Friday, August 9, 2019

Letter Mail from the US to France in the 1860's

Post last edited: Nov 20, 2019
Status: nearing completion

France and the United States of America negotiated a postal convention that went into effect in April of 1857 and provided the guidelines for these mails through the end of the year 1869.  The treaty set the postage at 15 cents per 1/4 ounce (7.5 grams) and allowed for carriage of the mail via American, British, Canadian (after amendment in 1861), French and German mail packets (steamships).  The German and Canadian packets carried the US mails under contract with the US government, so they were rated the same as an American contract ship.

Trans-Atlantic Routing Choices

Thirteen plus years is a long enough time and a good deal can change, but the following is a simplified description of the different trans-Atlantic routes that mail from the US to France took during this treaty period.

  • American lines would typically leave New York
  • One American line went directly to Havre, France, the others off-loaded mail at a British port Queenstown (Ireland) or Liverpool.
  • British lines alternated between Boston and New York departures, arriving at Queenstown.
  • Another, short-lived British Line ran from New York to Galway (Ireland).
  • The Canadian line departed from Riviere du Loup (Quebec) in the Summer and Portland (Maine) in the Winter.  This line stopped at Derry and Liverpool.
  • The French line departed from New York and went directly to Brest, France
  • The German lines of steamers stopped briefly at Southampton and could offload mail for France before going to Hamburg or Bremen.
Mails that were off-loaded from their trans-Atlantic packets under the auspices of the British postal system had to cross the English Channel.  Typically, these mails crossed to Calais, though other entry points (such as Havre) were possible.

Postal Rate Breakdown as They Related to Routes

From the perspective of the postal patron, the rate was 15 cents per 1/4 ounce.  In order to show properly paid mail with 24 cent stamps, we need to look at double weight (or higher) letters.  The only examples that follow with less postage are here to illustrate what happened when mail was not properly prepaid.

Table 1
The credit amounts shown in Table 1 are for double weight mail that has been fully paid to the destination in France (30 cents postage in total due to mail the item).

The US postal service has collected money for all postal services to be used to get the letter to its destination in France.  However, other postal systems were required to get the letter to its destination.  That means some of the money collected by the United States was necessary to cover services rendered by these postal systems (the British and French posts).  The credit amount is what is due from the United States to France to pay for France's (and England's) portion of the mail services used.  If England was due compensation for its services, it was up to the French to provide payment from the funds passed to them by the United States.

United States Packet direct to France

Figure 1 - Exhibit Page France - US Packet via Havre

If you would like to look closely at the exhibit page in Figure 1, simply click on the image and you will be able to see a larger version of this and any other figure on this page.

The item shown above is an example of an American shipping line providing the trans-Atlantic carriage services.  The New York and Havre Steam Navigation Company (typically referred to as the "Havre Line" by postal historians) sailed direct to France from New York and arrived at Havre.

The 30 cents postage belonged, for the most part, to the United States because it paid the steam packet line for its services crossing the Atlantic (18 cents).  France was credited only 6 cents to cover its own mail services starting in Havre until the letter was delivered in Paris.  The remaining 6 cents belonged to the United States for its 'surface mail' from Philadelphia to New York, where it was placed on board the ship (the Mississippi) that would carry this letter across the Atlantic Ocean.

Figure 1a - Double rate via Havre
Other than the circular grid cancels that were used to obliterate the stamps so they could not be re-used, there are three postal markings on the front of this envelope that help us understand how this piece of mail traveled and how the postal systems accounted for the postage.

The red "Phila Am Pkt" circular marking shows the date (Friday, April 26) this envelope entered the mailbag to go across the Atlantic.  The red "6" inside of this circular marking represents the amount credited to France for a double weight piece of mail being carried by a packet under contract to the United States for direct service to France.

The red octagonal marking reads "Etats Unis Serv Am Havre" and is dated on May 10, 1867, which represents the date this item was removed from the mailbag and placed into the French mailstream.  The French clerk recognized this item as paid because the US exchange office had used red ink for their marking (in Philadelphia).  The square marking with the letters "PD" further confirms that the French were treating this piece of mail as fully paid.  This "PD" marking was an indication to postal personnel that they did not have to ask the recipient to pay for any of the services rendered.

If this had not been properly prepaid, the marking would have been in black ink and the amount in the circle would have shown "24" cents to represent the uncompensated portion of mail service provided by the United States.  There would have been no "PD" marking and the recipient would have been asked to pay for all of the services rendered at the time of delivery.

The one thing that is not obviously referenced by these markings would be the actual sailing that carried this piece of mail across the Atlantic.  This is where Dick Winter and Walter Hubbard's (North Atlantic Mail Sailings: 1840-1875) excellent work compiling sailing tables by referencing sailing documentation in contemporary periodicals comes in handy.  But, the other part that is handy is referencing a perpetual calendar to determine which day of the week the exchange office processed this mail.  In 1867, there were typically multiple mail sailings from New York on Saturdays.  It just happens that there were three contract mail sailings on April 27, 1867 of which one was to carry items to the French mails.  The Mississippi of the Havre Line left New York on the 27th and arrived in Havre on May 10.

French Packet Direct to France
Compagnie Generale Transatlantique (CGT) was a French packet line that maintained a route between New York and Brest and it held a contract with France to carry mail beginning in mid-1864 (see figure 2).  The route from Brest to New York was designated by CGT as Ligne H, so the French markings include that label.  Since the French were responsible for paying the packet line, the 18 cents for the trans-Atlantic carriage needed to passed to the French postal service.  Instead of 6 cents credited, it was now 24 cents credited to France.

Again, if this is confusing to you, think about where the money is initially.  The sender of this letter purchased 30 cents in US postage stamps, giving that money to the US postal system.  The expenses incurred for the delivery of each letter could be split into pieces, not all of which were part of the US post.  That which was the responsibility of another post needed to be paid for, but the money that was collected in the form of postage needed to be passed to the postal system that incurred the expenses.  Hence the red numerical markings indicating a credit (24 cents in this case) to the French system.
Figure 2 - Double rate via Brest

Not all mail conventions worried about breaking down postage by letter because, as mail volumes increased it was becoming apparent that accounting by piece of mail was too labor intensive.  Some conventions, therefore, determined breakdowns by weight of the aggregate, acknowledging that most letters averaged a certain weight.  It was also becoming apparent to some administrations that mail volumes between countries was balancing out, making some of this accounting a moot point since balances often approached zero as compared to the overall income for each postal administration.  This convention between France and the United States, however, outlined the breakdown per piece of letter mail (Article VII).

Figure 3 - Exhibit page two of French Treaty Mail chapter

British Packet via Britain
Things get a bit more complicated when we add a third postal system into the mix.  British steamers owned by the Cunard Line (British and North American Royal Mail Steam Packet Company) were under contract with the British postal services, so money had to get to Britain in order to pay for the trans-Atlantic service.  Typically, the mail was off-loaded at Queenstown (Cobh, Ireland) and taken by rail to eastern Ireland where it crossed to England via the Holyhead and Kingston Packets OR the mail was taken all the way to Liverpool.*  The French mail was then taken by rail to London where it was forwarded across the channel from Dover or Southampton.  This transit service also incurred costs that went to the British.

*I do wonder if there was a standard procedure where French mails stayed on the ship until Liverpool given the typical transit times.

Since there was a great deal of mail traffic between France and Britain, the portion of the postage due to Britain was actually passed on to France by the United States.  France then used their own arrangements with Britain to settle up for the transit costs via Britain.  These costs were approximately 12 cents (for a double weight letter) for the trans-Atlantic service and 4 cents for the transit through England and across the Channel.  The United States still kept 6 cents for it's internal mail transit, which remains consistent throughout each of the options explored here.  On the other hand, it is interesting to note that the breakdown of postage seems inconsistent for the French surface mail. **  
**at a later point in time, I will address that in more detail as I find time
Figure 4 - Double rate via Britain and Havre
The item in figure 4 (and second item in Figure 3) has a small detail that I find interesting.  Most mail that transited England on its way to France entered France at Calais.  It is uncommon to find an item that traveled via Britain and entered France at another point.  In this case, Havre was the entry point.  But, to do that, the mail was sent via a private ship rather than one contracted specifically to carry the mail.  This is an area in which I might like to pursue further study since I am intrigued as to what the reasons might be for use of a non-contract Channel crossing.

American Packet via Britain

Figure 5 - Double rate via Britain and Calais
United States, Canadian and German steamers were all operating under contract with the US government to carry mail, which means any mail to France carried by these steamers would be given the same rate breakdown.  The Liverpool, New York & Philadelphia Steam Ship Company (Inman Line) carried the item in Figure 5 and first item in Figure 6 shown below.  The credit amount to France is only 12 cents, allowing the United States 18 cents to pay the 12 cents to the packet line and six cents for surface mail.  The French paid the British 4 cents for the transit via their mail system and they kept the remaining eight cents for their own expenses.

Figure 6 - Exhibit page 3 of the French Treaty Mail chapter
The Cunard Line as American Packet beginning 1868
The second item in Figure 6 above (also Figure 7 below) is a reminder to me that a seemingly unrelated act can effect change where we don't necessarily expect it.  The United States and Britain enacted a new postal convention on January 1 of 1868 which reduced the postage rates between the two.  Further, the new convention no longer differentiated between British and American contract packets.  Instead, the postal service at the point of departure was responsible for the cost of the trans-Atlantic packet.  In other words, every ship carrying mail and leaving the American ports was an expense for the United States postal system.  The net result for mail to France?  Every packet that went via Britain was now an American packet, so the credit became 12 cents for Cunard Line ships as the United States now paid them for their services.

Figure 7 - Cunard Line trans-Atlantic crossing in 1868
This item was an excellent object lesson for me.  At the time of purchase I will admit to understanding the basics of the rate and credits provided, but it was not as clear as it needed to be.  Once I determined that this was carried on a Cunard steamer, I wondered if this merely exhibited an exchange office clerk error with the wrong credit amount applied.  The responses I received from other postal historians concurred with this conclusion UNTIL I made careful note of the 1868 year date and put two and two together.  To give credit to those with whom I consulted, most responded that they hadn't really taken note of the year.  Whether that means they would have caught this nuance had they noticed the year is open for debate as there certainly are plenty of examples of incorrect markings.

Triple Rate Letter
A letter weighing more than a 1/2 ounce and no more than 3/4 ounce would require 45 cents in postage.  The second letter in Figure 9 (also in Figure 8) is an example of a triple rate that was a British Packet via Britain.  The credit marking is for 36 cents to France.  Look for the red pencil marking that reads "36/3" (36 cents credit to France at a 3 times letter rate).
Figure 8 - A triple rate letter to France

If you take a moment to look at this item, it illustrates a couple of interesting things that could help with reading pieces of postal history from the period.

Routing and Shipping Directives
The top left of the letter in Figure 8 has hand written text (docketing) that reads "per Cunard Steamer of Wed Dec 5th from Boston."  It is not uncommon to find these sorts of directions on mail during the 1860's, though you will see it only on two covers in this grouping (the other is Figure 4).  These directives could have been written by the sender, by the postmaster at the originating post office, by a forwarding agent acting on behalf of the sender or perhaps by the foreign mail clerk at the exchange office.  The purpose of this sort of docket could either be to indicate the preferred route, especially if it differed from the postal services default routing, or it could have the intent of trying to show the recipient when something was sent and how it was intended to arrive just in case it failed to arrive in a timely fashion.

Names and Addresses Redacted
If you look at this item closely, you might notice that the name of the recipient has been crossed out, making it difficult to decipher the actual name.  In many instances, pieces of postal history were acquired from correspondences where contents were separated from the covering (an envelope or folded piece of paper).  The removal of personal information, such as addresses or names was an attempt to maintain privacy, even though it seems to be of less use than simply removing the letter content.  While I find these alterations frustrating, I am more frustrated by more recent attempts to restore name and address information. 

Figure 9 - Exhibit page 4 of the French Treaty Mail chapter
Full Rate Markings in Addition to Credit Markings
This cover also shows a red "45" at the bottom left.  Up to this point, all of the items shown only show numbers for the amount to be passed on to France to cover services not rendered by the United States postal system.  In the case of this item, the "45" represents the postage required to send the item (45 cents).  I am guessing (and I hope to eventually confirm) that the marking was applied in Newport, Rhode Island, the post office which postmarked the stamps on December 4.

So, why bother with a "45" marking when there are 45 cents for all to see on the cover?  It really seems like extra work, doesn't it?  But, if you consider possible scenarios it doesn't seem so odd.  And here we enter the realm of 'speculative philately' as we can't prove any of this as far as I know.  But, this exploration might help to understand why this marking could have been applied.

A person walks into the post office with a letter for France.  The clerk weights it and informs the sender that it will require 45 cents.  The sender pays the clerk and the clerk marks the letter with a the "45" and puts it into a pile to be processed later so the clerk can continue to work with customers.  At a later point in the day, the clerk adds the appropriate postage and postmarks them.  This scenario is not so hard to believe since I have witnessed the same procedure in my own experience mailing larger items that require more than a typical amount of postage.  The clerk weighs the item out and writes the postage amount on the package.  I pay and the clerk completes the process of putting stamps or a meter on the item at some later point in time.  Does that mean this is what happened here?  Not necessarily.  But, it seems a likely explanation for something that looks a bit redundant on this cover.

Short Paid Mail
So, you think treaty mail is confusing now - just think what it must have seemed like to people when there were different postal rates to each country (and often more than one rate to the same country).  We can only speculate why the person who mailed the second letter on the page in Figure 9 (also Figure 10) used a single 24 cent stamp.  But, since it appears to be a business correspondence it is possible they just confused this with a letter to England.  After all, the rate to England was 24 cents per half ounce.  But, this letter was to France and it clearly weighed more than 7.5 grams and apparently was less than 15 grams, so the postage required was 30 cents, meaning it was short paid by 6 cents.
Figure 10 - Insufficiently paid mail treaty as unpaid mail

A sensible person might feel as if it would only be fair to collect the French equivalent of 6 cents and be done with it.  But, that is NOT how it worked at the time with the postal convention in place.  Instead, short paid mail was treated as wholly unpaid, which means the recipient had to pay the entire rate for the privilege of receiving the letter.  The "16" on the cover represents 16 decimes (1 franc, 60 centimes), which was due on delivery.  Now, the French have collected the entire postage, but they need to send some money BACK to the United States to cover the US surface mail expenses.  Hence, the 6 in the black New York marking as a debit to France requesting payment.

So, what happens to the 24 cents in postage collected by the United States?  In this case, the postal service gets to keep it without any extra services rendered.  Does that seem unfair to you?  Well, consider these two things:

1. Mail during this period did not have to be prepaid in order for it to be taken to its destination.
2. A recipient could refuse delivery.

This begs the question - how much mail did postal services carry for free because it was sent unpaid and the recipient refused delivery?  Still, if this was a legitimate mistake, it does seem a steep price to pay.  The good news is that conventions and postal systems were rapidly changing to charge only the deficient amount as postage due so that the postage applied would still pay for at least some of the services rendered. 

Five or Six Times Rate

I'll just let you to enjoy this one by simply showing the exhibit page.  I might type a bit more after the illustration.

Figure 11 - the final page of the French Treaty Mail chapter
The item shown is a newer item in my collection that I purchased 'on extension.'  Essentially, that means that I was willing to buy it after an expertizing organization rendered an opinion as to whether all aspects of the item were genuine or not.  This is not at all uncommon for a person to do with a neat item such as this one because it gets more eyes to view it and critique it than the buyer and seller (both of whom want the item to be ok). The Philatelic Foundation concluded that the item was 'genuine in all respects,' which was good to learn (of course).

Why did I want this particular item expertized?  First, I abide by the rule that if it seems a bit too nice to be true, you need to be careful.  The combination of a large franking of stamps with an illustrated envelope to a foreign nation in great condition is enough to require a critical eye.  I tend to rely on the postal markings combined with the postage, addressee and any other evidence for a consistent 'story.'  If everything is consistent, then I am more inclined to believe all is well.  In this case, the rate marking of "30" (or maybe "36" if you are charitable) was slightly inconsistent with the franking (90 cents or 6 times the 15 cent rate).

A 30 cent credit would work with a five times rate and a 36 cent credit works for the six times rate this item seems to have.  Even so, it is not hard to think of any number of scenarios that explain the inconsistency - among them the real possibility that this WAS supposed to be a "36."  Rather than engage in speculative postal history, I will be content with not knowing for certain what rate this envelope was supposed to be originally.  But, I think I have the right of it that France probably treated it as a five times rate and received a waybill in the mail bag that indicated a credit of 30 cents.  I also believe I have the right of it that the sender paid for a six times rate with postage stamps.

You can make up your own story as to how that happened!

Forwarded Mail
It isn't easy to see, but the New York exchange marking at the center right of the mail item in Figure 7a shows a "12" and this cover provides an extra puzzle because the date in the New York marking is struck poorly.  We are left with only the clues from the red French marking that gives a Dec 8, 1861 date and reads, in part, "Serv Am."  Between these two markings, it seems clear that this piece of mail had to travel across the Atlantic on an American contract vessel.  The two available options that can be found in Winter's sailing tables are the Inman's Edinburgh leaving New York on November 23 and a sailing of the Allen Line from Quebec on the same date.  Since both ships arrived at Liverpool on the 7th of December, we can assume the Inman sailing simply because the Allan Line sailing for New York mail would be extraordinary.
Figure 12 - An item sent to France and forwarded on to London, England
This appears to be a letter to A.G. Goodall (Albert Gallatin Goodall: 1826-1887), an engraver by trade, who was to become president of the American Banknote Company (ABC) in 1874, remaining in that office until his death.  As early as 1858, Goodall represented the ABC to obtain contracts with foreign entities, so travel was not unfamiliar to him.  Goodall was also a prominent freemason who often represented the United States branches as liaison for related fraternal organizations worldwide.

Goodall arranged for mail to be sent to the U.S. Legation in Paris during his travels and clearly, the U.S. Legation in London was also aware of his itinerary.  It was not uncommon for a person traveling to arrange with an agent to receive mail.  That agent could either hold mail for the client or forward that mail to another location.  In this case, the Legation in Paris sent the item on without paying the postage from France to England.  The "More to Pay" marking was applied in London, alerting the recipient and the postal person that this postage was due (4d per quarter ounce).  It is presumed that the item was rated as a double rate letter by the British and 8d were collected.  The squiggle at top right *might* be a due marking, though I cannot quite bring myself to be conclusive that this mark aligns with a due amount.  The "P.D." marking was applied in France to indicate that postage from the United States to France had been prepaid, but it did not apply to the forwarding of the mail.

A quick search for A.G. Goodall in 1861 shows a person by that name returning to New York on the Havre Line's Arago on December 26 of 1861 (New York Times, Dec 27, 1861).

Mail from France to the United States

As a bonus, I thought I would include a page that is not in my 24 cent 1861 exhibit.  This page illustrates some 1857 treaty mail that was sent from France to the United States.  The first item was sent fully paid and the second was short paid, thus it was treated as completely unpaid.
Figure 13 - Display page showing mail from France to the U.S.
As a reminder, a single weight letter (lettre simple) could be no more than 7.5 grams (1/4 ounce) and each multiple of that weight was 15 cents (US), which was equivalent to 80 centimes (France).  The first item in figure 13 (also figure 14) shows an 80 centime stamp properly paying the single rate and the Boston marking acknowledges that 15 cents had been paid.  It is interesting that the French did not put a French monetary equivalent for credit to the United States in a similar fashion as adopted by the United States.  And, of course, it made no sense for the US to put a marking on the cover with the credit/debit amount.

Figure 14 - Single weight letter fully paid to Boston
You might notice that the French did not apply a dated exchange office marking as they did for incoming mail from the United States.  Instead, there is a "PD" marking AND a marking that indicates the trans-Atlantic service was to be provided by a British contract ship ("Br Service").  This routing is further confirmed by the docketing in red at the top right and bottom right that reads "by the first steamer from Liverpool" and "par l'Angleterre."  That steamer happened to be the Cunard Line's Europa, arriving in Boston on December 1 and processed from the mailbag on December 2 according to the Boston marking.

On the other hand, when postage was due, markings very clearly indicated how much was required for the honor of receiving the item in question.  The second cover, which is also shown below in Figure 15, has a nice clear Boston marking in black that indicates 30 cents due from the recipient.

Figure 15 - Double weight letter insufficiently paid and treated as unpaid
Once again, there are French markings to show where the letter entered the French mail system, but there is not a dated exchange office marking.  It is, however, likely that the two markings in red were applied while on the train between Paris and Calais.  A marking confirming the French routing via Paris and Calais is on the back of this letter, dated August 7.  The "Br Service" marking again confirms routing via England, but there is no marking indicating prepayment.  Instead, there is a marking that reads "Affranchissement Insuffisant," indicating that the letter was not fully paid to the destination.  This alerted clerks in the Boston exchange office that the item was to be treated as unpaid per the treaty stipulations.  The Boston exchange office applied their own marking in black ink to show that 30 cents were due.  They also penned a "24" at the top left as a reminder that 24 cents were due to be sent back to France for their part of the services rendered.

 *** the bibliography is in progress.  Citations will be added once I feel text is where it needs to be. ***

  • The text of the 1857 postal convention can be found along with amendments at this location on the blog.
  • Hubbard, W. and Winter, R.F., North Atlantic Mail Sailings: 1840-1875, USPCS, 1988.
  • Hargest,G.E., History of Letter Post Communication Between the United States and Europe: 1845-1875, 2nd ed, Quarterman, 1971.
  • Winter,D, Understanding Trans-Atlantic Mail vols 1 & 2, APS, 2006.
  • Starnes,C.J, United States Letter Rates to Foreign Destinations: 1847 to GPU-UPU, revised ed., Hartmann, 1989.
  • Postal Laws and Regulations of the United States of America: 1866, Wierenga reprint, 1981.
  • List of Post Offices and Postal Laws and Regulations of the United States of America: 1857, Wierenga reprint, 1980.

<note> The farmer had a strange thing happen at the beginning of August.  He took a break and went to the APS Stampshow in Omaha with his lovely bride.  The mid- growing season break does not happen all that often for us.  But, Stampshow was actually occurring in a city that was not too hard for us to get to, so we decided to take the opportunity to attend.  And, while we were there, we might as well show the 24 cent postal history exhibit, right?

Well, the second strange thing occurred while we were there.  The exhibit took the grand award in the open competition - something I hadn't anticipated happening.  Then, I had a few people who couldn't attend Stampshow ask if I could post the exhibit somewhere online.  Wow.  Well, it was STILL farming season, so that task has to come in increments.  But, it did encourage me to load up a few US to Switzerland pages from the exhibit and write about them.  That actually went fairly quickly and easily, so I thought I'd see if the same would happen with this topic.  I started by uploading the exhibit pages and adding minimal content.  Since then, I have been adding and editing on and off when the spirit moved me to do so.

You may also notice the project of loading up the exhibit is in progress.  Look for the link to that at the top right of this page or take the link right here!


  1. Rob,
    Great illustrations and explanations! I have only two comments.
    - White text on a deeply colored background looks sexy, but is far more difficult to read, and tiresome to the eyes than black on white.
    - You should provide a short bibliography or at least a list of suggested reading, to give due credit to your sources on treaties, rates, shipping modes, etc.(e.g., Dick Winter).

  2. Thank you so much for your comments as they are very much appreciated.

    I'll take the text and background colors under advisement and see if I can find time to play with that.

    Only a small step ahead of you on the bibliography. Many of my posts do have references, but sometimes you work on content and then add references - which is the case here. Nonetheless, the point is WELL taken. I suspect bib is next task for this post.