Sunday, January 24, 2021

That Doesn't Seem Fair - Postal History Sunday

Welcome again (or maybe for the first time) to Postal History Sunday!  Take a moment of time to read about something different and maybe learn something new.  Stuff those worries in the cookie jar for a little bit and make sure you take some cookies out to enjoy while you read.

This week I am going to write about a topic that I often find myself explaining to other postal historians who do not share my specific area of interest.  Now, before you think this will be 'too much,' I can assure you that if you have read any of the other Postal History Sunday posts, this one won't get any more into the weeds than those.  You're going to do just fine.  

It's me I'm worried about!

Oh - and you do happen to be a postal historian and you do want to get more into the weeds, the GFF Postal History Blog gets these posts as well as some that go into more depth when I have time to write them.

Sending A Letter to England

In 1862, a person who wanted to a send a letter from the United States to England would have to pay 24 cents for a letter that weighed up to 1/2 ounce.  For comparison, you can send a letter that weighs up to one ounce in today's mail for $1.20.  So, if you're thinking, "Wow.  It sure does seem like it cost a fair bit to send a letter to England in 1862."  You would be correct.

In fact, the letter rate actually decreased to 12 cents in 1868 and was reduced further to six cents not long after.  By the time we get to the days of the General Postal Union (1875), that price was 5 cents!

You might recall from last week's Postal History Sunday post, that the postage was split into three pieces:

  • 5 cents was kept by the United States for their internal mail service
  • 16 cents were paid to the sailing company that carried the letter across the Atlantic
  • 3 cents were kept by the British for their internal mail service.

The wild card here was that some sailing companies had contracts with the British and some had contracts with the U.S.  It actually mattered which ship carried this letter because it determined which mail service got 16 cents worth of the postage.

The US Post Office sold the stamp for 24 cents to the customer, who put it on the envelope to show that they had paid for the service.  This letter went via a British packet (steamship), which means the British needed 19 cents (16 + 3) to pay for their part of the services needed to get the mail to the Reverend A.P. Putnam in London. 

What if it Weighed More than a Half Ounce?

But, what if it weighed more than a half ounce?  Well, 24 cents would not cover the cost of mailing that item - of course!

Here is a larger envelope that must have been more than a half ounce, but no more than one ounce in weight.  It was mailed from Chicago to Shaftsbury, England.   Below is a summary of the rate table for mail from the US to the United Kingdom from 1849 through 1867.

You might notice that the rate of postage was not 24 cents per 1/2 ounce.   It might be better to think of the 24 cent rate as a special rate for very light mail.  The actual rate might more accurately be said to be 48 cents per ounce.

But, wait a minute - did I say that the letter above was mailed from Chicago?  How did I know that?

 One of the magic powers postal historians develop over time is the ability to recognize certain markings and understand where they came from.  The "6 Cents" marking was used in Chicago to show that the British got 6 cents out of the 48 cents in postage.  There is a similar, more commonly found "3 Cents" marking used for letters that were a half-ounce or less in weight.

But, What if They Didn't Pay Enough?

People don't always get the postage right - so there had to be some sort of an agreement to determine how "short paid" letters would be handled.  For example, the letter below (from 1867) has a single 24 cent stamp on it - but it must have weighed more than a half ounce, so it needed 48 cents in postage.

The New York foreign mail exchange office placed a "Short Paid" marking on the envelope and used black ink for their circular marking (the one that has a "42" in it).  The interesting thing is that this letter must have caused the postmaster some trouble because there is a red marking just to the right of it that indicated it was paid.

You can guess how that might happen.  The clerk was going through a pile of letters, stamping them with the red paid marking and got into the rhythm of the work.  He hit this one and then said "hmmmmm."  Weighed it out and realized his instincts were correct - so he put the "short paid" and the black circular marking on the envelope.

The British Post Office agreed with this assessment and wrote the squiggle on the envelope that is a 2 with a squiggly tail.  This was their way of saying the recipient owed 2 shillings for the privilege of receiving this letter.  The envelope contained a death announcement, which is indicated by the black border.  I have a suspicion most people would have found a way to pay the 2 shillings in this case.

How much was 2 shillings in US money?  48 cents.  

The agreement between the United States and the British at this time was that a letter that was not paid in full would be treated as COMPLETELY UNPAID.  Well, that's one way to make a death announcement sting a bit more.  The sender spent 24 cents to send it and the recipient had to pay the equivalent of 48 cents to receive it.  Ugh!

It Could Be Worse!

The letter below has 72 cents in postage applied to it AND the recipient had to pay 4 shillings (equal to 96 cents) to receive it.

This larger envelope must have weighed more than one ounce, so it would require more postage.  So, let's remind ourselves of the postal agreement rates:

Oh... yeah.  It isn't 24 cents per 1/2 ounce - it's 48 cents per ounce once you get to things heavier than a half ounce.  But, that's not what everyone understood when they mailed things.  After all, if you wanted to send a letter inside of the United States it was 3 cents for EVERY 1/2 ounce.  It would be natural to expect a rate to a foreign country to follow the same pattern - and that's what the sender of this envelope did.

The letter must have weighed over one ounce and up to 1 1/2 ounces.  They figured 72 cents was correct if you had 24 cents per 1/2 ounce.  But, they were wrong - which means the letter was Short Paid.  Which means it is treated as UNpaid.  

Ugh again!

Oh My Goodness!

If you thought that was bad - what about poor Mr. Robert Stiver (sp?) of Dundee, Scotland?   He had to pay 6 shillings for this item sent in the mail to him.

You can guess what happened here.  There are five 24 cent stamps - probably put on there by a sender who figured this letter that weighed over 2 ounces but not more than 2 1/2 ounces should require 5 times the 24 cent rate per half ounce.  But, sadly, the rate is really 48 cents per ounce.  The letter weighed more than 2 ounces and no more than three ounces - so it needed $1.44 instead of the $1.20 affixed to the envelope.

When all was said and done, this letter cost the equivalent of $2.64 between the stamps paid for by the sender and the 6 shillings given by Mr. Stiver.

I sure hope the content of this envelope was worth every penny!


Thanks for joining me in this Postal History Sunday and that maybe, you learned something new!  Have a great remainder of the weekend and a good week to come.


  1. How do you find these things? :)

    1. Is that worth a Postal History Sunday post you think?

    2. It's in the pipeline. No idea when it will show up as I have a few dozen topics already identified! Hmmmm.


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