Note: This article is a collaboration with the U.S. Philatelic Classics Society (USPCS). To learn more about USPCS, visit their website.
United States cover collectors are sometimes surprised by the strange fractional postal rates found on many early folded letters, including rates such as 12½, 18¾, 37½ cents and others. This article explains some of the reasoning behind these rates and how these folded letters were paid with then-common coins. The Postal Act of February 1792 provided nine different rates for letters, depending on the distance traveled.
| Up to 30 miles
| 30 to 60 miles
|| 8 cents
| 60 to 100 miles
|| 10 cents
| 100 to 150 miles
| 150 to 200 miles
|| 15 cents
| 200 to 250 miles
| 250 to 350 miles
| 350 to 450 miles
| Over 450 miles
In particular, letters sent distances of 100 to 150 miles were charged 12½ cents. While this somewhat complicated rate schedule was slightly simplified in subsequent years (up to 1845), this charge of 12½ cents continued to apply to similar distances for most of that time. The question arises, why 12½ cents? Why not 12 or 13 cents? The answer lies in the type of coinage circulating in the U.S. prior to the 1850s.
During the Colonial period, states were prevented by England from coining their own money, so individuals had to use either foreign coins or paper money printed by a number of states. One of the most popular coins was the Spanish silver dollar. The Spanish dollar consisted of 8 “reals” and, in earlier years, was sometimes physically cut up into 8 pieces. Each of these pieces was often referred to as a “bit.” As the U.S. dollar was approximately equal to the Spanish dollar in terms of silver weight, each real or bit was worth one-eighth of a dollar, or 12½ cents. Two bits were equal to 25 cents or a quarter. In fact, the colloquial term “two bits” (meaning 25 cents) remained in the U.S. vernacular for more than a century after the Spanish real was no longer acceptable as U.S. currency.
Following the Coinage Act of 1792, the U.S. Mint produced a variety of decimal-based coins, including half cents, one cents, half dimes, dimes, quarters and larger coins. However, as there was very limited production of U.S. coins prior to the 1850s, the use of Spanish coins continued to be very common. So, it was reasonable to base some of the postage rates on readily available coins such as the Spanish real. Other similar coins included the ½ real, sometimes called a medio or a picayune, worth 6¼ cents.
Figure 1. Note the 12 ½ cent postage due charge on this 1801 folded letter.
Figure 1 shows a folded letter mailed from New York City to Philadelphia in 1801. Postmarked with the fancy New York “clamshell” in black, the cover was rated 12½ cents (postage due), reflecting the rate for letters sent between 90 and 150 miles under the Postal Act of March 1799. Clearly, the postage on this cover was readily paid with a one real coin.
Figure 2. The 1815 folded letter is rated 18 ¾ cents (3/4 is represented as a near-illegible squiggle).
The stampless letter in Figure 2 was mailed from Philadelphia in August of 1815 to New York City. During the period from February 1815 through March 1816, postal rates were increased 50 percent to help offset the costs of the War of 1812. While the pre-1815 rate would have been 12½ cents, the new rate was now 18 ¾ cents (1.5 times 12½). Note that this rate was often written as 18 followed by a squiggle! This rate could easily be paid with a combination of real and medio coins (12½ plus 6¼ equals 18¾ cents).
Figure 3. An 1832 folded letter, traveling 150-400 miles and charged the corresponding 18 ¾ cent rate.
Effective May 1, 1816, the rate for letters traveling 150 to 400 miles was 18½ cents. But it seems that people had difficulty coming up with this exact rate when paying postage, so the rate was changed to 18¾ cents (Act of March 3, 1825, effective May 1, 1825.) This way, one only had to pay 1½ reals using the two Spanish coins described above. Figure 3 shows a folded letter sent from Northampton, Massachusetts, to New York City in 1832, rated with a clear 18¾ (postage due).
Figure 4. A slightly unusual charge of 37 ½ cents on this 1834 folded letter indicates an additional enclosure requiring a doubled rate of the usual 18 ¾ cents.
Multiple rate letters might also show fractional rates. The Figure 4 letter was mailed from Philadelphia to Hartford, Connecticut in 1834. While the usual charge would have been 18¾ (150 to 400 miles), the letter was deemed a double rate (likely due to an additional enclosure), which made it 37½ cents (two times 18¾). Note again the squiggle after the 37.
Figure 5. This 1843 folded letter displays the postmaster’s arithmetic, changing the overcharged rate of 18 ¾ to the correct 12 ½ cents.
Sometimes a letter would display several fractional rates. The letter in Figure 5 was mailed in 1843 from Cohoes, New York, to Goshen, New Hampshire. While initially rated 18¾, it was subsequently changed to 12½ by the receiving postmaster in Goshen. Instead of just crossing out the old rate, the postmaster showed the detailed arithmetic by subtracting 6¼ from the “Over Charged” rate.
Figure 6. This 1843 letter was undercharged as 12 ½ cents until revised to the correct 18 ¾ cent rate.
It appears that there was some confusion when rating letters sent to this town. Figure 6 shows a folded letter sent from Jersey City, New Jersey, to Goshen, also in 1843 (same correspondent, initially rated 12½ cents but then upgraded by 6¼ cents to the revised 18¾ rate.
Figure 7. This 1842 letter was forwarded three times and reached a total of 51¼ cents postage due.
Our final cover shows the impact of fractional rates when forwarding letters from one town to another. Prior to 1866, forwarded letters were charged an additional rate of postage, based on the rate schedule in effect at the time the letter was forwarded. Beginning July 1, 1866, letter mail was forwarded at no additional charge if requested by the addressee. The letter (Figure 7) was initially mailed from Providence, Rhode Island, to Holliston, Massachusetts, in 1842, rated 10 cents (30 to 80 miles), postage due. The recipient was not in Holliston at that time, so the letter was forwarded to Newton Centre, Massachusetts, with an additional 10 cents due (now totaling 20 cents). Not finding the addressee there, it was forwarded once again, this time to Plainfield, Connecticut, with a new charge of 12½ cents (80 to 150 miles), bringing the total rate to 32½ cents. A final, third forwarding was necessary, to Woodbury, New Jersey, at an additional rate of 18¾ (150 to 400 miles), bringing the final total postage rate to 51¼ cents! Clearly, the postmasters had to know their fractions!
Phillips, David G. (ed.). American Stampless Cover Catalog, Volume I, Fifth Edition (North Miami, Florida: David G. Phillips Publishing Co., Inc., 1997).
Wawrukiewicz, Anthony S. The Forwarding of Mail by the U.S. Post Office Department, 1792-2001 (Wheeling, IL: James E. Lee, Publisher, 2001).
Milgrim, James W., M.D. The Express Mail of 1836-1839 (Collectors Club of Chicago, 1977).
ter Braake, Alex L. The Posted Letter in Colonial and Revolutionary America, 1628-1790 (American Philatelic Research Library, 1975).
Michael Heller began collecting stamps more than 50 years ago and has been an ardent collector of U.S. postal history for most of these years. While he’s maintained a lifelong passion for illustrated advertising covers, his other interests include registered, special delivery and U.S. to foreign destinations. Michael also has a strong interest in the stampless period, with a particular focus on postal rates. He is a life time member of the APS; has been a member of the USPCS for nearly 50 years and served as a director of the USPCS for two terms. He has also been president of the New York Chapter of the USPCS for many years.