Commemorating the 100th Anniversary of the first
Government-issued Postage Stamps for the
United States of America.


May 17th thru May 25th 1947





TRANSPORTATION of letters has been a concern of mankind for at least five or six thousand years. In fact, if Adam was created in the year 4004 before Christ, he was only about two hundred years old when the first postal system was instituted. King Sargon of Babylon reigned about 3800 B.C. He established a regular postal service for his official letters, which he sent to his correspondents everywhere in the world as it was then known. The Chinese had not by that time invented paper, the king of Pergamum had not developed parchment as writing material, nor the Egyptians the pith of the papyrus plant. So the king's letters were cut on small slabs of soft clay, which was then baked hard, covered with a softer clay for protection, and then marked with the royal seal. Here we see the counterpart of our modem envelopes—the soft enveloping clay—and of our postage stamps—the king's seal. The royal couriers were the postmen of these ancient times. Specimens of these ancient letters may now be seen in the Louvre in Paris. From then on, we have postal history almost unbroken. The kings of Egypt regarded the post as so important that there are postmen depicted on the walls of a royal tomb dating about 1500 B.C. The Old Testament contains many, references to the post. Herodotus, writing in the fifth century B.C., is the author of that famous motto which appears—translated from the Greek original—on the front of the New York post-office:

"Neither rain, nor snow, nor heat, nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds."

The Romans had an elaborate postal system, which continued until the Dark Ages almost put a stop to civilization.


In the time of the Renaissance letter-writing gradually became more general, and regular postal systems were developed on the Continent of Europe and in the British Isles. Transportation, however, was still subject to the limitations of foot-couriers or riders on horseback, and this made the sending of a letter a very slow and very expensive undertaking. Not until 1839, in England, following the plans of Sir Rowland Hill, was the sending of a letter made so inexpensive that anyone who could write could afford to send what he had written, by mail; using the penny post.


In America the development was perhaps even slower, as post riders had to travel through dangerous routes, often beset by hostile Indians; and the same conditions for two hundred years after the discovery of the country threatened the stage coaches and even the boats which were employed between different ports. The rates, too, were very high, as was natural in view of the difficulties involved. By the Act of Congress, 1792, single letters required up to twenty-five cents postage, and double and triple letters two and three times as much. And these charges were for distances comparatively short, for there was as yet no transcontinental mail. A "single" letter, too, simply meant a single sheet of paper. Not until 1845 was there really substantial relief from this condition. Then five cents was made the rate for a single letter up to three hundred miles, and ten cents for a greater distance. The postmasters' provisional stamps (1845) and the first regular United States postage stamps (1847), whose centenary we are now celebrating, belong in this era. Four years later the final basic change was made, and the ordinary letter rate became three cents.


Eighteen years before the United States Government issued its first postage stamps, the first railroad train drawn by a locomotive was put into operation by the Delaware & Hudson Canal Company, and the next year, 1830, saw the first American-built engine draw a train on the Baltimore & Ohio. This beginning, and the rapid expansion of railroads in the United States, naturally encouraged the use of the posts, and meant ever greater speed in the transportation of the mails. In 1832 the Government allowed Slaymaker and Tomlins, stage mail contractors, $400 extra per year for carrying the mail from Philadelphia to Chester, Pennsylvania, by rail rather than by coach. In 1782 the Government had declared a monopoly of the postal service throughout the United States; in 1823 it extended this monopoly to all navigable streams; and in 1838 all railroads, for this purpose, were declared post-roads.


Naturally the owners of the stage routes with mail-carrying contracts did not readily yield their prerogatives to the railroads. Shortly after the opening of the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad in the summer of 1830, the locomotive "Tom Thumb," driven by Peter Cooper, was distanced in a race with a certain powerful gray horse. This naturally brought fame to the horse, and satisfaction to his owners, Stockton and Stokes, who were the most important owners of stage routes in their day, and of the contracts for carrying the mail. Soon, however, the railroad began to carry mail, first by arrangement with the regular mail contractors; and within two or three years the contractors were asking the Government to agree to their having the mail transported by the railroad. Specifically, a contractor in February 1834 engaged the Camden & Amboy Railroad Company to convey the mails for him. As the railways grew, they gradually displaced the horse as a means of mail conveyance, and there was much dispute between the Department and certain railroad companies as to what should be fair compensation for their services.


On July 7th, 1838, the Act of Congress just referred to declared that "each and every railroad, which now is or hereafter may be made and completed, shall be a post route; and the Postmaster General shall cause the mail to be transported thereon not paying more than twenty-five per centum over and above what similar transportation would cost in post coaches." Mail routes, which had of course been established for the stage coach transportation, were now made much more detailed and elaborate as the railways took up the work. The management of the mail en route was held by "route agents," so called.


The first route agent, a government official, was appointed in 1837, probably on the Mohawk & Hudson Railroad. He was a post-office employee, with many of the duties of a postmaster. The first recorded cancellation referring to railroads is on a pre-stamp letter dated November 7th, 1837. This cancellation is RAILROAD, on a letter sent by way of the Mohawk & Hudson line, running out of Albany, New York. Many of the mail routes had a route agent from the early days. On July first, 1882, every type of railroad service which required the presence of a post-office employee on the railroad cars became a Railway Post-office; their names were not, except accidentally, associated with the names of the railroads over which they operated. These early railroad postmarks, as distinguished from RPO postmarks, constitute a very interesting chapter in United States postal history.


In 1848, when the five and ten cent rates were in force in the United States, an Association was formed in New York with the avowed purpose of campaigning for a literal equivalent throughout this country of Sir Rowland Hill's Penny Post. It was urged that the basic rate for letters for any distance in the United States be set at two cents, if prepaid (this was still optional) and weighing under half an ounce; and that newspapers be charged at the rate of one cent a sheet, while letters be delivered free of charge in all large cities and towns. This association met with effective opposition, and became particularly bitter against the railroads. In view of present practice in the matter of mail-carrying by the railroads, a brochure of this organization, printed in 1848, may prove especially interesting.


"One of the most difficult points in the administration of the post-office has been dealing with railroad corporations. As these are bodies without souls, they can only be dealt with on the footing of pecuniary interest. And as they are state institutions, and local favorites, public opinion has been generally predisposed to take sides with the railroad, and against the department. And thus the railroads have been able to exact exorbitant allowances for services which cost them next to nothing. Were the whole mails of the country to be sent at once by a single railroad, what would be the amount? The average number of letters mailed in a day is 142,857; which, at the average weight of one-third ounce, would weigh 2,976 pounds. The average number of newspapers in a day is 150,685, which, at the average weight of two ounces, would give 18,834 pounds. The whole together make 21,815 pounds, equal to 109 passengers, averaging, with their baggage, 200 pounds each. These passengers would be carried by railroad 200 miles, from Boston to Albany, for $545. The daily cost of railroad service is $1,637, which shows that it is distance, not weight, that is chiefly regarded. Or, in other words, that the weight of the mails is of very little account to railroads. It is well known that corporations regard the carriage of the mail as almost clear profit. The whole daily mails of the United States could be carried by the inland route from Boston to New Orleans, by the established expresses, at their regular rates on parcels, for a little over $3,000; while the whole daily expense of mail transportation is $6,594. The expresses will carry from Boston to New York, for $1.50, an amount of parcels which the Post-office would charge $150 for carrying as letters, or $18.40 as newspapers and all go by the same train, of course involving equal cost of transportation to the company. The inference is unavoidable, that the government is charged exorbitantly by these companies, from, the entire absence of competition on almost every railroad route. While human nature remains the same, it is to be expected that corporations will take this advantage, unless some counteracting interest can be brought to bear upon them as a restraint against extortion."


"Now, let the post-office present itself to the people as a system of pure and unmingled beneficence, studying not how it can get a little more money for a little less service, but how it can render the greatest amount of accommodation with the least expense to the public treasury, and it will at once become the object of the public gratitude and warm affection; men will study how to facilitate all its transactions, will be conscientiously careful not to impose any needless trouble upon its servants, and will generally watch for its interests as their own. Such is the benign effect upon all the considerate portions of society in England. Then the government will be fully sustained in insisting that all railroads shall carry the mail for a compensation which will be just a fair equivalent for the service performed, in reasonable proportion to other services. And if the corporations are perverse in throwing obstacles in the way, the people will expect that such coercive measures should be employed as wisdom may prescribe, to make these creatures of their power subservient to the public good, and not to mere private aggrandizement."


The brochure proceeds to state that the cost of mail transportation in England is about five and a quarter pence per mile; in the United States about twelve cents per mile. Again, "the average weight of passengers with their baggage is set at 230 pounds. This would be equal to the weight of 7,360 letters, at half an ounce each, the postage on which at two cents would be $147.20, irrespective of distance." Against this the passenger fare from Boston to New York is stated to be $4.00, and the express freight of an equal weight to be $1.50. While even to Liverpool per Cunard steamers the passenger fare is $120, and the express freight $7.20. The cost of transporting a letter from London to Edinburgh has been ascertained to be one thirty-sixth of a penny.


Until the year 1864 the only connection between the railways and the postal service was the fact that the mail pouches were carried on trains—and a record kept of the quantity, the distance, and the speed. Only occasionally is there evidence of further activity on the part of the route agent. From the beginning of the Civil War the great increase in mail due to that conflict resulted in long delays in transmission and delivery; letters had to be sent to a distributing office, sorted there, made into wrapped packages with the name of their destination written on each, and forwarded from that point. A story is told of a mail pouch sent from Chicago to the Green Bay distributing office in Wisconsin, about 1855, whence its contents were to be shipped to points in the Upper Michigan peninsula. When it was opened at Ontonagon a month later, a nest of mice, parents and offspring, was found to have established itself in the pouch. This violation on the part of the mice of the rules of the Post-office Department impressed at least one post-office official with the need of a change in the handling of the mail.


George Buchanan Armstrong, assistant postmaster at Chicago, conceived the idea of having the pieces of mail sorted and distributed in mail cars en route. Through the help of Schuyler Colfax, then Speaker of the House, and A. N. Zevely, Third Assistant Postmaster General, he was authorized to test his plan. He prevailed upon the officers of the Chicago & Northwestern Railway to equip some of their mail-cars for service as his "traveling post-office"; and the first run was made August 28th, 1864, from Chicago to Clinton, Iowa. In 1867, as this idea proved itself, the Chicago & Northwestern introduced post-office mail cars, especially built from plans furnished by Armstrong. The great saving of time resulting from this service was at once apparent, other roads, first in the middle west and then in the east, adopted the plan, and before the end of Grant's first term as president the practice had become general. Mr. Armstrong had been put in charge of the entire railway mail service of the country, as General Superintendent, in 1869. In the Government Building in Chicago stands a bronze bust erected to his memory in 1881. He died August 5th, 1871. It may truly be said that today, because of the developments following his work as a pioneer, a letter may even reach its destination before a passenger setting out from the same place at the same time.


A thumbnail picture of the mail service of railways, as it existed in the latter part of the nineteenth century, is given in the following account. It is not anti-railway. Every railway was a postal route. But the basis of compensation, for one thing, was unsatisfactory. Cost was directly dependent upon weight, speed of trains, and condition of the property. The government, however, calculated the rate for each "mail route" from the average weight of the mails for that route. The whole matter transported was weighed once each four years, for thirty consecutive working days, and this formed the basis of compensation for the four years following. The Government alone determined the price it would pay the carrier; and if it saw fit, it might change the rate at any time, and the railroad would have no redress. The rate was sharply reduced as the volume increased, so that "the price for transporting 5,000 pounds daily was only four times as much as that for transporting 200 pounds." The Government alone took all charge, through its own personnel, but at terminal points the railroad had to transport all mail matter between the station and the post-office at the same rate as that set for transportation on the railroad itself; and at local stations it had to perform the same service without compensation, unless the distance was over eighty rods. The Government also imposed fines for delays or failure to meet schedules as ordered. And in deciding who was at fault the Government was sole arbiter. "The development of the railway postal service is altogether due to the generosity of the carrier. But the Government has rarely dealt fairly with the railway companies." The railway mail service was recognized as particularly hazardous; and for this reason it was contended by many that insurance and pensions should be provided by the Government for those who handled the mails on railroads, in exactly the same manner as it provided for those who had been soldiers in their country's defense.


Conditions in the twentieth century are greatly improved over the state of affairs existing about 1900. In 1916 the "weight basis" of pay for the railroads' services, which had stood from 1836, was in part replaced by the "space basis," and in 1920 was entirely superseded by it. Space was obviously the important factor, for by 1943 there were over 3,500 mail cars required to convey the mails in the United States alone. In 1925 for New England, and in 1928 for the country as a whole, Government adjustments in the rate paid the railroads were made upward, in order to bring the remuneration more directly in line with the cost involved.

By 1943, the railroads carried the mails a distance of 486,466,650 miles in a single year, and received therefor a compensation of over one hundred and ten million dollars. In this same year the clerks in the mail cars handled and redistributed over twenty billion pieces of mail (roughly seven million pounds) thirteen billion of these being letters. This was in addition to about two hundred million miles of transportation performed by the airlines and motor vehicles.

In 1945, the latest date for which statistics are available, the Post-office Department spent about eleven percent of its income for railway transportation of the mails, and about six and a half percent more for the railway mail service. Some two hundred and thirty million dollars was the amount expended in these two categories. Today a railroad gets two mills, one fifth of a cent, for carrying a letter across the continent. And the railroads carry ninety-two percent of all the mail transported in the United States.


On special occasions recently the railways have provided special service. In 1939, at the time of the visit of the King and Queen of Great Britain, a special postal car was attached to their train from the time it left the Canadian border, June seventh, to the time it returned to Canada via Rouses Point three days later. Thus the Post-office Department was enabled to handle over one hundred thousand covers, with a special postmark to commemorate the occasion.

Similarly, during the months of the World's Fair in New York, in 1939 and 1940, a postal car, in charge of railway postal clerks, was on exhibition on a railway siding. Visitors to the car averaged 5,215 a day, sets of commemorative stamps were sold there to the average daily amount of over a hundred dollars, and the daily deposit of mail was over 2,000 pieces.


The Chesapeake & Ohio Railroad, a trunk line from the Atlantic seaboard at Newport News, the world's largest ice-free harbor, to Chicago and the West, has had no small part in the development of the mail service. Its route was originally the Midland Trail, surveyed by George Washington. He planned a great East-West network of canals and post-roads, through what is now known as the Chessie Corridor. In 1785 the James River Company was organized, and was the original predecessor of the C & O, which now traverses the States of Virginia, West Virginia, Kentucky, Ohio and Indiana, as far as Chicago. An example of the present volume of mail carried on this line is a statement by the postmaster of Huntington, West Virginia, (pop. 85,000), that in a single month in 1945 his office cancelled a total of 1,942,339 pieces of mail.


A further elaboration of present conditions in the Railway Post-office system is provided by the description of a typical mail route on the Pere Marquette Railway, a connection of the C & O. R.P.O. car # 106 is attached to train #7, on the Grand Rapids-Chicago run. This run is part of the Ninth Division of R.M.S. (there are fifteen in all). On each run the clerks in # 106 distribute letters for Indiana, Michigan, Illinois, Wisconsin, Iowa, Minnesota, Nebraska, and Chicago, including Mixed States mail and airmail. Newspaper distribution includes all these States, Missouri, South Dakota, (not Nebraska) and Mixed States. The average distribution each night consists of seventy-six pouches, containing approximately 1065 working letter packages, and 107 sacks of paper mail. A full sized R.P.O. car is sixty feet long, provides 744 letter-case separations, 210 paper and pouch rack separations, and about thirteen and a half feet available storage space.

"Apartment cars" are 15- or 30-foot ends of baggage cars, especially fitted. "Storage cars" are those in which the mail is not "worked." On this train the Government allows eighteen to sixty feet of storage space extra. As railroads are paid on the basis of storage space, very accurate records must be kept. At non-stop stations on this route pouches are thrown off, or picked up by a "catch-arm." These pouches are "worked" immediately. Sacks are used for all except first class mail; for first class mail, locked pouches. And all this elaborate and detailed procedure sprang from the beginnings made by George B. Armstrong in 1864.


A fitting conclusion to this story of the railroads and the mails may be the history of a famous dog, the only one ever to be adopted by the Post-office Department. "Ownie" spent his life in mail cars; beginning in 1888 on the run from Albany to New York City, he was a pet of the mail clerks, who kept attaching tags to his collar till he had 1017. He visited Canada and Alaska, and in 1895 took a trip to Japan, where he was decorated with a medal by the emperor. He went on around the world, and got back to Tacoma, Washington, after 132 days. Unhappily he met an ignominous end, for he was shot on the orders of a postmaster in Cleveland, Ohio, who had never heard of him. The postmaster nearly paid for his ignorance with his own life. During his vacations Ownie had travelled one hundred and forty-three thousand miles. And for many a railway mail clerk the monotony of his labors must have been broken by the presence of this dog, who appreciated the opportunities afforded by the Railway Mail Service.


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