Until the mid-19th century, letters often were carried privately outside the mails between cities. In many cases, the objective was to avoid the high rates charged by the United States Post Office Department (USPOD). For example, from 1799 to 1814, it cost 10¢ to send a single-rate letter 40 to 90 miles and 12¢ for 90 to 150 miles. During this 15-year period, families in some areas of the country lived on only $1 a week. It was not until July 1, 1851, that the cost of a prepaid letter mailed up to 3,000 miles was reduced to a much more affordable 3¢.
In addition, the USPOD did not serve many parts of the country. Deliveries were often slow due to indirect routing or poor service. For most areas in the 18th century, regular mail service was nonexistent. Another issue was that the USPOD did not have a system that allowed persons sending letters to foreign countries to prepay foreign country rates. Post office employees did not always expeditiously deliver letters to the next ship leaving the United States for a foreign destination.
Letters carried privately outside the USPOD system are sometimes characterized as “bootlegged.” However, it was not illegal for a person to carry letters without charge for relatives, friends, business acquaintances and even strangers. Loopholes in the Postal monopoly law exemptions have always allowed some individuals and types of private companies to carry mail legally.
Figure 1. This 1777 letter was carried “On public Service” from the governor of Maryland to “Joseph Dashiel Esq., Lieutenant of Worcester County” on the Delmarva Peninsula.
In the 18th century, special purpose express services sometimes were established to transport important mail. The military, in particular, used expresses during war when speedy delivery was essential for communicating intelligence, strategic plans and orders. A good example is a 1777 letter carried “On public Service” from the governor of Maryland to the Lieutenant of Worcester County reporting that the British fleet had entered Chesapeake Bay, shown in Figure 1.
Figure 2. The Dragoon Express, operated by the Second Continental Light Dragoons, was established by Gen. George Washington to carry mail and Revolutionary War reports. This letter was carried “Pr. Dragoon” in Connecticut from Hartford to Litchfield.
Regular military expresses sometimes were needed between cities and camps. The folded letter in Figure 2 was carried “P[e]r Dragoon” from Hartford to Litchfield, Connecticut. In 1781, General George Washington established this express to provide him regularly with current information on Revolutionary War developments. A section of this express was operated by the Second Continental Light Dragoons led by Colonel Elisha Sheldon.
Figure 3. This 1824 letter — “With a Small Parcel” containing more than £7 in export duty — was carried “per the Indian Express” more than 500 miles from the Tax Collector’s Office on Drummond Island in Michigan to York (Toronto), Canada.
People used whatever means were available to send letters quickly or when they were in remote areas of the country. An example is the 1824 letter in Figure 3 that was sent “per the Indian Express” from the Collector’s Office at Drummond Island — the most easterly extremity on Lake Huron in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula — to “H[is] M[ajesty’s] Receiver General in York (now Toronto), Canada. The notation “With a Small Package” at bottom left on the addressed portion of the cover refers to the “Sum of £7 • 3 [shillings] • 4d [pence]” being remitted “on a/c[count] of duties” — tariffs due over some item sold that crossed the border.
Figure 4. This 1831 letter was privately carried 40 miles from Guilford to Norwich, Connecticut, “per Republican Supervisor [Mayor of] Guilford,” John Latham.
Friends, relatives, business associates and even strangers often carried letters when they left on a trip for another city. Letters were identified as having been transmitted per the “politeness” of a friend or associate. A manuscript acknowledgement on the front might let the addressee know that the sender was “favored” or “honored” by the carrier. The 1831 letter in Figure 4 was privately carried 40 miles from Guilford to Norwich, Connecticut, “per Republican Supervisor [or Mayor of] Guilford,” who at the time was John Latham.
Figure 5. This June 8, 1801, North Carolina letter from a man at the Pimlico Plantation north to St. John’s was delivered “By his Negro on Horse” — a note added to keep the carrier unmolested while he completed his assigned task.
In the South, slaves sometimes carried letters for their owners. Manuscript notations on the front of letters protected the slaves, who were generally prohibited from leaving their owner’s property on their own. The notations on letters typically refer to the bearer by a given name, often the slave’s only name. The letter in Figure 5, dated June 8, 1801, has a note that it was being delivered “By his Negro / on Horse.” It was carried in North Carolina from Pimlico Plantation north to St. John’s, a distance of about 60 miles.
By Ships and Boats
Letters were often handed directly to captains of ships and boats. U.S. law required captains to deliver all mail to the post office at the first port of entry, but they sometimes were brought to addressees or local posts for delivery.
Figure 6. Carried on the “Brig Electa” with “Cap[t]. Chapman” in command, this folded letter datelined “New York 14 Novem 95” was carried on the Thames River via Long Island Sound to Norwich, Connecticut.
These letters often have manuscript notes on the front identifying the captain or ship. Figure 6 is a folded letter datelined “New York 14 Novem 95” that was carried on the Thames River via Long Island Sound to Norwich Connecticut. The sender noted on the front that it was being carried on the “Brig Electa / Cap. Chapman.”
Stage coaches were introduced in the United States in 1674 and in many ways were the first express companies. In addition to people, they carried bags, packages and letters. Prior to 1810, it was not illegal for stage coaches to carry letters unless the route had been designated by Congress as a post road. The Postal Act of April 30, 1810, made it unlawful for stages to carry mail on a post road or any road adjacent to a post road, but some stage drivers continued to carry letters illegally.
Figure 7. This 1791 letter was carried by the Van Wyke Stage Line from Albany, which had no post office at the time, to New York City. Key to identifying it is the straightline “ALBANY: 2” handstamp, a private marking used only by the Van Wyck Line on mail originating in Albany.
Figure 7 is a 1791 letter carried by the Van Wyck Stage Line from Albany, which did not have a federal post office at that time, to New York City. The straightline “ALBANY: 2” handstamp was a private marking used only by Van Wyck Stage on mail originating in Albany.
Forwarders and Forwarding Agents
Forwarders or forwarding agents did not carry letters between cities but facilitated their transmission to other cities and to foreign countries. Forwarders arranged for letters to be carried by others in the fastest and most cost-effective way possible. They kept careful track of departures and foreign destinations of ships to make sure letters were handed to the next ship to sail for a port that would assure the most expeditious delivery of the letter to a foreign city. Businesses often used forwarders because, unlike the USPOD, private forwarders allowed them to prepay foreign postal charges.
Figure 8. “FORWARDED FROM HARNDENS PACKAGE EXPRESS & FOREIGN LETTER OFFICE” in Boston, this 1845 letter was carried by Harnden’s agent for passage on the Cunard Line’s five-year-old steamship Caledonia to Liverpool.
Figure 8 shows an 1845 letter carried by William Harnden’s employees on the Cunard Line’s vessel Caledonia to Liverpool, arriving May 13. Harnden’s agent in Liverpool applied the ship handstamp on the front and placed the letter in the British mail to Paris. The sender prepaid 62¢ in Boston for Harden’s fee and the foreign postage due, as indicated by the manuscript “Paid thro / .62” in the top right corner.
Figure 9. Unsung forerunners of today’s FedEx and UPS, early express companies carried many letters. This one, datelined “Lima [Ohio] 4th of November 1836” is noted at bottom left as carried “by Mr. Crary Express.”
Although private expresses primarily carried packages, money and legal documents between cities, many also carried letters and packets of letters. They were the forerunners of FedEx and UPS. Figure 9 depicts a letter datelined “Lima [Ohio] 4th of November 1836” carried “by Mr. Crary Express” to the governor of Ohio. The letter responds to an inquiry from the governor that was also carried by Crary’s Express, and discusses an Ohio state mapping project being conducted by the writer.
Independent Letter Mail Companies
Independent letter mail companies were private enterprises that carried letters in direct competition with the USPOD between cities on steamboats and railroads from the early 1840s until expressly prohibited by the Postal Act of 1845, effective 1 July 1845. Their advertisements proclaimed that they were a better alternative to the government because they charged half or even a third of the government rates.
Figure 10. Franked with the company’s 1844 blue on gray Eagle (Scott 5L3), this letter was carried well over 100 miles from New York City to Hartford by the American Letter Mail Co. established by Lysander Spooner, outspoken opponent of the government’s post office monopoly and high rates. Like other privately owned independent letter mail companies, this one did not survive the Postal Act of 1845.
Figure 10 is a letter carried by the American Letter Mail Company, which was established by Lysander Spooner, an outspoken opponent of the USPOD’s monopoly and high rates. This letter was carried from New York City to Hartford and offered to sell a new type of steel product. The penciled “2” indicates that an agent of the company also brought the letter directly to the addressee in Hartford for a 2¢ local delivery fee.
Figure 11. This is a preprinted newspaper wrapper for the New York Journal of Commerce, most likely from September 1841, carried and delivered by the New York Penny Post. Such local posts carried letters on regular schedules and later printed matter within city limits from about 1839 until they were put out of business by the federal government in late 1860.
Local posts were private companies that carried letters on regular schedules within city limits from about 1839 until their letter delivery businesses were closed by the federal government in late 1860. In addition to collecting and delivering letters, they also carried newspapers, circulars and other types of printed matter. Figure 11 pictures a preprinted newspaper wrapper, most likely from September 1841, carried by the New York Penny Post, which is considered the first local post in the United States.
Covers handled by expresses, private individuals and private companies that do not have postal route or rate markings have not received the same interest from collectors as covers with stamps and conventional postmarks, but they offer the same historical insights into 18th- and 19th-century life and its challenges as letters carried by the USPOD. Moreover, the private companies often exhibited exceptional American entrepreneurial spirit despite persistent efforts by the Federal government to shut them down.
Editor's Note: The “The Many Ways Letters Were Carried in 18th- and Early 19th-Century America” article was originally published in the May 2019 issue of The American Philatelist. We are bringing the archives of The American Philatelist to the Newsroom - to read back issues of The American Philatelist, click here and scroll down to the Back Issues section.