What are Freight Money Letters?
Editor's note: "The Letter Opener" is a monthly column written by Charles Epting for The American Philatelist. Every month, Charles explores a different facet of postal history, drawing from his own experience and research.
We will begin this installment of “The Letter Opener” with a concept that eluded philatelists for more than a century and remains relatively obscure in the annals of postal history.
“Freight money” is a term that is far from self-explanatory and the underlying details are arcane to all but the most dedicated researchers. But the purpose here is to break down such complexities, and so we will do our best to figure out just what “freight money” means.
Throughout the early part of the 18th century, transatlantic sailings were sporadic and unreliable. It was not until the SS Great Western set off on April 8, 1838 for her maiden voyage from Bristol, England, to New York City that the modern era of transatlantic travel was inaugurated.
Figure 1. The SS Great Western departs Bristol for New York on her maiden voyage, April 8, 1838.
The Great Western was the first ship built for the express purpose of transatlantic voyages between America and Europe (Figure 1). Eastbound trips took, on average, about 16 days, while westbound trips to England were slightly shorter at around 13 days.
The success and viability of the Great Western paved the way for the British & American Steam Navigation Company, whose SS British Queen made her maiden voyage just 15 months later on July 12, 1839. The British Queen was considerably larger and more comfortable than the Great Western and set a new high-water mark for transatlantic travel.
By mid-1838 private companies such as the British & American Steam Navigation Company (SS Sirius), Great Western Steamship Company (SS Great Western), and the Transatlantic Steam Ship Company (SS Royal William and SS Liverpool) began charging 25 cents per sheet for letters carried across the Atlantic Ocean on their ships. These letters are what collectors now refer to as “freight money.”
But why the name “freight money?” The term comes from circulars distributed to postmasters by the British & American Steam Navigation Company in the late 1830s explaining the procedures for handling mail bound for England by way of their steamships. The term was then adopted in official Canadian post office communications, and when the subject was explored by postal historians (namely Frank Staff and Charless Hahn) over a century later, the naming convention remained.
Even after the advent of the transatlantic steamship, sailing vessels continued to make the journey between North America and England. These sailing ships were generally slower and less reliable, and as such they charged a lower fee to carry mail: 12½ cents, or half the amount charged by steamships.
What makes freight money letters particularly interesting is that certain United States and Canadian postmasters were authorized to collect the private ship fees. England-bound letters were then bundled along with the freight money fees and a waybill and sent to the postmaster of New York City, where they were handed over to their respective shipping companies. This effectively turned the post office into a collection agency, although postmasters were paid a small commission in exchange for their work.
So how can you identify a freight money letter?
Identifying these letters is made more difficult by the fact that the Cunard Line began carrying mail under contract with the British government in mid-1840, meaning there were simultaneously multiple ways of getting mail across the Atlantic. Contract mail such as this is an entirely separate category from freight money letters and will be discussed in future columns. All freight money letters were carried aboard non-contract vessels. For now, we are only concerned with letters sent by private sailing ship or steamship where the private ship fee was collected by a local postmaster for transmission to the shipping company.
Figure 2. February 21, 1839 folded letter from Baltimore to London with the 25-cent steamship freight money fee indicated at the upper right.
In some instances, the domestic postage within the United States and the freight money fee were listed separately by the postmaster. The cover in Figure 2 originated on February 21, 1839, in Baltimore, Maryland. It first traveled to New York, where it boarded the SS Great Western for London. At the top right, the postage is broken down into two lines: “Ship 25” and “18¾.” Twenty-five cents represents the freight money fee, and 18¾ cents is the domestic rate for a letter traveling between Baltimore and New York City.
Figure 3. December 22, 1838 folded letter from Baltimore to London shows the 12 1/2-cent freight money rate for letters carried on sailing ships.
Earlier, we learned that the 25-cent freight money fee was for letters carried via steamship, and that letters carried on a sailing vessel were only charged 12½ cents. The cover in Figure 3 comes from the same correspondence as the previous example, only this time the freight money fee was assessed as 12½ cents (the 18¾ cent postage remains the same). This tells us that the cover was carried to London on a sailing vessel and not a steamship.
Figure 4. June 12, 1839 folded letter from Philadelphia to London. The combined rate of 37 1/2 cents represents 12 1/2-cent domestic postage and the 25-cent freight money steamship rate.
In Philadelphia, identifying freight money letters is more difficult as the postmaster combined both the inland postage and ship fee into one rate. Take the letter in Figure 4 for example, which was sent from Philadelphia to New York on June 12, 1839, and placed on the SS Great Western for carriage to London.
For a single sheet, the rate from Philadelphia to New York was 12½ cents, and the freight money fee for a steamship was 25 cents. Therefore the 37½ cents postage assessed represents a combination of both rates, although without a knowledge of then-current rates there is no way of knowing that one-third of that money was retained by the post office and two-thirds were paid to a private shipping company.
With the spread of contract transatlantic mail service over the course of the 1840s, freight money letters are only usually found in a very short window between 1838 and 1840 (although examples are reported as late as 1848). With the volume of mail increasing rapidly, the model of having local postmasters collect private ship fees for transmission to New York City was tenuous at best and was quickly superseded by a more reliable and affordable system.
To summarize freight money, then: For a brief time in the late 1830s and early 1840s, private shipping companies carried mail from the United States and Canada to England at a rate of 25 cents per sheet for steamships and 12½ cents per sheet for sailing ships. The letters and payment were collected by the post office, bundled, and sent to New York City, where they were placed aboard the England-bound ship.
These freight money charges are sometimes difficult to discern, but the dedicated postal historian can quickly learn to recognize which pieces of mail were carried in this way. With the advent of contract steamship service in 1840, freight money quickly fell out of favor and was completely extinct by the end of the decade.
The new volume by Richard Winter and John Barwis, North Atlantic Non-Contract Steamship Sailings 1838-1875, is a helpful resource for ship records. The first volume of the American Stampless Cover Catalogue is also a useful reference.