history items this week and we'll see if we can learn something new.

This week, I thought I would have a little fun by selecting a few items that I do not think I have shared in a Postal History Sunday blog before.  The idea is for me to find some interesting fact or feature for each item I share - without any particular theme in mind.  If the plans fails to make any sense, you can just allow yourself to be amused while I go about whatever it is I am going to do today!

Armistice at Villafranca

Sometimes knowing a little bit of history can give you an interesting angle for a story around an old piece of mail.  This folded business letter was mailed from the port of Triest, which was part of Austria at the time, to Villafranca di Verona, in the Kingdom of Venetia.*  The Triest postmark is September 6 and the letter dateline tells us that it was mailed in 1859.

Because the Kingdom of Venetia was also under Austrian control at the time, the postage amount was based on the internal Austrian postage rates.  Austria's internal rates were determined by a combination of distance and weight.  This letter traveled over 150 km, so it qualified for the longest distance rate of 15 kreuzer per loth (Austrian weight unit).  And, sure enough, there are 15 kreuzers worth of postage stamps on this letter.

Just two months prior to the mailing of this letter, on July 11, 1859, French Emperor Napoleon III and Emperor Franz Joseph I of Austria signed an armistice that ended a war between Austria and allied France and Sardinia/Piedmont.  Part of the motivation for the peace agreement were the grievous losses to both sides at the Battle of Solferino, just 25 km to the West.  It's an interesting nuance that Piedmont/Sardinia was not present at the table for these negotiations.

Of particular interest to me is that this typical business letter from someone in Triest to someone in Villafranca illustrates that, despite the momentous events going on there, life continued and businesses continued to execute transactions - stubbornly behaving as they always had and, perhaps, pretending that business as usual would remain business as usual. 

* Villafranca was established in 1185 when the Council of Rectors in Verona decided to establish this settlement on its border with Mantua (Mantova), as this was a strategic location.  They established the town as a tax-free settlement, hence the name villa franca.  At a guess, they used the tax free status to encourage people to settle there and help establish the town.

And the French get Savoy

And here is what happens when you pick one thing to talk about for one cover, you end up remembering a related thing on another item and you can't help yourself - you've got to bring it up.

Shown above is a folded letter - one that is full of advice for a, probably, younger protege.  This cover was mailed from St. Michel in the Duchy of Savoy to Troyes, in France.  The cost for a letter between these two entities was 60 centesimi and the postage stamps on the cover add up to precisely that amount.

The mailing date of January 23, 1860 is very interesting to me because not long after this letter was mailed, St Michel, and all of Savoy (Savoie), would be transferred to France from Sardinia.

If you will recall, France and Sardinia/Piedmont were allies against Austria.  In fact, Napoleon III and the Count of Cavour (Piedmont/Sardinia) met in secret to devise a plant to provoke Austria.  If they could get Austria to attack, then France would be "obligated" to join Sardinian forces due to treaty stipulations.  In other words, they wanted an excuse to declare war.

Essentially, the cost to Piedmont/Sardinia was to cede the Duchy of Savoy and the County of Nice to France while they would absorb conquered territory (ideally all of the Kingdoms of Lombardy and Venetia).  Even as this letter was traveling through the post, negotiations for the Treaty of Turin (signed March 24) were being finalized.  And, to make it official, a plebiscite (or vote) was taken in April that asked the question whether the people wanted Savoy to be part of France.  The results were overwhelmingly in favor of that move - though that story is certainly more complex than that and worthy of more words than I will give here today.

After working to translate the contents of this letter, I can report that there appears to be no reference to these momentous events.  The concern was to share life's lessons - and among them must have been "don't pay any attention to the machinations of the powerful, for they have little to do with you."  That's the only explanation I have for the seeming lack of awareness of the coming change of "management."

Double or nothing

Then, suddenly, I found myself looking at an envelope that I would call a very typical double rate cover for a letter that was internal to the United States in the mid-1860s.  Each rate cost 3 cents and there are two 3-cent stamps here to pay the double weight letter postage. 

This particular letter did not have terribly far to go, starting in Cincinnati and ending in Cleveland.  That illustrates an interesting feature of many mail systems in the 1850s and 1860s, postage costs were calculated by weight unit, but the distance often played no role.  This was a significant change from prior decades, where distance was often a key component for determining cost.

If this person wanted to send a double weight letter from Cincinnati to Florida, or Cincinnati to Texas, the cost would be the same as it was to send it to Cleveland.  But, in the early 1860s, the postage rate to destinations on the other side of the Rocky Mountains cost a whole lot more.

And here is an example to make the point for me.  This letter was mailed from San Francisco in October of 1862 to New Hampshire.  The rate was 10 cents per 1/2 ounce (instead of 3 cents), so a double weight letter would cost 20 cents.  

Sure enough, this letter has two 10-cent stamps paying that postage.  This letter cost more than three times as much to mail as the previous letter, and part of the reason for it is made clear at the bottom left.  The docket there reads "per steamer."  

While there were overland routes to California, these postage rates were established at a time when mail typically went via steamship to Panama, where it would cross the Isthmus and then take another steamship to the opposite coast.  There wasn't much competition to carry the mail, so the price was relatively high.  As a result, the postage costs needed to be higher to cover the expense.

This was already changing in the late 1850s, but it would take a while for postage rates to adjust to the new reality.  In July of 1863, the rate would be 3 cents for any destination in the U.S, including mail between the coasts.

And here is another 1862 letter from San Francisco to the East Coast (Brooklyn).  This time, there is ten cents of postage on the cover, paying the cost to mail a simple letter (no more than 1/2 ounce) to a destination on the other side of the Rockies.  Unfortunately, this envelope and its contents must have weighed a bit too much.  As a result, the number "10" was hand-stamped on the cover and the word "Due" followed. 

In other words, this is another example of a double-weight (or double-rate) cover.  The sender just failed to provide the full postage to pay for it.

One paid marking deserves another

Shown above is a letter mailed from the Netherlands in 1859 to Belgium.  Affixed are postage stamps totaling 20 Dutch cents, which was sufficient to mail this letter.  But, what caught my eye this time was the fact that this envelope has a "P.D." marking (payee a destination) and a "Franco" marking as part of the device that defaced (or canceled) the postage stamps.  

The French, Belgians, Swiss and Italians seemed to prefer a "P.D." marking to alert postal clerks in other countries that they believed the postage to be properly prepaid.  On the other hand, the German States and the Netherlands preferred "Franco."  (franked or, essentially, paid)

I admit that I am not the foremost expert in this area, but usually a "P.D." marking on an item coming into Holland would be sufficient and there wouldn't typically be a need for a "Franco" marking as well.  Similarly, the Belgians seemed as if they were fine accepting a "Franco" marking to indicate prepayment if it were coming from a German or Dutch origin.

So, why both this time around?  I have some thoughts on the matter, but if you have a theory - feel free to share.

In my opinion, the Dutch probably figured the "Franco" that was part of the stamp cancellation was sufficient to tell the Belgians this was properly paid.  However, the Belgians might not have seen it (can you see it?).  So, it is possible they re-weighed the letter and did their own calculations, finding it was properly paid.  At that point, they marked the letter with "P.D." so the carrier would know they didn't need to collect any money from the recipient.

The irony, of course, is that the P.D. marking is also a bit weak.  But I think it got the point across.

Isthmian Line

This envelope, mailed in 1936, was sent to a Mr. Lincoln V. Meeker.  The address directs the letter to the ship at Port of Spain, Trinidad.  However, when delivery was attempted, it was found that Mr. Meeker had "left the ship" and apparently no forwarding address was known.  As a result, the letter was returned to Albany, New York.  

The Isthmian Line was a merchant marine line, which means they were not primarily in the business of taking travelers around the world.  That tells me that Mr. Meeker may well have been a crew member or somehow employed on the ship.  Even if he was not, I smell a story here.

SS Steel Navigator from US Navy Memorial site viewed 9/9/23

The easy part is learning about the demise of the SS Steel Navigator.  It was torpedoed in the Atlantic Ocean in 1942.  Only 16 of the 52 crew members survived.  The ship was hauling, of all things, sand ballast - a mix of sand and gravel or small stones.  The cargo had shifted in a storm, causing the boat to list and fall behind its convoy.

Maybe I'll find more information regarding Mr. Meeker and his disappearance from the SS Steel Navigator in 1936.  If I do, it might lead to a future Postal History Sunday.


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.

Sunday, September 3, 2023

Don't Leave Home Without It - Postal History Sunday

Welcome to Postal History Sunday!  

Before we get started, take a moment to prepare your favorite beverage and, if you want it, a snack.  Remember that you need to keep these things away from your keyboard and the paper items.  We don't want any accidents that might bring about bad feeling!  And speaking about bad feeling, let's take those troubles and put them in a blender with some peas.  Not only will you have whirled peas (think about it), your troubles won't be recognizable anymore.

As for whirled peas, I heard somewhere that everyone wanted whirled peas.

Let's start with a Merry Chase!

Our last couple of Postal History Sundays have featured items that have been forwarded.  Last week, we even tried to solve a mystery!  In the week before that, we described what it meant to forward mail.  If you don't feel like taking a link to read, I can help you out.  In postal history, forwarding is a specific type of redirected mail.  These are letters that were correctly addressed and the postal service attempted to deliver to that location - only to find out that the recipient had moved on.  The letter could then re-enter the mail system to a new address if a new location was known for the addressee.

Sometimes, when a person was traveling, a letter could follow them on a merry chase from one location to another.  I've always enjoyed old envelopes that have taken these "merry chases," though I admit that there are times when they also give me a headache as I try to figure how they got from place to place.  It's during those moments that I set the cover aside and wait until the motivation to figure it out returns.  The envelope I am featuring today is one such item.

This envelope addressed to Miss S. Louise Jewell (Sarah Louise Jewell 1853-1935), who was the Matron of Sumner Hall at Pomona College in Claremont, California, presents us with a merry chase that I am still in process of completely figuring it out.  Apparently, Miss Jewell decided to have a grand European travel adventure during the summer of 1914 - which became a very interesting time to travel because Archduke Ferdinand was assassinated in June and World War I would get its start a month later when Austria-Hungary declared war with Serbia.

The letter was initially addressed to Paris, France - care of the American Express Company - arriving in Paris on August 17.  At bottom left, the address is made more specific with the notation "Am. Travel Club Party No. 4."  So, Miss Jewell was apparently with a group that was tracked by American Express, providing both financial and mail forwarding services.  The travel group number made it easier for American Express to know where the recipients should have been on the itinerary.

By the time this letter had arrived in France, Austria-Hungary had invaded Russia, Germany had invaded Luxembourg and Belgium and France had decided to try and take back the Alsace region they had lost in 1870 to Germany.

On its arrival, it was noted that the 2 cent US stamp was inadequate to pay the foreign postage (5 cents) for the letter.  That means postage was due and the cost (at least some of it) was provided by the American Express Company.  That payment is indicated by the three French postage due stamps - showing payment of 30 centimes of postage. **

** Note, I am not an expert in this area, so I am not going to spend time deciphering what paid for what this time around!  If you understand UPU forwarding rules in the 1910s, I am willing to listen.  There is a description on page 251 in the book by Wawrukiewicz and Beecher "US International Postal Rates, 1872-1996,"  but I don't have time to absorb, apply and re-describe that information this week.

S/S Alaunia (Cunard Line) - from Wikimedia Common - photo by Chaplain 4th Class The Rev. Oswin Creighton. 1915 photo in Alexandria, when Alaunia served as crew ship.

The next step I can easily determine is that the letter was forwarded to London, England, to the Cunard steamship Alaunia.  

The Alaunia was a fairly new ship at the time Miss Jewell was traveling, having had its maiden voyage in December of 1913.  This ship and its sister ships only had 2nd and 3rd class options, which was clearly meant to take advantage of high immigration numbers from Europe to the United States.  But it may also reflect the increase in travel interest by the general public in the United States.  These people would not have been able to afford first class accommodations, but they were still interested in seeing the world.    

The Alaunia was soon pressed into military service to carry troops.  It sank after a very short sailing career when it collided with a mine in the English Channel in October of 1916.

Getting back to our cover - this letter arrived in London on August 31st (according to a postmark on the back of the envelope) but the ship must have already left to cross the Atlantic, with Miss Jewell on board.   As a result, the cover was reposted in London on that same day to Pomona College in Claremont, California.  

Back home and safe after what must have been a tense situation while she was in Europe, Miss Jewell finally got to open and enjoy her letter.

** There appears to be an additional address or instruction in blue crayon, but I cannot decipher it.  If anyone else wants to take a crack at it - please feel free to do so!

The Cunard steamer ALAUNIA (1916) has been sunk. The crew of the steamer has been landed. The ALAUNIA, which was built at Greenock in 1913, had a tonnage of 13,400 gross. Lloyd's Agency states that the captain and 163 of the crew have bee landed. The passengers, about 180 in number, including a number of women and children had been landed earlier. [Aberdeen Journal 20.10.1916; Liverpool Daily Post 20.10.1916] Read more at wrecksite:

Don't leave home without it

Here is another letter mailed on April 16, 1911 from Wellesley, Massachusettes, that was initially sent to the American Express Company in Paris.  This time Miss Marion Mackley was taking the European tour, but well before the events of World War I were unfolding.

In this case, the letter was forwarded from the American Express offices in Paris to their offices in Rome.  Apparently, the recipient received this letter there and no further forwarding was required.  Of interest is the pre-printed label that was affixed over the original address.  Clearly, there was enough traffic between the Paris and Rome offices by this time that there was a real time saving in having these labels printed and available to the American Express staff.

Once again, the cost to mail a letter from the United States to a Universal Postal Union (UPU) member country was five cents, which was paid by the blue stamp at the top right.  The UPU was a convention for mail that dictated how mail could be exchanged between postal entities.  The agreement set maximum postage rates (countries could agree to lower rates) as well as postal procedures.  In the case of forwarded mail, if the letter was properly prepaid to get to its first destination, forwarding between UPU member nations would be provided for free.  

This is why our first letter is a bit more difficult to decipher.  It was not sent properly prepaid to the first destination.  As a result, additional rules took precedence on how the deficit might be paid and what needed to happen to cover forwarding costs.

1928 AmEx Tour Book from a lot on AbeBooks, link no longer live

American Express was first established in 1850 as an express delivery business, specializing in carrying valuable contents for banks and other financial concerns.  They found that focusing on the typically smaller, but more valuable, items was a successful business model.  They launched a money order business in 1881 and then introduced traveler's cheques in 1891.  These cheques came in standard denominations of $10, $20, $50 and $100.

Time Magazine (Apr 9, 1956) tells the origin story of traveler's checks.  Apparently J.C. Fargo - the third president of American Express - was disgusted to find that it was not easy to acquire cash in Europe despite having letters of credit for that purpose.  Upon returning, he ordered his staff to address the problem.  Marcellus Flemming Berry is credited with the invention of traveler's cheques, which are still in limited use today - though more convenient money transfer methods are more common now.  

The Paris office for American Express was opened in 1895 and by the time we get to the 1901, American Express was selling $6 million worth of traveler's cheques annually.  By the time these letters were sent, American Express had a very strong international presence.

During the summer of 1914, an estimated 150,000 American tourists were stranded as war spread throughout Europe.  Our first letter recipient, Miss Jewell, may very well have been one such traveler.  European banks had ceased to honor foreign letters of credit and many travelers found their way to American Express, who facilitated many return trips to the United States. 

The travel bug
The Cunard steamer ALAUNIA (1916) has been sunk. The crew of the steamer has been landed. The ALAUNIA, which was built at Greenock in 1913, had a tonnage of 13,400 gross. Lloyd's Agency states that the captain and 163 of the crew have bee landed. The passengers, about 180 in number, including a number of women and children had been landed earlier. [Aberdeen Journal 20.10.1916; Liverpool Daily Post 20.10.1916] Read more at wrecksite:
The Cunard steamer ALAUNIA (1916) has been sunk. The crew of the steamer has been landed. The ALAUNIA, which was built at Greenock in 1913, had a tonnage of 13,400 gross. Lloyd's Agency states that the captain and 163 of the crew have bee landed. The passengers, about 180 in number, including a number of women and children had been landed earlier. [Aberdeen Journal 20.10.1916; Liverpool Daily Post 20.10.1916] Read more at wrecksite:

Shown above is another letter sent from Oakland, California, on September 23, 1910 to Miss Alice Earl, another individual who was clearly on the move.  The letter was initially mailed to Messrs Hottinguer and Company (established in 1786 and active today).  Hottinguer and Company provided financial services at the time and would have honored "letters of credit" that travelers often used to access money.  

Miss Earl was no longer in Paris when this letter arrived, so it was forwarded to another financial firm in Rome and forwarded yet again to and agent in Cairo, Egypt.  Apparently the letter found Miss Earl there and its voyages through postal services (and financial forwarding agents) were at an end.  Once again, the letter was properly prepaid to the initial destination so no additional postage was required to forward it - even if the letter took its "merry chase" to more than one location.  Forwarding was free as long as each new destination was in another UPU member country.

If a person were so inclined, it would not be hard to find many examples of letters from the early 1900s to single, "unattached" women traveling the world.  These letters will commonly provide an example of mail forwarding and a person could reconstruct the relative popularity of various financial firms that supported travelers over that period.  You could even get an idea as to which destinations or trip itineraries were in favor at the time.

An interesting short article by Nicolas Bourguinat discusses some of the trends of "feminine mobility" in the 1800s, including exercising the freedom to travel the world.  Bourguinat suggests that because several female writers chronicled their travel in the mid 1800s, it became a "model of accomplishment" for other women to follow.  One such example was Ida Pfeiffer, who wrote about two world tours.  And another that is of particular interest to me is Fredrika Bremer, a Swede who visited the United States in 1849.  Her travels in the US included visits to many Scandinavia communities in the Upper Midwest.  In fact, a town in our area is named after her.  

I hope you enjoyed today's virtual travel by taking a look at how mail could be forwarded from one country to another.  Unfortunately, none of today's covers still have their contents.  I am sure most letters provided the news from home and inquiries about what the traveler might be seeing and experiencing.  

Sometimes the letters might have expressed a desire that they come home - which likely WAS the case for Miss Jewell in our first letter.  News of unrest in Europe had certainly reached acquaintances and loved ones, and it was only natural that they be concerned for the traveler's safety.  Without the contents, we can only imagine the words that were said and the advice given.  But I am fairly certain that the letter included the words "come home."

Thank you for joining me this week.  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.