For approximately 18 months, from December 1843 until the end of June 1845, a privately owned system of mail routes successfully competed with the United States Post Office Department.
Known to the public as the “Opposition Post Office” or “independent mails,” this group of more than 10 private letter-carrying firms (of which nine companies issued stamps) won a huge share of the market along the most lucrative eastern routes. By challenging the postal monopoly, the independent mails were the catalyst for American postal reform in 1845 and the issuance of the first United States postage stamps in 1847.
Elliott Perry, an authority on independent mails, estimated that as many as 22 million letters were carried by private companies in one year. If accurate, this figure represents approximately half of the letter volume Perry estimated would have been handled by the U.S. Post Office without competition from the independents.
Most of the individuals and companies that started to carry letters in 1844 had already established their reputations as express operators who transported packages and valuable freight between cities. The independent mails were both cost effective and innovative. Among the major advantages offered to the public were cheaper postage (one-third of U.S. post office rates); fast service among an established transport network; conveniences such as letter drop boxes and stamps; incentives to prepay postage (e.g. providing discounts on stamps) and issuing stamps in sheetlets of 20, similar to contemporary stamp offerings (Figure 1).
Figure 1. Hale and Company was the largest of the independent mail companies. This sheet of 20 stamps would have been sold for $1.
In response to the threat posed by independents, the U.S. government mobilized against them through arrests, lawsuits, and finally, legislation to expand and enforce the postal monopoly. One example is Lysander Spooner’s founding of the American Letter Mail Company in 1844 to challenge the USPOD’s monopoly. Spooner saw an opportunity to compete with costly government postal rates. The Post Office challenged Spooner’s business in court, but the court ruled that if a private passenger carried letters, it was not a violation of the postal laws of the time. Most of the independent mails were carried by passengers traveling on trains and boats.
With these lawsuits unsuccessful, the Post Office turned to Congress. The result was the Act of March 3, 1845 – effective July 1 – which reduced postal rates and gave postal authorities the power to prosecute anyone who attempted to carry letters between cities. The new laws against private mail forced the independents to terminate letter-mail operations on June 30, 1845. Thus ended a short-lived but very significant era of private enterprise. The innovations of the independent mails, including reduced rates, prepayment of postage, indeed the use of stamps themselves, still resonate today.
The cover shown (Figure 2) is argued by Robert A. Siegel Auction Galleries to be the most important in independent mail postal history, because it illustrates how three independent mail companies cooperated to deliver a letter from Cleveland, Ohio to New Haven, Connecticut. The letter was written in August 1844 and sent from Cleveland by the W. Bingham Company, a hardware company, to Pierpont & Hotchkiss, a New Haven manufacturer of doorknobs and locks. Clearly, Bingham was a thrifty businessman who took advantage of the lower postage rates offered by the independent mail companies. He used the new Wells Letter Express company in Cleveland to send his letter to New Haven for 15 cents, instead of the 25 cents that the U.S. Post Office would have charged.
Figure 2. A cover sent in 1844 from Cleveland, Ohio to New Haven, Connecticut using stamps from three independent mail companies: Wells Letter Express, Pomeroy and the American Letter Mail Company.
The three green oval Goddess of Commerce stamps could be purchased individually for 6¼ cents each, or 20 for $1. The word “Free” indicated that the letter would be delivered without cost to the recipient, in contrast to the custom of sending letters postage due.
Visualize what this letter looked like at the start of its journey at the Wells Letter Express Office in Cleveland. Imagine the envelope lacks the Pomeroy and American Letter Mail Co. stamps and markings, and bears just the three green Wells Letter Express stamps.
Wells took the letter from Cleveland to Buffalo. In Buffalo, Wells purchased two Pomeroy stamps to credit the other two companies with their share of the postage, and these were affixed to the letter. Pomeroy carried the letter to New York City, where his company purchased an American Letter Mail stamp, and affixed that to the letter to pay for the remainder of the letter’s journey to New Haven. When the letter was processed at the American Letter Mail Office in New York, it was backstamped and the “Paid” marking was applied to the front of the letter to indicate that no postage was due from the recipient. The letter was then carried by a Long Island steamboat to New Haven (the rail line between New York City and New Haven was not completed at this time).
Considering that the first United States Postmasters’ Provisionals would not be issued until nearly one year after this mailed, and the first U.S. stamps two years after that, the presence of six stamps in three colors from three different stamp-issuing entities on this letter must have been perceived as extraordinary, even in 1844 when it was delivered to Pierpont and Hotchkiss.
To learn more about this topic, I recommend reading the analysis of independent mails found in Carmen A. Puliafito Collection of Independent Mails published by Robert A. Siegel Auction Galleries on May 16, 2016.
Carmen A. Puliafito is an ophthalmologist and was formerly dean of the medical school at the University of Southern California. His exhibit, “United States Independent Mail Stamps, 1844 to 1845,” won several large gold medals at international exhibitions.
U.S. PHILATELIC CLASSICS SOCIETY
Articles written by members of the U.S. Philatelic Classics Society, an APS affiliate, will appear periodically in upcoming months in The American Philatelist.
The U.S. Philatelic Classics Society is a non-profit association of people interested in the pre-1894 stamps and postal history of the United States. Our goal is to encourage philatelic research and the exchange of information among our members and other philatelic organizations. We welcome anyone interested in the classic era of United States philately to join. More information can be found on the society website at www.uspcs.org.
For Further Learning
Recommendations from the APRL research staff:
“Independent Mail Routes of the U.S.” by Harry Konwiser and Laurence Mason. Stamp Specialist, February 1940.
“Supplement to Independent Mail Routes of the United States” by Harry Konwiser. Stamp Specialist, 1942.
Eastern Independent Mail and Express Mail Companies 1840-1845 by Michael Gutman, David Snow, Richard Frajola, Gordon Stimmell, William Sammis, John Bowman and Scott Trepel. (Eastern Independent Mail Company Study Group, 2016.) [IP62699]
Hale & Co. Independent Mail Company, 1843-1845 by Michael S. Gutman. (M.S. Gutman, 2005.) [G3701 .L811 G984h 2005]