Welcome back to Postal History Sunday!
This week's post was inspired by last week's post on how long it took to get from 'here to there' in the 1860s. This time, we're going to see how an informed person in the 1860s could save themselves a little money (and time) by knowing when ships were scheduled to sail!
Last week we introduced you to this piece of letter mail.
Now we go back to the map showing how mail traveled from the United Kingdom to China at this time. Let me draw your attention to the blue line that leaves from Southampton and goes by sea - around France, Portugal and Spain until it lands at Malta. This route is referenced on the second letter where the words "via Southampton" is written at the top left. You could think of this as the 'slow boat' to China because it took much longer to go from the UK to Malta by boat.
The faster alternative is was to cross the English Channel to France and take French railways to Marseilles. Once at Marseilles, a steamship would take the letter the rest of the way to Malta (that's the red line that goes from Dover to Marseilles and then Malta).
In short - if you wanted to save some money - it looks like you could pay 8 cents fewer for your letter at the expense of 7 days more travel time. If only it were that simple!
What would you say if I told you that paying 8 cents more did NOT guarantee you a faster delivery of the mail?
Let's look at the chart below again - pay particular attention to Malta's schedule:
Essentially, if you wanted your letter to go via British mail to the countries in the Far East, it was important for you to get it to Malta on the 15th or the 30th/31st of the month. If you get it there on the 16th, it's just going to sit there until the next mail departure on the 31st! Similarly, if it arrives on the 1st - it will wait until the 15th.
If you lived in the United States - it was simpler just to look at the schedule the British put out for mail departures "to India and the Far East." Four times a month, London/Southampton would make up mails to go to China - the 4th, 10th, 20th and 26th. If you know that mail crossing the Atlantic typically took around 12 days, your cut off dates would be (approximately) the 8th (to leave by Southampton), 14th (to leave via Marseilles), 22nd/23rd (Southampton) and 28th/29th (Marseilles).
The first letter left New York on the 25th of the month - so if you wanted to get to Malta on the 15th of the next month, you had to take the letter via Marseilles and pay 8 more cents. If you failed to do this, then your letter would be delayed by at least a week for the next mailing before it even left London, which is the same as a two weeks delay at Malta, regardless of the route it took.
So, really, the sender of the first letter was paying 8 cents to get an item to its destination TWO WEEKS earlier - maybe that would be worth it?
Letter #2 was mailed on July 18th with an arrival in London/Southampton on the 30th. Well, gosh golly gee! The next mail in the UK to China leaves via Southampton. So, you might as well pay 8 cents fewer, because the extra money will gain you nothing other than a false belief that you will get faster service.
Of course, things were always changing and increased demand for rapid mail services and trade routes necessitated changes over time. In fact, there were options to send letters to China via French mail and there were times French mail steamers would carry mail in the Mediterranean and in the Far East using different schedules, increasing the options for a mailer.
Compare the Costs
Still confused? Not to worry! You don't have to think about the mail route through Europe for your mail going to China because we have something called airplanes now. But, here is the real kicker:
It cost 53 cents for a letter weighing up to a half ounce to go from the US to Shanghai via Marseilles or 45 cents for a letter weighing up to a half ounce to go via Southampton in 1863.
Today - it costs $1.15 to mail a letter weighing up to 1 full ounce from the US to Shanghai.Thank you for joining me - I hope you have a good remainder of the weekend and fine week upcoming.