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Delivering the Mail in Great-Grandmother’s Time and Before

By John P. Wilson
Las Cruces, NM

In 1851 it cost only three cents per half-ounce to send a letter up to 3,000 miles. Twelve years later the same three cents carried this letter anywhere in the U.S. While first-class letter rates have increased sixteen-fold since then, a recent experience confirmed that delivery times are sometimes no better now than during the Civil War.

Another change besides the increased cost is that private contractors once carried the mail between post offices, over thousands of designated postal routes. The right political connections usually counted more than submitting the low bid in winning such a contract. For shorter routes, a buggy or ‘mail hack’ might be used, while on longer runs such as Route No. 8076 between San Antonio and El Paso, Texas, stagecoaches conveyed both passengers and mail over the 700-mile distance. On the longest single run, coaches departing San Francisco on the 2,800 mile drive to Missouri might carry up to 10,000 letters at ten cents each, in addition to passengers and their luggage. In the east, some of the railroad trains included mail cars.

Getting the mail to the right post office was just part of the job. Stamp collectors who specialize in complete envelopes, called covers, are aware that many examples from the 19th century bear only the name and the city or post office of the recipient, such as Mrs. Louisa Roe; Adams, Adams County, Illinois. Today such a letter would probably be returned for insufficient address. In great-grandmother’s day this address would have been perfectly adequate, because persons expecting mail had to ask for it at their local post office (there were no boxes yet). Today we call this General Delivery. Newspapers occasionally published long lists of the names of persons for whom letters were waiting. The first home deliveries of mail began in New York City and forty-eight other larger offices in 1863.

If a postmaster had enough office space, he or she might ease the unavoidable crowding and jostling of everyone demanding their mail at once by opening separate delivery windows for ladies and for men. Even so, a young bride like Louisa Roe might have found a visit to the post office unsettling, if the following anecdote noted in an 1864 newspaper from Quincy, in Adams County, Illinois, indeed happened. A carefully staged diversion, as we see, could resolve the problem entirely:

“The girls who crowd through a file of men to get their letters in the Post Office must read this: ‘Oh, dear,’ exclaimed Mary, throwing herself into the rocking chair.  ‘I’ll never go to the Post Office again, to be looked out of countenance by all those men standing around the halls and near the ladies’ delivery. It’s so provoking! What can I do, Minerva, to stop those awful men from staring me in the face?’ ‘Do as I do,’ replied Minerva, with a sly look, ‘show them your ankles.’”



Various issues of the San Francisco Daily Alta California, 1859-1861, reported the numbers of letters carried by Butterfield Overland Mail stages departing for the east.

Report of the Postmaster General, October 31, 1863, in 38th Cong. 1st Sess., House Exec. Doc. 1 (1864), Serial Set #1184.

Quincy (Illinois) Daily Whig and Republican, May 30, 1864, page 2.

Websites listing postage rates through the years.

© John P. Wilson. All rights reserved.