Sunday, June 27, 2021

To and Fro - Postal History Sunday


It's Postal History Sunday on the GFF Postal History blog!  It happens every seven days - and I keep asking myself how that could possibly be true.  Then someone reminds me that Sundays are seven days apart.  I guess that makes sense.

Now, put those troubles and worries into the bed of an open pickup or the roof of a car.  Once you get onto the open road, make sure you remove any tie-downs you might have used to keep those things in place.  Then, take a nice drive - preferably on a gusty day.  Those darned troubles will be so scattered you'll have a tough time finding them again.

Note: This is a quick reminder that if you want to see a larger version of any of the image on these blogs, you can click on them to view a magnified image.


Mail between the United States and the United Kingdom

One of the areas of postal history I enjoy very much would be mail that crossed the Atlantic Ocean in the 1860s.  As many of you know (and the rest of you will soon know), I have been focusing on mail featuring the 24 cent stamps issued by the United States from 1861-1868.  Below is an example of the type of mail that catches my interest.

This is an 1862 letter from Boston (United States) to London (England).  The Boston postmark indicates to me that the letter was put in a mailbag which was then placed on the Cunard Line's Asia that departed Boston on August 6 so it could cross the Atlantic Ocean.  The Asia arrived at Queenstown (Cork, Ireland aka Cobh) on August 16 where the mailbag was offloaded.  A train took this bag of mail to Kingston (now known as Dún Laoghaire) where it would board a steamer to cross the Irish Sea to Holyhead.   From there, it would ride another train to London.

Finally, the letter was removed from the bag and given an August 18 postmark to record its official arrival at the English exchange office in London. 

This is the mail service this postage stamp was primarily intended to be used for.  The United States and the United Kingdom agreed in 1848 that a letter weighing no more than 1/2 ounce could travel from the US to the UK for 24 cents.  This rate was effective from February 1849 until the end of December of 1867, so it would be tempting to think that these stamps were available for that entire period of time.

Interestingly enough, the first time a stamp with the 24 cent denomination was issued was 1860!  Until then, a person would have to apply two 12-cent stamps (or some other combination of stamps) to pay the postage.  From 1851 to 1859, you could buy stamps with 1-cent, 3-cent, 5-cent, 10-cent and 12-cent denominations.  In 1860, the United States added the 24-cent, 30-cent, and 90-cent denominations in response to the growing use of mail to foreign destinations.

This stamp is part of the series of postage stamps introduced in August of 1861.  The new stamps were issued in response to the secession of the southern states.  But that, as they say, is another story (and another Postal History Sunday).

Now - because I entitled this one "To and Fro," we should take a look at a letter that came back the other way (from the United Kingdom to the United States).

This thick folded letter has a dateline of August 24, 1867 and a Liverpool postmark on the back.  The New York marking on the front is dated September 4th.  And, the docket at the top left reads: paid Per "Persia" via Cork.

*** A Quick Reminder - We All Start Somewhere ***

Now - as a bit of an aside - when I first started looking at some of these letters from this period, I was confused by these dockets that said things like "Per Persia."  Not knowing much about Atlantic ships at the time and the convention of dockets on mail, I would see the word "Persia" and think - Wow!  This thing went to Persia!  Ummm.  But, why would it go from Liverpool to Persia and then Houston, Texas.  Hmmmm?

Of course, once I figured out that many ships were named after places, it made more sense.  

I just want to remind all of us that it is ok to be confused by something that is new to you and it is fine to ask questions.  Why?  Because it means we have an opportunity to learn something that is new to us!  And learning is always cool - even if it is difficult, embarrassing, or inconvenient.

*** Back to the regularly scheduled program ***   

The Cunard Line's Persia did leave Liverpool on August 24 and arrived at Cork August 25.  Because the date is not readable on the Liverpool postmark, I can't say for certain that this letter boarded the ship at Liverpool or if it was sent by train to Holyhead, crossed the Irish Sea to Kingston and then by train to Cork just to catch the ship there.  The speedy trains could very well get a letter to Cork prior to the ships departure to cross the Atlantic Ocean.

Either way, it did take the Persia to New York, where it did arrive on September 4.

The postage was paid by two stamps, a one shilling and a two shilling, with a total of three shillings in postage paid.  The same agreement that set the postage rate at 24 cents for the United States to the United Kingdom required one shilling for the 1/2 ounce.  So, this letter must have weighed over one ounce and no more than 1 and 1/2 ounces.  In other words, this was a triple weight (or triple rate) letter.

There is certainly more to tell about this letter to Houston, Texas and I suspect we'll see it again in another Postal History Sunday.  In fact, the first letter may show up for different reasons in another PHS as well!

Mail Between the United States and France

The United States did not have an agreement for mail with France until April of 1857.  This agreement set the rate of postage at 15 cents for every 1/4 ounce of mail and continued until the end of 1869.  However, there was no 15-cent stamp to pay for this rate until 1866, when a stamp was issued in memory of Abraham Lincoln after his assassination in April of 1865.

Until that time, a letter to France would most typically be paid by a combination of a five-cent and ten-cent stamp.  But, the example I am showing you today has a 15-cent Lincoln mourning stamp on it to pay the postage.

The letter above was mailed from New York and set sail on the Cunard Line's Tripoli on March 18, 1869.  

As an aside - if you sometimes wonder about what attracted me to this specific item, you might enjoy knowing that our farm is near Tripoli, Iowa, which is NOT the location this ship was named after.  I suspect the ship was named after the city in Libya since Tripoli, Iowa had yet to reach 100 inhabitants by 1880.  Meanwhile, the United States had already fought Barbary pirates at Tripoli, Libya in the early 1800s.  So, I suspect Tripoli, Iowa might not have the same clout for naming rights.

The Tripoli arrived in Queenstown, Ireland on March 30 and entered France at Calais on April 1st.  

A postal historian actually gets more than one opportunity to find out more about a cover between the US and France because both countries provide some clues with their markings.  This is important because not every old letter has clear markings.  Sometimes they are smudged or inked lightly and you can't read all of the information.

This blue French marking tells me several things.  First, the letter came from the United States (Et.-Unis).  Second, it came on a steamship that was under contract with the US (Serv. Am.).  Third, the letter was taken on the train from Calais to Paris and this served as the French exchange office for the US mailbag this letter traveled in (Calais).  The simple fact that it entered France in Calais suggests it went via Queenstown (Ireland) or Southampton (near London).  This, and the date, can help confirm which ship carried the letter across the Atlantic.

That's a lot of information in one postal marking.

And now for a letter coming back the other way from Bordeaux (France) to New Orleans (US).

The rate for mail from France to the US was 80 centimes for every 7.5 grams.  The letter above has an 80 centime stamp that pays the postage for this letter.  The letter boarded a train from Bordeaux to Paris on November 16, 1859, then traveled on the train from Paris to Calais the next day.

The instructions given on this letter state that it was to go "by the first steamer from Liverpool."  I don't think you can get more explicit than that!  And, to no one's surprise, the letter left on Cunard Line's Europa from Liverpool on November 19th and the rest is history.   The Europa actually arrived at Boston late on the 1st of March and the letter was processed on March 2nd.

This handstamp found in the middle of this cover reads "Br. Service,"  which indicated the letter traveled on a steamship that was under contract with the British.  This is a hint to me, as a postal historian, that I should be checking for Cunard Line sailings if I want to figure out how the letter crossed the Atlantic. 

from France to US 

from US to France

The Boston marking for this cover tells us the equivalent to 15 cents was paid in France.  There are NO clues as to which shipping line might have carried this letter.

The New York marking from the previous cover gives us the number "6," which tells us that six cents were due to the French postal service and nine cents were kept by the US.  This included the money needed to pay for the Atlantic crossing, so that gives me a clue regarding possible shipping lines based on that information.  It would have to be a shipping line under contract with the United States.  

Now - if you are paying attention - you will have noticed that the Cunard Line carried BOTH letters (remember that Tripoli thing?).  What's up with that?

It is true.  The Cunard Line was under contract with the British to carry the mail across the Atlantic for the entirety of the postal agreement from 1848 until 1867 between the United Kingdom and the United States.  However, when a NEW agreement was reached to begin on January 1, 1868, things changed.  And the letter that was carried on the Tripoli was mailed in 1869.

As of 1868, for a letter that was leaving the US for the UK, the Cunard Line was sailing under a US contract.  If the letter was leaving the UK for the US, the Cunard Line was sailing under a UK contract.

Ain't postal history grand?!?  Just move a few years forwards or backwards and everything you think you know changes!   Well, ok.  Not everything.  But, you do have to pay attention because you shouldn't assume the processes for mail carriage have always stayed the same.


Thank you for joining me for Postal History Sunday.  I hope you enjoyed reading this and that, perhaps, you learned something interesting and new to you.

Next week's topic is already set (July 4th), but if you liked this topic, I may follow up with a second "To and Fro" with letters between the US and Rome, US and Prussia, and maybe.... the US and Russia.  If you like that idea, let me know.  Or, if you have a better idea, send it along in a comment or an email - or post it as a reply to our social media post.

You never know, you just might be the person who provides the inspiration for a future Postal History Sunday.

Have a great remainder of the day and a fine week to come.

Want to Learn More?

I have written a much more detailed blog regarding mail between the US and France that can be located on the GFF Postal History blog.  It was last edited in August of 2019 and I see a few things I could add to it (and may do so in the future).  Also, if you want to see the actual text of the convention that set the postal rates between the US and France starting in 1857, you can go here.  

If you want more detail regarding the mails between the US and the United Kingdom, this blog post might serve your purpose.   Perhaps, I should work on a more definitive resource for that topic as well during my spare (snicker, giggle) time.


  1. I seem to remember that initially (something like 1st decade plus of the 1848 convention) a letter that weighed over one ounce and no more than 1 and 1/2 ounces was charged the quadruple rate. So if my memory is correct, your 1867 example of the 3/- rate has added interest.

    1. You are entirely correct. This situation changed in the middle of 1866, so an accepted triple rate letter like this could only have happened in the last year and a half of the agreement. That gives this item even more interest.