Sunday, November 8, 2020

How Long To Get There?

Welcome to Postal History Sunday!

For those who might be new to reading my recent Sunday entries, the Postal History Sunday blog is intended to be an opportunity for Farmer Rob to share his postal history hobby with others who might enjoy learning a few things about it.  You don't have to be a postal historian to enjoy these blogs - that's not the intent.  If you want more fine and nitty-gritty details, they can be provided in another forum.  But, if you enjoy learning a little bit about various things and you can appreciate seeing another person sharing something they like - then these posts are for you.


A couple of weeks ago, I shared a Postal History Sunday blog showing an 1863 letter from India to France that was sent unpaid.  The focus of that blog was on how postal services handled an unpaid letter.  

I had an excellent question after that blog: "How long did these letters typically take to travel from somewhere, like India, to another place, such as France?"

We get to start with a map!  If you love maps - there you are!  Feel free to click on the image to view a larger version.

What you see here are the common routes for mail traveling to South and East Asia in the late 1850s to mid 1860s.  The two major differences you will see here is that one route, in blue, travels by sea from Southampton (United Kingdom) to Malta and the other, in red, travels overland across France - then goes on to Malta.  The other difference is the stop(s) in India.

First, I need to make it clear that transportation in the 1850s to 1870s was rapidly changing.  Rail lines were springing up in Europe, the Suez canal was being built.  Passes were being developed for more rapid transit in the Alps and shipping lines were adjusting as it became clear where the money was in terms of routes and schedules.  Just trust me when I say that transportation companies were not concerned that postal historians in 2020 would have a difficult time piecing things together because they kept changing routes and schedules!

On the other hand, there are all sorts of sources, primary and secondary, that provide opportunities to unearth the most likely schedules and routes that fit items in a postal historian's collection.

Above is a rough schedule that was commonly followed for mails that would have left the United States for destinations in India, Singapore, China and Japan (among others).

So, to answer the direct question from our item that traveled from India to France - it would usually take 19 days - if the letter was mailed at the optimal time.

But, the item in question (shown above) was postmarked in Calcutta on May 22 and arrived in Lyon on June 25.  The red marking appears to be a June 24 marking for the rail line from Marseille.  That's 34 days?  What's up with that?

First, this item had to get to Galle or Bombay from Calcutta, so that would take some time.  Second, it had to wait until a mail ship arrived to carry this letter.  If you look at the schedule above, you can see that bad timing could result in a letter being delayed for a couple of weeks.

Now, before you try to reach conclusions based on the calendar I give above, remember that those are dates for ships heading TO the East.  This letter was coming back the other way.  Those dates would be different, but the spacing would be similar.  All this schedule does is illustrate that a poor arrival time at the port could result in a longer overall transit time.  This letter clearly fits that circumstance as it missed a connection to a ship somewhere along the line (most likely Bombay).

Let me take you a bit deeper into my comfort zone for postal history - the sort of material I have studied the longest - to show you another answer to "how long did it take for mail to travel?"

This item shown above was a business letter sent from New York City, United States to Shanghai, China in 1863.

And here is how it traveled.  Dates in parenthesis are those I can derive from shipping tables (among other things).  Other dates correspond to markings that can be found on this letter.  When these things line up, you have likely identified the correct route!

New York Jul 25
Southampton (Aug 6)
London Aug 7
Dover (Aug 10)
Marseilles (Aug 12)
Malta (Aug 14)
Alexandria (Aug 19)
Suez (Aug 23)
Bombay (Aug 29)
Singapore (Sep 13)
     typhoon Sep 20 - 3 day delay

Hong Kong Sep 23

Shanghai (Sep 30)

Why yes!  They DID have typhoons and hurricanes in the 1800s!  So, even the best laid plans (or schedules) were subject to change.

And now you know a little bit more about how long it took for mail to travel from here to there in the 1860s.

Thank you for joining me - I hope you have a good remainder of the weekend and fine week upcoming.


  1. Anonymous11:20 AM

    Thanks for the write-up! Would you mind explaining more in a future post how to research routes? Specifically which types of resources you're using for shipping tables and as supplements. Thanks!

    1. That's an interesting idea. It may be deeper than a Postal History Sunday post might tend to go - but it would fit in the GFF Postal History blog -where I get more into the 'weeds' so to speak. Let me see what I can come up with on that.


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