Sunday, March 12, 2023

Crossing the Pond and Lighting a Candle - Postal History Sunday

Hello everyone!  I'm glad you were able to find this week's Postal History Sunday, which 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.  Once you are there, all you have to do is scroll down to see earlier content - it's just that easy.

For those of you who do some writing, this question, asked by an anonymous individual, might resonate with you. "Is it hard to find the motivation or the ideas for each week's Postal History Sunday?"  The answer is, of course, sometimes yes and sometimes no.  As far as ideas go, I currently have about fifty different ideas in my notes for future entries.  So, my problem is finding the motivation for a given topic.

Each week things get done one of three ways.  

  1. I force myself to write on a topic idea I've already identified for a given day.
  2. I write about what currently inspires me, even if it's not already in the idea list.
  3. I adapt a topic idea I've identified to my current inspiration.

Often, ideas that fall in category number one will take me weeks or months to write, while things in category 2 can't be predicted - they just happen.  This week's writing falls into category three.  I had it in my idea list to write about how mail crossed the Atlantic Ocean in the 1860s - but there are whole books on this topic.  So, I was waiting for some inspiration as to how to make something work for a single Postal History Sunday.

Clues on a cover

I thought I would start by explaining the clues a person might find on a cover that traveled across "the Pond," or Atlantic Ocean.  Shown above is a folded letter mailed in August of 1867 from New York City to London, England.  If you've been reading Postal History Sunday for a while, you'll recognize the 24 cent stamp and might remember that the cost of postage for a simple letter to the United Kingdom was 24 cents as long as it weighed no more than 1/2 ounce.  If you didn't know or didn't remember - it didn't matter because I told you anyway!

Nice how that works.

When I first started looking at postal history between the US and the UK, I have to admit that directional dockets like this were confusing to me.  In case you are having trouble reading it, this docket reads "City of Paris."

Now, this letter is going from New York City to London.  When I first started looking at postal history, my first thought I would have had was "why in the world would they send this letter through Paris?"  After all, it's not exactly as if Paris is on the way from New York to London, is it?  In fact, I still remember the day I found an old envelope that had the word "Africa" at the top left.  I thought I had found an uncommon letter TO Africa, even though the address panel said it was to London.

Well, it was a relatively common practice for writers of letters to put a docket - usually at the top left - indicating the steam ship or sailing ship that they intended the letter to be carried on as it crossed the Atlantic.  So, the writer wanted this letter to be taken on a ship called City of Paris.  The Inman Line of steamships had several vessels named after major cities, just like the Cunard Line had ships named after countries or continents - steamships with names like Africa.

So, yes.  My excitement for that special letter "to Africa" was pretty short-lived because that was the moment I learned about dockets and ship names.  And yes, I learned this fact because I asked questions and I was a bit skeptical that a letter intended to go to England would go via Africa or end up in Africa without more postage or postmarks.

But, what if this letter didn't have a docket - or what if the docket is incorrect (because it could be)?  How can we figure out which ship carried the letter across the Atlantic?

The exchange office markings for mail from the US to the UK provides us with some clues too!  So, if there is no docket, we can get our start with these markings.  Shown above is the postmark applied by the Foreign Mail Office in New York City.  

The first step of the process to determine which ship carried this letter in the 1860s (until the end of 1867) would be to see if it was carried by a ship under contract with the United States or the United Kingdom.  There are two ways a person can do this.  You can look for a designation that tells us it is an American Packet (Am.Pkt) or a British Packet (Br.Pkt).  This one was carried by a ship that was designated an American Packet.

If there is no packet designation, we can look at the amount of postage to be passed to the British.  This marking tells us that the UK gets three cents, which tells us it is an American Packet.  If the amount credited is a multiple of 3 cents, we have an American packet, if it is a 19 cents (or a multiple thereor), we have a British packet.

Since this letter went by an American packet, we effectively eliminates ships that carried mail for the British (Cunard and Galway*), but it still leaves us with many options (Inman, HAPAG, North German Lloyd, Allan, Havre, French, North American Lloyd / New York & Bremen).

* the Galway Line was not actively carrying mail in 1867, but it did carry mail in the 1863 & 1864.

This is where the date on the exchange markings can help us determine which ship might have carried the letter.  In the United States, the exchange office would typically put the date of the ship's departure in the exchange marking.  So, it is possible that the letter was being postmarked on August 23, but an August 24 postmark was used to indicate the ship's date of departure.

August 24, 1867 was a Saturday, and that was a big day for steamships with US mail contracts to depart New York.  On this particular Saturday, a ship from the HAPAG Line was carrying mails to the German States, another with the French Line took the mail to France and the Inman Line had a ship carrying mails for the rest of Europe (including the United Kingdom).  The ship for the Inman Line just happens to be the City of Paris.

It sure is nice when things match up!

We actually have another clue that can help us with identifying ships, and that's the receiving exchange marking applied in London.  Sometimes, when we look at an old cover, there won't be a readable docket and the United States exchange marking may not have a readable date.  That leaves us with trying to identify when the letter was taken OUT of the mailbag in the United Kingdom.  If we know that, we can work backwards by matching it up with the arrival of ships that carried the mail.

from page 211 of North Atlantic Mail Sailings: 1840-1875 by Hubbard and Winter

It just so happens that the excellent work by Dick Winter and Walter Hubbard provides the dates for many mail sailings.  These were gleaned from period newspapers and other primary sources and my interest in this area is, in part, due to their efforts.  I could confirm these dates by hunting in online sources like the New York Times, but instead I will gratefully accept the efforts of other postal historians.

The good news continues.  The last row of this table shows the City of Paris departing New York on August 24 and arriving at Queenstown (Ireland) on September 3.  These dates line up properly with both exchange markings - so we have our ship for crossing the Atlantic!

Inman Line's City of Paris circa 1866 - from Wikimedia Commons

The Inman Line (formally known as Liverpool, Philadelphia and New York Steamship Company) was headquartered in Liverpool and ships were registered under the British flag.  The contract they held in the 1860s for carrying the mail, however, was with the United States - hence we refer to them as American Packets for the purposes of mail carriage.

Inman was exceptional that the line pushed new technologies, such as iron hulls and screw propellers as opposed to the wooden hulled, paddle wheels that were setting the speed records at the time.  Initially, this new technology was slower, but they required much less coal - allowing for more space for cargo and passengers.  With the launch of the City of Paris, improved screw propulsion technology resulted in a ship that could keep up with the Blue Riband (fastest Atlantic ships) holder, Cunard Lines Scotia, which was a paddle wheeler.

To complete the circle on this particular letter, there is one more postmark that is located on the back.  The London post office in the southern district (London - S) sent the letter to be delivered by a carrier on September 4, the same day it was taken out of the mailbag in the London Foreign Letter Office.

Bonus material - Fun with dates?

I am fortunate this time around to have some of the contents of this piece of mail to go with the exterior "wrapper."  And, if you'll recall, I mentioned that is was possible that the New York Foreign Mail office had this letter in their possession on August 23, but they still put an exchange marking on the letter for August 24 - to reflect the date of departure for the City of Paris.

First, I suspect some of you have noticed and have been waiting for me to say something about the upside down date.  The device used to put this marking on letters had a removable date slug.  The postal clerk could remove the center and insert a new date as needed.  Sometimes, that slug didn't get put in correctly.  The result would be a date that is upside down as compared to the rest of the marking.

Hey, if you had to handle as much mail as these people did, I suspect you might have trouble figuring which end was up sometimes too!  Or, some of the clerks had my sense of humor, they might have done this once in a while just because they could.

And, here is the letter itself.  The date at the top is, in fact, August 23, 1867.  So, it is not just possible, it is likely, that this letter was received at the post office on Friday, August 23, 1867.

More Bonus Material - J.C. & J. Field

This letter was mailed by an individual in New York who was serving as a purchasing agent of raw materials for the company J.C. & J. Field, located in Lambeth Marsh (on Upper Marsh Road), London. As is often the case, it can be hard to decipher the writing in a letter.  This is especially true if you are not familiar with key words that reference particulars of a business or are colloquialisms of the time.  I did notice the word "beeswax" towards the bottom, but I was having trouble with some of the rest.

Happily, I was able to find some period advertising for this business that helped me to figure out some of those keywords! 

1864 ad from Grace's Guide, viewed Mar 9, 2023

J.C. & J Field made soap and candles according to this 1864 advertisement.  This makes beeswax a logical purchase by their agent on their behalf.  Although, it is interesting to note that the ad mentions "paraffine" candles.  And sure enough, when I re-read the letter, I see that the agent is talking about a bid that was made for 20,000 pounds of paraffin.  They also note, at the bottom of this letter, some current price levels for other products of interest including

London Society Magazine that held ad above
    "Spermaceti...priced 42 cts at which price last sales were made"


    "Beeswax without change 40ct 42"

All of these products would makes sense for a purchasing representative in New York City to be considering for their clients who made soap and candles in London.

Are you wondering what spermaceti is?  I was too. So, I did a little looking.

During the 1860s, candles were made with a wide range of raw materials.  The cheapest, and lowest quality, option was to make tallow candles.  Tallow (animal fat) candle smoke often left a sooty residue and had an unpleasant odor.  These candles melted easily and required that the user regularly trim the wick.  To make matters worse, the light quality was often poor.

Paraffin is a by-product when petroleum is distilled.  This resource was clearly much less expensive if prices were in the 20 to 24 cent range versus beeswax and spermaceti that commanded nearly twice the price.  Paraffin was a bit more brittle, but the candles burned much slower than tallow and provided a less expensive option to beeswax.  Beeswax, on the other hand, would be a preferable product for quality candles.

Spermaceti, or whale oil, was another high-end option for the production of quality candles.  Made from oils collected from the head of Sperm Whales, these candles burned brightly and odor free. 

If you would like to read a bit more about candles and candle making during the 1860s, I found this site titled Women, Remedy and Herbs of the Civil War to be clear and concise.

1867 ad from The Archer's Register, viewed at this location 3/11/23

The Field family had a long history as wax and tallow chandlers and this particular business was founded in 1642 in Lambeth Marsh.  The map below shows Lambeth Marsh situated next to the River Thames in the 1200s according to this source (Vauxhall, the Oval and Kennington).  In the 1860s, this area would be clearly within the South London postal district.

J.C. & J. Field maintained their factory on Upper Marsh, a road in Lambeth Marsh, but they also held a location north of the river at 12 Wigmore Street for a period of time.  According to this resource (London Street Views), they may not have continued at Wigmore Street into the 1860s - though they maintained the Lambeth Marsh location until J.C. and J. Field was eventually absorbed by other businesses in the 1940s.

ordinance survey map 1892-5 from this blog

By the time we reach the 1890s, the area of Lambeth Marsh was fully developed and the Field's factory had become a sprawling affair.  You can see it near the center of the map shown above (and not far from the London & South Western Railway tracks).  The Upper Marsh road is north and west of the factory.


Well, that's what I've got for you this week.  I hope you enjoyed this foray into postal history and some of the surrounding social history that came with it.  Have a fine remainder of your day and an excellent week to come.


  1. You’re a marvel Rob. That first cover is beautiful. Just wondered. Was it just a hurried clerk in the “haste makes waste” scenario that added that second strike?

    1. The reason for the upside down date slug will never be known for certain by us - of course. The key takeaway is that the slugs could fit into the receiving slot in either direction. Given the probability that a clerk had to handle a fair number of items, it's not hard to see how they just put the slug in upside down now and again. It could have been in haste, certainly. Or, it could be just like the typos I found in this Postal History Sunday as I scanned it today. Perfection is hard to achieve - and the more attempts there are to do a thing, the more opportunities there are to make a mistake! Then, there is one more possible explanation. If I were a postal clerk and I had the opportunity to put the date slug in upside down every so often - I would. Why? That might be a call for another blog post. Thanks for the question.