Sunday, November 15, 2020

Timing is Everything

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.

Mailed on July 25, 1863, this letter was sent from New York City to Shanghai, China via England, France and the Suez.  It took this item 60 days to get as far as Hong Kong and another 7 days to get to Shanghai.  Over two months of time for a business letter to arrive at its destination.

It took 53 cents to mail a single weight letter from the United States to China if you chose the option for British Mail "via Marseilles."  This was fully paid for all mail services to the destination.

So - I now introduce you to another item from the United States to China.

This piece of letter mail was posted in New York City on July 18, 1863 to Shanghai and it also arrived in Hong Kong on September 23 and Shanghai on September 30.  This letter took one week longer to travel the distance from its origin to its destination (74 days).

You should also note that this letter has 45 cents of postage - which was sufficient to prepay all costs to get to Shanghai on the route "via Southampton."

67 days for 53 cents and 74 days for 45 cents.
What's up with that?


Via Southampton

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.

Via Marseilles

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.


  1. My morning brain noodling! You must be the owner of the board game that builds truck and trade routes across the globe! But your post reminds me of the butterfly affect. Say someone who was on their way to the post office to mail a letter to China, realized they left (anything) at home and had to turn back to get it. Theoretically, they might have then missed the cut-off for the mail pick-up that day - resulting in an extra 2 week delivery at the other end. This might have had catastrophic outcomes for a business, or for someone making a life-decision at the other end ... which then provides for further outcomes that otherwise might not have had the opportunity to arise. Maybe a bit of a lame example. But such large time frames for the post may have afforded many unintended opportunities along the way. My take away is the vulnerability of the postal routes.

  2. Not a lame example at all! Businesses were fully aware of the limitations that came with the delay in communications. But, this is also why so many of them were very aware of shipping departure times. Businesses were also very keen to encourage the development of speedy rail systems, among other things.


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