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.

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