Sunday, March 14, 2021

There and Back Again - Postal History Sunday

Welcome again to Postal History Sunday on the GFF Postal History blog.  This is the place and time where I share something about the postal history hobby I enjoy and, perhaps, you end up learning something new that interests you.

Take those troubles and worries and put them into a box.  Then, put that box into another box and put THAT box into ANOTHER box.  To keep this postal history related, you should then mail that box to yourself and when it arrives....   smash it with a hammer (who can name that animated movie reference?).  Oh wait, we don't want to smash potential postal history.  Removed the lid with the stamps, address and postal markings first.  Then, you can smash what remains with a hammer.

Worcester, Mass to London

This particular post is going to focus on two letters to the same individual.  The first can be seen below:

This letter was mailed on Dec 19, 1865 at Worcester, Mass and it left the next day on a Cunard Line steamship named Asia from Boston.  The Asia landed at Queenstown (Cobh, Ireland) on December 31 where it unloaded this letter in the bag of mail destined for London.  That bag of mail went by train to Kingston and crossed the St Georges Channel to Holyhead.  From there to London, it was mostly railway until it was taken out of the mailbag and marked with the receiving exchange mark (the red London marking on the left side).

I often find I get a better appreciation for things once I see a map and I can place where everything belongs in my head.  Feel free to click on the map to see a larger version if you want more details.  Kingston is the port by Dublin and Queenstown is the port by Cork (Cobh).  There was a regular steamer service between Kingston and Holyhead that carried passengers, goods and, of course, the mail.

Oh, and before I forget, the cost of mailing a letter from the United States to England was 24 cents as long as it did not weigh more than 1/2 ounce.  That explains the 24 cent stamp on this envelope.

Opportunity Knocks

Some time ago, a couple of people asked if I would write about how I find some of the things for my postal history collection.  While this post won't focus entirely on that, it makes some sense to talk about how I found the two envelopes I am featuring in this post.

Back when eBay was new(er), it was not unheard of to be able to find reasonably priced stamps and postal history.  You just needed to know which categories to look and what keywords to use when you were looking.  At one point in time, there was a postal history category for the United States inside of a larger "stamps" category.  I regularly searched for items with a 24 cent stamp and almost always got the same list of the same offerings - all of which did not interest me.

But, one day I saw a auction lot that showed this item as the main photo, so I went to look at it.  I found out then that there were actually two covers in the lot - and the price was very, VERY reasonable.  I did not hesitate on this one (and you'll see why later).   The price would have been good even if it were only this first piece. 

The Honorable P.C. Bacon goes to Europe

I was able to find a biography of the Honorable Peter Child Bacon ( b. 11 Nov 1804, d. 7 Feb 1886) in this book that included the histories of several Massachusetts towns.  (reference #2)  P.C. Bacon was married to Mary Louisa Batchelder (b. 15 May 1815, d. 9 Jun 1886) and they appear to have had four sons and one daughter, though I have not dug any more deeply to confirm that information.

Photo is reported by wiki to be from the first source listed at end of blog, I have not personally confirmed this - that's for another day.

P.C. Bacon was a lawyer for a well-known and respected firm that bore his name and worked out of Worcester starting in 1844 (with prior work in Oxford and Dudley).  He was the first representative from Worcester in the Massachusetts House of Representatives in 1848, when the city was first incorporated.  The resource linked above suggests he was elected as mayor of Worcester in 1851 and 1852 while another source lists him as the third mayor of Worcester, serving from 1849-51. 

Apparently, the Honorable P.C. Bacon took a trip to Europe towards the end of 1865, returning in January of 1866.  While in Europe, it was common for a traveler to maintain a line of credit with a financial house for ease of travel and the coverage of expenses (without carrying all of the money you might want with you for the entire trip). 

In addition to providing the monetary services, some financial houses would also provide mail forwarding or mail holding services for the traveler.  This gave his family, friends, and business associates a method for reaching him if they needed to.  (just a reminder, no phone service in 1865... but I think you knew that!)

But, what happens when P.C. Bacon goes home?

The line of credit with the financial house was purchased for a period of time that covered the travels of an individual and any services rendered could be paid for by using the balance of the account.  So, if the traveler went to Paris for a week, they could use their balance with the financial house and direct mail to be forwarded to them in Paris.  But, what happens if a letter arrives and the line of credit was closed because the traveler had returned home?

The second envelope - the one that did not even get top billing in the ebay lot - illustrates exactly what happens.
The second letter was mailed in Worcester on January 2 of 1866 and arrived in London on January 13.  Baring Brothers & Co had managed Bacon's line of credit and provided the mail forwarding service.  They apparently figured out that he had left (and not left them with a balance to cover forwarding costs for mail that needed to get sent on the U.S.).  As a result, they remailed this letter in London on January 20 and sent it back to Worcester as an unpaid letter. 
This letter retraced its steps - taking the train from London to Holyhead, crossing the St Georges to Kingston and then taking the train to Queenstown.  Once there, it left on the Cunard Line's Africa on January 21 which arrived at February 3 in Boston.
Baring Brothers applied no stamp and they apparently did not pay ANY postage for the return trip to the United States.  That means the recipient would be required to pay the postage for that return trip.

This is the key marking on that cover that tells me what the Honorable P.C. Bacon was going to have to pay the United States post office in order to read the letter that traveled across the Atlantic Ocean twice.  The marking is in black ink - just one indication that the item was received unpaid.  But, what can make it confusing is that it gives us two possibilities for the amount to pay.

24 cents or 32 cents.  So, which was it?

Depreciated Currency in the 1860s

With the event of the Civil War, the United States had to abandon the 'gold standard' that they had used.  In very simplified terms, paper money, prior to 1863, could be exchanged for a full equivalent value of precious metal.  However, the demands of the war led the U.S. Treasury to issue what became known as "greenbacks" that were given legal tender status (you could purchase things with them), but you could not exchange them for a similar value in precious metal.  In other words, the gold standard was abandoned from 1863 to the late 1870s - from the middle of the Civil War through the Reconstruction Period.

The value of these greenbacks was actually less than the same value in coins minted in precious metal (typically silver).  As a result, the post office would receive 24 cents in coins OR you would pay 32 cents if you used a form of paper money to pay your bill.

An excellent article titled A Brief History of the Gold Standard in the United States by Craig K Elwell provides a rundown that made sense to me, even though I am not big on the topic of monetary systems.  If you make yourself read it fairly carefully, you may find that you begin to get an understanding as well.  Or, you can just take my word for it - your call!

Some postal historians enjoy looking for examples of this sort of marking that gives the recipient the choice to pay in greenbacks or specie (coins) and there are numerous examples of these markings that can be found without much trouble.  I am one postal historian who is fine with having the one example - and it's a good one, because it has so many possible story lines.

But wait!  There's more!  P.C. Bacon's sons

I am occasionally amazed by all of the directions the research for a particular cover can take.  In the process of chasing threads of information, I discovered a website that provides the Rosters and Geneologies of the 15th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry for the Civil War. 
Apparently, P.C. Bacon had two sons who joined the 15th Massachusetts.   The photo above, from that site, and is reported to depict Francis (Frank) and William Bacon.  

Frank was promoted to 2nd Lieutenant and transferred to the 102nd New York Volunteers on April 22, 1863.  He died at the battle of Chancellorsville on May 2nd.  

An obituary for Francis E. Bacon was published on 13 May 1863 at "The Worcester Palladium", Worcester, Worcester County, Massachusetts, as follows: 
Death of Lieut. Bacon
We have to record, as another of the sad fatalities of this war, the death of lieut. Francis Bacon, son of Hon. Peter C. Bacon, of this city. He was killed at Chancellorsville, in the last great fight on the Rappahannock. He is spoken of by those who knew him best as a young man of more than ordinary promise. Two years ago, at the age of 19, he was among the first to go into the service as a private in the third battalion of Rifles; and soon after the expiration of the term of three months, for which that corps was enlisted, he entered the Fifteenth Massachusetts Regiment; and not long ago was appointed and commissioned a lieutenant in the 102d New York regiment. His early death, at the age of 21, is a loss to his friends and to the army.
William would also die in the Civil War at the Battle of Newmarket (Virginia) on May 15, 1864.  One wonders exactly how the parents processed the loss of not one, but two sons to this conflict.  Was this trip a business trip or did both parents travel in an effort to find a new perspective?
And more - Baring Brothers & Company

It turns out the Baring Brothers would have a key role in the Argentinian Banking Crisis of 1890-1 that the banking firm would survive with the intervention of the Bank of England.  Even more interesting is that Baring Brothers would actually succumb to a "self-inflicted" investment crisis in 1994-5, over 100 years later.

This banking crisis apparently had some of its roots in the differences between paper money and specie (precious metals), which makes for an interesting parallel with the depreciated currency marking.  I will not pretend to be a financial expert at this time and merely reference anyone who is interested to take the link above or find the third reference shown at the end of the post. The photo above is from page 69 of that reference.

The wonderful thing about all of this is that we can take any of the storylines and dig into them deeper if we wish.  The Bacon family was prominent enough that there are multiple opportunities to explore their lives and what they experienced.  Baring Brothers had a long and involved history in banking, so if that story takes hold, we could certainly do much more with it.  But, from my perspective, the simple fact that a letter crossed the Atlantic Ocean in both directions to get to the recipient makes for a compelling story all by itself.


Thank you for joining me in this week's Postal History Sunday and I hope you learned something new.  And if you didn't, I hope you enjoyed the process where I show that I learned several new things!

For those who might like to hunt down some of the resources for additional reading or exploration, here are some citations.

1.  Rice, Franklin Pierce, Worcester of Eighteen Hundred and Ninety-Eight:Fifty Years a City : A Graphic Representation of Its Institutions, Industries, and Leaders, Worcester, Massachusetts: F.S. Blanchard & Company, p. 22.

2. Ammidown, Holmes, Historical Collections: Containing 1. The Reformation in France and II. The Histories of Seven Towns, 2nd Edition, Vol 1, New York, 1877.

3. Straining at the Anchor: The Argentine Currency Board and the Search for Macroeconomic Stability, 1880-1935  Eds: Gerardo della Paolera and Alan M. Taylor, University of Chicago Press, ISBN: 0-226-64556-8, URL:, January 2001. 

4. Elwell, Craig K, Brief History of the Gold Standard in the United States, Congressional Research Service, June 23, 2011. 

5. The website, Rosters and Genealogies of 15th Massachusetts Voluntary Infantry, lists resources for some of the information used to create their site.  Site referenced Mar 12, 2021.


  1. Rob, I might add that the reason why the US wanted 32 cents in notes was that under the 1848 US-UK postal convention it had (or so I have read) to account to the UK on a specie basis.

    1. A very good note. That motivates me to read on that topic to confirm! I believe you are correct.