Sunday, September 17, 2023

Too Late - Postal History Sunday

Welcome to Postal History Sunday.  This is where the farmer (Rob) gets to share a hobby he enjoys with you.  It doesn't matter if you collect stamps or postal history or if you just like to learn a new thing or two, all are welcome here.

Now, let's take our troubles and worries and crumple them up into as tight a ball as you can manage.  Give that ball to your cat, or your dog... or your goldfish.  The cat will probably end up batting them under the refrigerator, the dog will chew them up so you won't recognize them anymore, and the goldfish...  well, it probably won't do much, but once you soak your troubles in fishtank water for a few hours, they don't look as impressive as they once did.  Don't have a pet?  Well, we are crumpling up virtual pieces of paper, so give them to your virtual pet - maybe an elephant, if you'd like.

Let's see what new things we can learn this week!


One thing that I think most of us can relate to is the way time can get away from us all.  And the other thing is how valuable time can be to us.  Postal services around the world, for as long as they have been in operation have been intensely aware of both of these things.  They know that we will wait until the last minute to get that envelope full of important, time-sensitive materials (like maybe - a tax return?) to the post office to be mailed.  They also know that their customers pay attention to how long things take to get from here to there!

How have postal services defended themselves when their customers push that time envelope and still expect the miracle of quick delivery to the destination?  I thought it might be fun to look at mail in the 1800s and see how it was handled then.

I'm sorry, but we didn't get this letter in time

During the mid-1850s, speedy and affordable mail services were desired, and even demanded, by the business communities who relied on the post to execute their business.  They were swift to point out failures to deliver in a timely fashion, which encouraged post offices to mark letters and mail that were received after the mails closed.  It was a simple line of defense."Hey!  The people who sent this to you messed up, so talk to them if you got it later than you wanted!"


The French were proud of their rail system and the 'star' configuration that set Paris at its center.  They utilized mail processing cars on these trains and there were complex schedules for mail transit using these rail lines.  

Often, rather than going overland via a shorter distance, mail would travel to Paris on one line of the 'star' and then go outward towards its destination from Paris.  This typically resulted in a faster delivery than a direct coach service might have provided.

The reliance on speedy railway services raised expectations for timely delivery of the mail, which means a May 18 postmark at Cambrai in France was typically expected to arrive on May 19 for delivery at Tournay, Belgium.  And while we are at it, Belgium's rail system actually advanced more quickly than France's.  So, it is possible they were even more likely to expect rapid mail transit than the French.

So, here I am looking at a folded letter that was postmarked on May 18, 1860.  It is properly prepaid with a 40 centime French postage stamp.  The red box with the "PD" marking shows that the postage was recognized as paid.  And then there's that additional marking in black ink:

The words "après le départ" translate to "after the departure."  Post offices had to set a cut-off time after which items could no longer be accepted for that day's scheduled conveyance.  Trains, in particular, had a schedule to keep and the mailbag had to be ready to go and be on time.

The individual who trotted in with this piece of mail was probably breathing heavily and might have even tried to convince the postal clerk that there must be some way to get it on that train.  But, alas!  They were too late, and the postal clerk made absolutely certain to document that fact by putting this marking boldly in the center of the address panel, for all to see.

Arrival at Tournay two days after mailing.

The French postal service was sensitive about their reputation for timely mail service, so they applied the "Apres Le Depart" marking to any item that was received after the scheduled close of the mail.  It is important to recognize that the closing of the mail for a particular departure does not imply that the post office itself was closed for business.  In fact, some post offices had multiple mail closing times to reflect mail bound for different directions or conveyance methods.... or a different train on the schedule.

a sample train schedule from Basel (Switzerland) to Strasbourg (France)

I suppose two days for the delivery of a letter may not seem all that terrible in the grand scheme of things.  But, we need to remember that the post was the primary method of communication between businesses and time... as some have said in business... is money.

The Dutch wanted timely mail too...

"Na posttijd" is translated literally as "after post time," which clearly fits the same purpose as the French marking shown above. This folded letter was mailed in Wageningen on September 6, 1858.

Wageningen and Arnhem were both located on an operating rail line at the time of the posting of this letter in 1858.  So, it seems that it is likely the na posttijd marking was an indicator that the mail train was missed.  Perhaps no such marking was used for coach or other service?

However, 20 km is equivalent to 4 Hollands Mijls, and each mijl was equivalent to roughly an hour long walk.  Technically, any service could have arrived at the destination in one day as long as the letter was received at the post office prior to the carrier's departure!  Sadly, I suspect no one was willing to walk this item to Arnhem, so it waited for the mail train that came through the next day and the letter arrived in Arnhem on September 7.

You might notice that this letter bears no postage stamps, something that is uncommon for items in my collection.  However, it was not at all uncommon in the 1850's for items to be mailed unpaid with the intent that the recipient pay the postage in order to take possession of the letter.  The large, penned "5" on the front of this letter indicated that the 5 Dutch cents of postage were due on delivery from the recipient.

Maybe it wasn't the sender's fault...

In 1855, Milan was part of Lombardy, which was administered by Austria.  Parma was a duchy ruled by a member of the Bourbon line, but had as recently as 1847 been ruled by a Habsburg.

Wait!  What's this Habsburg/Bourbon stuff?

If you are like me, I have only so much brainspace.  And references to the Bourbons and the Habsburgs don't mean much to me without a quick reminder - so maybe the same holds true for you?  The Bourbons have a French origin and the Bourbons in Parma were Spanish.  The Habsburgs, on the other hand, were Austrian.

Remember the Holy Roman Empire? And, yes, I've heard the joke that the Holy Roman Empire was none of these.  Thank you Voltaire

It is this Austrian connection that explains Parma's participation in a postal agreement (Austro-Italian League) that maintained favorable rates for mail between its members.  Members included Austria, the Kindgom of Lombardy & Venetia, Parma, Modena, Tuscany, and the Papal States.  

The letter below was sent from Milan (Lombardy) to Parma, which was both the name of the primary city and the duchy.  Mail between them could be prepaid at rates that were roughly equivalent to Austria's internal postage because they were part of this postal league.

Rail service was still extremely limited in the Italian states because Austria wanted to suppress development of anything that might support a growing sentiment for the unification of Italy.  It would not be until 1859 that the Milan-Bologna rail line, which ran through Parma and Modena, would be fully placed into service.  

This letter was mailed in 1855.  Perhaps there was a short railway spur in Milan that carried this item towards its destination.  But, it probably was carried in a mail coach most of the way to Parma.

Whether this folded letter was put on a train or not, there is a marking in Italian that reads "dopo la partenza" or "after departure."

There is a September 2 postmark in Milan followed by an arrival in Parma on September 4 for a 120 km trip - mostly by coach.  With an average speed of 8 km per hour, it would take 15 hours of continuous travel, but the dedicated mail coaches probably traveled faster than this. So, it is possible a person in Parma might expect to receive a letter from Milan in a single day.

So - perhaps there was another reason this letter was delayed?

There are two slits in this folded letter that are indicators that the item was disinfected at some point on its journey.

The third cholera pandemic had been particularly deadly in 1854 and reached places in Italy where it had not previously been found in the following year (see p 30 of the monograph linked here).  It was at this time that various individuals were discovering that contaminated water was the source for most outbreaks.  But, even so, disinfection of the mail continued, if only to show the public that something was being done to control the disease.

In fact, you can see that I featured this same cover in this Postal History Sunday that talked about treatments of the mail in attempts to halt disease. is possible the reason for the dopo la partenza marking had nothing to do with the late arrival of the sender at the post office and everything to do with the disinfection process itself.

Or maybe, we just missed the boat...

The letter below was mail in February of 1858 from Triest to Pola.  There was no active rail line between these two cities on the Istrian peninsula at that time and the entire area used Austria's postal services.

Nach Abgang Der Post

Triest was a major port city on the Adriatic Sea and there were significant business concerns that utilized mail services regularly in that community.  Pola, at the time this letter was written, was also a port city on the Adriatic*.    Sadly, the backstamp is not clear enough to determine the arrival date with certainty, though it looks like February 9 (after a Feb 6 sending date).   

Another postal service and another language.  This time, our marking on the letter is in German and it reads "nach abgang der post" which means "after the post has left."

It does not seem possible that this marking had anything to do with a train since I cannot find any record of railways there until decades later.  Of course, it is always possible that a mailcoach was missed, but I think that this letter may have missed the boat!

Both cities were reasonably significant ports on the Adriatic Sea and it seems reasonable to expect coastal steamers to carry mail between them.  It is also reasonable to expect that there were also mail coach routes.  So, I can't say for sure whether this missed the next scheduled boat or the next scheduled mail coach.  But, one thing is for sure - it missed something! 

*Pola is now a part of Croatia and is known as Pula.  The distance, via ground routes, is approximately 140 km between Trieste and Pola.

It's nice that you wanted to catch the Asia, but....

Persons who availed themselves of trans-Atlantic mail services in the 1860s were often well-versed in the comings and goings of the mail packets (ships) and would often write a directive on the envelope or wrapper for a particular ship sailing.  On the bottom left of the envelope shown below we see the words "p(er) Cunard Steamer Asia from Boston April 25."  The docketing at the left indicates that the contents were datelined April 24, 1866 but, sadly, the contents are no longer with the envelope.

Generally speaking, the postal clerks at exchange offices (those post offices that handled mail to and from countries outside the United States) were charged with getting the mail to the destination via the fastest available route.  So, the docket indicating which ship this item should sail on was not as necessary as it might have been in prior decades. Still the sender of this piece of mail found it necessary to try to show that an April 25 sailing departure was expected.  

Is it possible they put it there in an attempt to impress upon the recipient that if it did not go that way, the postal service might be to blame for any delay?

It was well known that Cunard Line sailings left on Wednesdays, alternating between Boston and New York.  The next available sailings (by other lines) were on Saturdays.  This Wednesday sailing was in Boston, but the letter was mailed in New York, which means the letter probably had to be in the New York exchange office on Tuesday (Apr 24) to reach the Wednesday ship departure in Boston*.  But, what happens when you get to the post office too late and the mailbags intended for the Cunard Line's Asia have been closed and are no longer available to stuff one more letter into them?  

Well, the postal clerk takes note of your intent for a April 25 departure by putting a marking that reads "Too Late" on the front of your piece of mail.  Then, he strikes the cover with a red New York marking with the date of the NEXT available sailing (April 28), providing an explanation to the recipient that it was NOT their fault that this item arrived a few days later. 

I wonder if the clerk would have bothered with the "Too Late" marking if the sender had not tried to place an intended departure date on the cover?  My guess is that they would not have done so.

*The Appletons' United States Postal Guide gives some of the postal schedules for some of the larger cities including New York and Boston.  However, it only provides a look at the Boston foreign mails and no mention is made of the New York foreign mails.  In Boston, letters destined for a New York sailing were to be posted no later than 7 pm the previous day.


Well, once again, you have frittered away a chunk of time and politely listened (or read) while I shared something I enjoy.  I hope you found parts and pieces of it interesting and perhaps you learned something new.  I hope you join me next week for a new Postal History Sunday.

Hey!  Where did that wadded up ball of troubles go?  Oh, the elephant took it?  Ok, that's fine with me.

A Couple of Resources

There are numerous philatelic and postal history resources out in the world that have helped me get a foothold on some of the things I share here.  Here are two that had some influence on this week's Postal History Sunday.

"Appletons' United States Postal Guide - 1863," D. Appleton & Co, reprint by J. Lee

Lesgor, R, Minnigerode, M & Stone, R.G., "The Cancellations on French Stamps of the Classic Issues: 1849-1876," Nassau Stamp Company, 1948


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.

1 comment:

  1. Rob, Thanks for your review of Too Late makings for several counties.
    And thanks also for the cholera history link. Invaluable if you want to track when/where there was an outbreak. For those with a special interest in the French aspect, I can recommend Guy Datau's book "Disinfection of mail in France and the occupied countries..."