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Harpers New Monthly Magazine - Stamp Collecting Related Articles

Monthly Record of Current Events
June 1850
In Great Britain, summary of legislation for lowering postage rates including how much revenue is brought in by different rates, effects on employment and postage rates.  One newpaper publisher printed on cloth to avoid the tax.
United States Postage Rates
April 1851
An overview of the new proposed postage rates in the United States showing that postage depended on distance traveled as well as weight.
Postal Reform - Cheap Postage
November 1851

An editorial urging postal reform in the United States. Among the items advocated are: uniform postage rates, manditory prepayment of postage by stamps, abolishing free franks and establishing postal money orders.

The Dead Letter Office
July 1862
Overview and inner workings of the Dead Letter Office
New York City Post Office
October 1871
History of the post office in New York City from the earliest time until the 1800s.
The Dead Letter

November 1871

A poem by John G. Saxe

Summary: In Great Britain, summary of legislation for lowering postage rates including how much revenue is brought in by different rates, effects on employment and postage rates.  One newpaper publisher printed on cloth to avoid the tax.
Monthly Record of Current Events

Harper's New Monthly Magazine - Volume 1, Issue 1 - June 1850 -  pages 123-124
Published by Harper & Brothers, New York

The attention of Parliament has been attracted of late, in an unusual degree, to the intellectual wants of the humbler classes, and to the removal, by legislation, of some of the many restrictions which now deprive them of all access even to the most ordinary sources of information. Even newspapers, which in this country go into the hands of every man, woman, and child who can read, and which therefore enable every member of the community to keep himself informed concerning all matters of interest to him as a citizen, are virtually prohibited to the poorer classes in England by the various duties which are imposed upon them, and which raise the price so high as to be beyond their reach. 

Mr. Gibson, in the House of Commons, brought forward resolutions, on the 16th of April, to abolish what he justly styled these Taxes on Knowledge: they proposed 1st, to repeal the excise duty only on paper; 2d, to abolish the stamp, and 3d, the advertisement duty on newspapers; 4th, to do away with the customs duty on foreign books. In urging these measures Mr. Gibson said, that the sacrifice of the small excise duty on paper yearly, would lead to the employment of 40,000 people in London alone. The suppression of Chambers’ Miscellany, and the prevented reissue of Mr. Charles Knight’s Penny Cyclopaidia, from the pressure of the duty, were cited as gross instances of the check those duties impose on the diffusion of knowledge. Mr. Gibson did not propose to alter the postal part of the newspaper stamp duties; all the duty paid for postage — a very large proportion — would therefore still be paid. He dwelt on the unjust Excise caprices which permit this privilege to humorous and scientific weekly periodicals, but deny it to the avowed “news” columns of the daily press. He especially showed by extracts from a heap of unstamped newspapers, that great evil is committed on the poorest reading classes, by denying them that useful fact and true exposition which would be the best antidote to the pernicious principles now disseminated among them by the cheap, unstamped press. There is no reason but this duty, which only gives £350,000 per annum, why the poor man should not have his penny and even his halfpenny newspaper, to give him the leading facts and the important ideas of the passing time.

The tax on advertisements checks information, fines poverty, mulcts charity, depresses literature, and impedes every species of mental activity, to realize £150,000 per annum. That mischievous tax on knowledge, the duty on foreign books, is imposed for the sake of no more than £8000 a year! Mr. Gibson concluded by expressing his firm conviction, that unless these taxes were removed, and the progress of knowledge by that and every other possible means facilitated, evils most terrible would arise in the future — a not unfit retribution for the gross impolicy of the legislature. He was supported by Mr. Roebuck, but the motion was negatived, 190 to 89. In his speech he instanced a curious specimen of the manner in which the act is sometimes evaded. A Greenock publisher himself informed him that, having given offense to the authorities by some political reflections in a weekly unstamped newspaper of his of the character of Chambers’s Journal, he was prosecuted for violation of the Stamp Act, and fined for each of five numbers £25. Thereupon he diligently studied the Act; and finding that printing upon cloth was not within the prohibition, he set to work and printed his journal upon cloth — giving matter “savoring of intelligence” without the penny stamp — and calling his paper the Greenock Newscloth, sent it forth  despite the Solicitor to the Stamp Office.

Summary: In the United States, overview of the new proposed postage rates showing that postage depended on distance traveled as well as weight.
Harper's New Monthly Magazine - Volume 2, Issue 11 - April 1851 - pages 700-701

Published by Harper & Brothers, New York



A bill was also passed reducing the rates of postage on letters and newspapers throughout the United States. All letters weighing not more than half - an - ounce are charged three cents if prepaid; and five cents if not prepaid, for all distances under three thousand miles; - over three thousand miles, they pay twice these rates. Upon newspapers the imposition of postage is quite complicated. The following statement shows the rates charged to regular subscribers, who pay postage quarterly in advance, comparing, also, the new postage with the old:

       Miles.            Weekly.      Semi-Weekly.      Daily.
Under 50 (new bill)       5 cts          10               25
    Present rate         12              24               48

Over 50 — under 300      10              20               50
    Present rate         18              36              108

Over 300 — under 1000    15              30               75
    Present rate         18              36              108

Over 1000 — under 2000   20              40              100
    Present rate         18              36              108

Over 2000 — under 4000   25              50              125
    Present rate         18              36              108

Over 4000                30              60              150
    Present rate         18              36              108

Papers weighing less than an ounce and a half pay half these rates; papers measuring less than three hundred square-inches pay one-fourth. On monthly and semi-monthly papers the same rates are paid, in proportion to the number of sheets, as weekly papers. All weekly papers are free within the county where they are published. Although the bill does not reduce postage quite as low as was very generally desired, it is still a decided advance upon the old law. The experience of the past has shown that reduced rates increase the revenue.

Postal Reform - Cheap Postage
by B. B.

Harper's New Monthly Magazine - Volume 3, Issue 18 - November 1851 - pages 837-846

Published by Harper & Brothers

An editorial urging postal reform in the United States. Among the items advocated are:

  1. Uniform postage rates
  2. Make prepayment of postage by stamps manditory
  3. Abolish free franks
  4. Establish postal money orders 
Harper's New Monthly Magazine

November 1851

Volume 3, Issue 18 
pages 837-846

Published by Harper & Brothers

Postal Reform - Cheap Postage

It is now upward of eleven years since the writer of this commenced advocating “postal reform and cheap postage.” At first it found but little favor either from the public or the Post-Office Department. Many considered the schemes Utopian, and if carried into effect would break down the post-office: but neither ridicule or threats prevented him from prosecuting his object until Congress was compelled in 1845 to reduce the rates of postage to five and ten cents the half-ounce.

The success attending even this partial reduction equaled the expectations of its friends, and silenced the opposition of its enemies. The friends of cheap postage, in New York and other places, renewed their efforts to obtain a further reduction, and petitioned for a uniform rate of two cents prepaid. But such was either the indifference or hostility of a majority of the members that no definite action was taken on the subject for six years, nor was it until the last session that any reduction was made from the rates adopted in 1845. Notwithstanding this shameful delay in complying with the wishes of the people, the new law adopted four rates instead of one, leaving the prepayment of postage optional. Besides this, the new law imposes on newspapers and printed matter a most unreasonable, burdensome, and complicated tax, which has created universal dissatisfaction.

The obnoxious features of the present law imperiously demand the immediate attention of Congress. Neither the rates of postage on letters, nor the tax on newspapers and printed matter, meet the wishes of the friends of cheap postage. They have uniformly insisted upon simplicity, uniformity, and cheapness. But the present law possesses none of these requisites. On letters the rates in the United States are three and five, six and ten cents, according to distance. Ocean postage is enormous and too burdensome to be borne any longer. The rates of postage on newspapers are so complicated that few postmasters can tell what they are, and those on transient newspapers and printed matter generally, are so enormous as to amount to a prohibition. A revision of this law is rendered indispensable. Other reforms are required, some of which I shall here notice.

1. Letter postage should be reduced to a uniform rate of two cents prepaid. This fate has been successfully adopted in Great Britain. It has increased the letters and the income of the post-office. It is the revenue point, sufficiently low, to encourage the people to write, and to send all their letters through the post-office; and yet high enough to afford ample revenue to pay the expenses of the Department. If this rate is adopted, it will defy all competition, for none will attempt to carry letters cheaper than the post-office.

2. Ocean postage is enormous and burdensome, especially upon that class of persons which is least able to bear it. It has been computed by those who are competent to judge, that about three-quarters of the ship letters are written by emigrants, and are letters of friendship and affection. The greater portion of them are from persons in poor circumstances, and to tax them with twenty-four or twenty-nine cents for a single letter is cruel. To send a letter and receive an answer, will cost a servant girl half a week’s wages, and a poor man in the country will have to work a day to earn the value of the postage of a letter to and from his friends in Europe. Were the postage reduced to a low rate, ten letters would be written where one now is, and the revenue, in a short period, would b. equal if not greater than under the present high rates. During the last twelve months, the amount received for transatlantic postages was not less than a million of dollars, and three-fourths of this sum has been paid by the laboring classes on letters relating to their domestic relations and friendship.

3. Next to the reduction of inland and ocean postage is the free delivery of mail letters in all the large towns and cities. An improvement has been attempted by the Postmaster-general in respect of letters to be sent by the mails. They are now conveyed to the post-office free of any charge; and the next step necessary is to cause them to be delivered without any addition to the postage. A letter is carried by the mails three thousand miles for three cents, but if it is sent three hundred yards from the post-office, it is charged two cents! This is not only an unreasonable tax, but is attended with much inconvenience both to the carrier and receiver of the letter, in the trouble of making the change, and the delay attending the delivery of letters. If the prepayment of the postage covered the whole expense, a carrier could deliver ten letters where he now delivers one, and fewer persons would be able to deliver them. Two cents cover the whole expense of postage and delivery of letters in London, and there is no reason why they can not be delivered in New York and other cities as cheaply as they are in the capital of Great Britain. The expense to the post-office would be comparatively small, as the income from city letters would be nearly equal to what would be paid if an efficient city delivery was adopted. If the free delivery should be adopted, it would be a great relief to the people and this like every other facility afforded by the post-office, would tend to increase the number of letters sent by the mails.

4. The franking privilege should be wholly abolished. This has been so much abused, that the people have loudly complained of it, and almost every Postmaster-general for the last ten years has recommended its abolition. Instead, however, of diminishing or repealing it, it has been increased, so that two sets of members ‘can now exercise it, and the cart-loads of franked matter sent from Washington show that it is a dead weight upon the Department. At the last session, one member had twenty-eight large canvas bags of franked matter, weighing not less than five thousand pounds! To say nothing of the vast expense of printing and binding millions of documents and speeches which are never read, the burden, and labor, and cost to the post-office are incalculable. When newspapers were few in number, there might have been a necessity to send out speeches and documents, but as newspapers are published in all parts of the Union, every important report and speech is published and read long before it can be printed and sent from Washington. Let the members of Congress be furnished with a sufficient number of stamps to cover their postage, and these be paid for as the other expenses of Congress. The frank was wholly abolished in Great Britain, when the cheap system was adopted, so that Queen Victoria herself can not now frank a letter!

5. But the grievance, which is now felt and most complained of by the people, is the complicated and burdensome tax on newspapers and other printed matter. It has heretofore been the good policy of Congress to favor the circulation of newspapers throughout the country, and accordingly one and a half cents was the highest rate charged to regular subscribers for any distance, and two cents, prepaid, for transient papers. These rates were plain and easy to be understood, and few were disposed to complain of them, although they were much higher than they should be. The new bill has some sixty or seventy different rates, and so complicated, depending upon weight and distance, that not one postmaster in twenty can tell what postage should be charged upon newspapers. Again the rates are enormous. For example, a newspaper in California, weighing one ounce or under, is charged five cents prepaid, and if not prepaid ten cents, and the same for every additional ounce; hence the Courier and Enquirer or Journal of Commerce. weighing two and one quarter ounces, is charged to San Francisco fifteen cents prepaid, and if not prepaid thirty cents! What is the effect of this law It prohibits the circulation of newspapers through the post-office entirely, and all that are now sent go by private expresses. If I understand the subject correctly, it was the object of those who proposed the “substitute” to the Bill which passed the House of Representatives, to exclude from the mails newspapers and printed matter. Is this right?

6. Another reform which should be made by Congress, is the payment of postage entirely by stamps. If no money was received at the post-office except for stamps, and the postage on every thing passing through the office prepaid, the saving of labor would be immense, both to the general post-office and local offices. But this is not the only advantage. The amount lost, by the destruction of post bills, is incalculable. Hundreds of thousands of dollars are unaccounted. for and lost every year by the Department, by the present loose, inefficient system of accounting for the postages received on letters and newspapers. While this system continues there is not, and can not be any check on the postmasters. Let the payment of postage be made by stamps, and it would be an effectual check upon every post-office, and the Department would receive the money for every stamp sold, whether it was used by the purchaser or not. This is a subject worthy of the serious consideration of Congress and the Post-Office Department.

7. There is one more improvement which I would recommend before closing this already long article, and that is the establishment of a money-order office. This would not only be a great convenience to the people, especially to the poorer class, but it would also prove a source of revenue to the post-office. During the last year, there were sent through the money-order office in Great Britain upward of forty millions of dollars! When it is recollected that each order is limited to twenty-five dollars, the number of letters carrying these orders must be very large, adding to the receipts of the post-office. The same results would follow a similar establishment in the United States. There being no guarantee for the safe delivery of money, transmitted by the mails, such letters are now sent by private expresses, for which they receive a remunerating compensation.

I have briefly suggested some of the reforms which I deem necessary for the improvement of the post-office. It was said last winter by some of our Senators in Congress, in their places, that “OURS IS THE WORST MANAGED POST-OFFICE IN THE WORLD.” I can not agree with them in this assertion. But I regret to say that it is not the 6est managed, nor so good as it should and must be. The great drawback to its improvement, and, I may add, the curse that rests upon it, is its being made a political machine. It was a great and fatal mistake to make the Postmaster-general a member of the Cabinet. The great personal worth of Mr. McLean induced President Monroe to take him into his Cabinet, and the practice has been continued ever since. The consequence is, that the Postmaster-general is changed under every new administration. In less than two years we had three, and two assistants. How can it be expected that men, whatever may be their talents, can make themselves acquainted with the business of the office in the short space of three or four years! Before they are warm in their seats they are removed. Besides, after a new administration comes in, it takes six or twelve months to turn out political opponents and appoint their friends. If, instead of this, when intelligent and efficient men are in office (no matter what their political affinities may be), they were continued, it would be an inducement to make improvements, and an encouragement to fidelity; but now there is no security to any man that he will be continued one hour, nor any encouragement to excel in the faithful discharge of his duty. These things ought not so to be.

There is another practice which greatly retards the improvement of our post-office, and
that is the manner in which the post-office committees are appointed in Congress. At every
session of Congress new committees are appointed by the Senate and House, a majority of which
is composed of the dominant political party, without much regard to their qualifications. For a number of years there has been scarcely a single member selected from any of our large cities, where the principal portion of the revenue is collected, consequently, they are persons who have little or no knowledge of post-office business, or the wants of the people. Their principal business is to obtain new post-routes, but any improvement of postal concerns is little thought of. Hence the Post-Office Department may be considered a vast political machine, wielded for the benefit of the party in power; and there is not an appointment made, from the Postmaster-general down to the postmaster of the smallest office, without a special regard to the politics of the person appointed.

The only correction of this evil, under the present system, is to give the appointment of all the postmasters to the people. They are the best qualified to judge of the character and qualifications of the person who will serve them in the most acceptable manner; and the postmasters, knowing that they are dependent upon the people for their offices, will be more obliging and attentive in the discharge of their duties. This will diminish the patronage of the President and the Postmaster-general, which I have not a doubt they would gladly part with, as there is nothing more troublesome and perplexing to a conscientious man, than the exercise of this power.

In the old world, where monarchy exists, the press is called the “fourth estate ;“ but with us, where “vos populi, vox Dei,” the press and the ballot-box may be considered the sovereign. The press utters the wish of the people, and the ballot-box confirms that wish. Hence, if the press speaks out clearly and strongly in favor of postal reform, the people will sanction it by their votes in selecting men to represent their wishes in the councils of the nation. Our post-office, instead of being denounced the “worst,” should be made the best managed in the world. We have no old prejudices or established customs to abolish, no pensioners or sinecures to support, no jealousy on the part of the government against the diffusion of knowledge through the mails; but we have an intelligent, active, liberal gentleman at the head of the Post-Office Department, who desires to meet the wants and wishes of the people. Therefore we have reason to hope that in due time our post-office will be established on such a footing as to secure the patronage and support of the people, defying all competition, and superior to any similar establishment in the world.


The Dead Letter Office

Harper's New Monthly Magazine - Volume 25, Issue 146 - July 1862 - pages 256-262

Published by Harper & Brothers in New York

An examination of the workings of the dead-letter office.  This includes how letters become 'dead' and what steps are taken to correctly identify the destination of a dead letter or to return the letter to the sender.

Harper's New Monthly Magazine - Volume 25, Issue 146 - July 1862 - pages 256-262

Published by Harper & Brothers in New York


Of the governmental Departments at Washington there is none with which the whole people are so closely connected as the General Post-Office. From this great centre stretch out and ramify in every direction, up and down and across the continent, ten thousand channels of intelligence, reaching, not only the great marts of commerce and the seats of learning, but the lowliest hamlet and the humblest cabin of the backwoodsman. With the greater diffusion of learning and general intelligence there is an increased demand for greater freedom of intercourse. People do not care so much whether the tariff adds five or ten cents to the cost of each pound of coffee, for they can do without it altogether if necessary; but their messages of business or pleasure must be carried with speed and delivered with certainty, or they will make a tumult about it at once. The newspaper, too, has become a popular necessity, and the man who does not take one is considered as living just beyond the pale of modern civilization. The newspaper is “daily bread” to the minds of the million, and if flood or tempest should delay its coming any amount of hard thoughts and open abuse is heaped upon postmasters and mail carriers.

The present Postmaster-General has won the just plaudits of the people and the press for the ability and efficiency with which he has man-aged and improved the complicated machinery of this Department. Soon after ho assumed control of the postal affairs of the country the whole system was interrupted or temporarily destroyed by the rebellions in all the territory of the se ceded States and portions of the border States. This necessarily imposed some heavy losses upon the Department, and caused considerable embarrassment for a time. The wisdom and energy or the Postmaster-General, however, have already relieved the system from these difficulties. Among other efforts to increase the efficiency and general usefulness of the Department under the present Administration, is the plan to lessen the number of "dead-letters" by returning them, as far as practicable, to the writers.

An hour's visit to the Dead-Letter Office under the courteous guidance and instruction of the Assistant Postmaster-General," will show us why letters become "dead," and how they are brought to life again. The room where the first operation is performed upon the defunct missives is occupied by some twelve or fifteen clerks, and the appearance is strongly suggestive of an old-fashioned husking match. huge piles of letters, that have come from every point of the compass and almost every country in the world, are lying upon the tables, and the operatives are very busy inspecting and classifying them according to their character or value. Each clerk makes five classes of the letters as he opens them.

First, and most valuable are the "money letters," containing bank-notes or coin to the amount of one dollar or more. Whenever a letter of this description is opened, the contents arc examined and immediately returned to the envelope. upon which the clerk indorses the amount and kind of money within, subscribing his own name or initials. A careful record is made up of all such letters, and they arc then passed into the hands of a chief clerk, whose business it is to return them to the writers with proper instructions to the deputy postmasters to deliver the money and take receipts for it. The greatest care and vigilance is exercised in this branch of the business, and there is scarcely a possibility that a valuable letter which has once reached the Dead-Letter Office should fail of getting back, either to the writer or to the person originally addressed, provided that either of them can be found or heard of at the address given in the letter. The daily average of money now found is about two hundred dollars. Last year more than fifty thousand dollars was returned to the owners through this office. Sometimes money is inclosed in an envelope without any letter accompanying it, or, what is just as bad, without any proper signature. In such cases another effort is made to reach the person to whom it was addressed, and failing in this the money is deposited at the Department to be delivered to the rightful owner whenever lie shall come forward and establish his claim.

The second class of letters made by the clerks are technically called "minors," and contain notes of hand, drafts, checks, bills of exchange, deeds, mortgages, insurance policies, arid other papers that are or may become representatives of money value; and besides these a great variety of articles of more or less value, including jewelry, pictures, etc. All letters of this class are re-enveloped and indorsed by the clerks who open them, and, after being carefully registered, are sent to another office to be returned to the owners.

Many letters are received at the Department making anxious inquiries for money or valuables sent though the mail and known to have failed in reaching the persons addressed. These letters can not expedite their return. The Lost letter must remain two months advertised at the local office before it is sent to Washington, and then it must be found before it can be returned to the owner. Formerly there was quite a collection of curiosities at the Department, composed of articles found in dead-letters without any one to claim them. This has been dispensed with, and every letter containing any thing of value is returned to the owner if it is at all practicable.

The third class of letters consists of such as contain stamps, coin in less sums than one dollar, receipts for money or property, legal documents, etc. These, being of less value, are not formally registered with a description of their contents, but a special clerk devotes his time to returning them to the Owners.

Last, but not least in number of the  preserved letters, are those which contain no valuable inclosure, but are so dated and signed that it is possible to return them to the writers. The Department is now acting upon the conviction that persons would rather pay postage to get back their lost letters, though of little importance, and thus know that they were not received by the persons addressed, than to have them destroyed. As these letters pass twice through the mail, coming to and returning from the Dead-Letter Office, a law of Congress authorizes double postage upon them. These letters constitute about one half of all the dead-letters returned to the General Post Office. The other half of this great multitude of stray epistles is composed of such as are not dated at any post-town or office (the post-mark itself being frequently illegible), and have no proper signature. These, and some others of an utterly worthless class, are first torn to shreds by a machine, to render them illegible, and then sold to the paper-makers There arc now about thirty clerks engaged in opening and returning dead-letters. They dispose of from ten to twelve thousand a day, amounting to several millions in the course of a year.

It is pertinent to ask the question, why do so many letters fail to reach the persons to whom they are addressed? It is evidently no fault of the mail-carriers, for each dead-letter has been to the office to which it was directed, and remained there several months. Is it because our people are so migratory in their habits that they can not remain stationary long enough to have a letter delivered through the mail? This principle accounts for it in part, but there are many other causes. Thousands of letters are directed to the wrong post-office by the writer, who merely guesses that he is sending it to the right one. Other thousands have the name of the party addressed so inperfectly written that the owner of the letter himself could not tell that it belonged to him. Others have the name of the State so,  imperfectly written that the letters are quite as likely to go in the wrong direction as the right. It is better generally to avoid abbreviations and write the name of a State in fully thus preventing the possibility of going in the wrong direction. We have seven States — Maine, Massachusetts, Maryland, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, and Mississippi — beginning with M. The abbreviations of these States imperfectly written will frequently send a letter two or three thousand miles in the wrong direction.

But one of the most active causes in the production of dead-letters at present is the  existence of the war. The Union army, of more than half a million of men, is composed, to a large extent, of those who have left homes, fathers, mothers, wives, or sweet—hearts to fight the battles of the Republic. Most of these men can and do write letters at short intervals to friends and relatives, and, owing to the changes that are constantly going on in society, many of them fail to reach the desired destination, and after a few months turn up in the dead-letter office to be consigned to the paper-mill. The confusion and changes of residence in the Border States contribute to the same result. Every effort which administrative ability can suggest is being made to lessen the number of "dead-letters;" and with the return of peace and the restoration of the Union, their number will be reduced to a very small percentage upon the countless millions that are sent through the mail.

If you wish your letter to reach its destination, or, failing to find the person to whom it is sent, to be returned, you can secure this, almost beyond the possibility of failure, by observing the following directions:

1. Direct the letter legibly, writing the name of the person to whom it is sent, his town, county, if possible, and State, upon the envelope. It is well also to repeat this either at the head or foot of the letter itself. If he is to be found there, the letter will reach him almost without fail.

2. At the head of the letter write your own address—town, county, and State in full. It is not enough to give the town merely, for there are so many places of the same name in different counties and States that this alone gives no sufficient clew to the one in question. If your letter is dated merely “Jackson,” how can the office know which of the 150 “Jacksons” in the country has the honor of being your residence? Then sign your name clearly at the end. If you indulge in a fancy signature, which only yourself and the teller of the bank where you keep your funds can read, do not use it. The Office has not the pleasure of your personal acquaintance, and has no means of identifying your cabalistic signature. Write your name in full. It is not sufficient to sign “Your affectionate brother Bob,” or “your own loving Maggie.” For all the office can know there are in your town a score of “Bobs” and “Maggies” just as “affectionate” and “loving” as you are, if you observe these directions, and the letter fails to reach the person for whom it was intended, you will, in due time, receive it through the Dead-Letter Office, provided always that you have not in the mean while changed your residence.

New York City Post-Office
by T. B. Thorpe

Harper's New Monthly Magazine - Volume 43, Issue 257 - October 1871 - pages 645-663

Published by Harper & Brothers

A history of the New Yourk City post office from the 1600s until the 1870s.  Traces the evolution of mail transport from the early days of 'coffee-house delivery' through the founding of a post office upto the 1870s.

New York City Post-Office
by T. B. Thorpe

Harper's New Monthly Magazine - Volume 43, Issue 257 - October 1871 - pages 645-663

Published by Harper & Brothers

There seems to be no preserved evidence that for very many years after the settlement of what is now known as the city of New York there was any officially recognized post-office. The population was small in numbers, and there were no business inducements which would lead to much correspondence. The very first ships which arrived after the primitive settlement of course brought letters to New Amsterdam, and the commencement of our local office was naturally coeval with the foundation of the city; but it was many years before there was a population which called for any system looking toward revenue.

On the arrival of the vessel those letters relating to the cargo were delivered to the merchants; the members of the exulting, expecting crowd which welcomed their friends received their letters from hands warm with the grasp of friendship. If a solitary epistle found no owner, it was left in the possession of some responsible private citizen until called for. In time the intercourse with Holland increased, and there gradually developed a system of voluntary distribution which became eventually known as the “coffee-house delivery,” which maintained its popularity and usefulness more than a hundred years.

This system grew out of the custom of masters of vessels, and the people from the settlements of Breucklyn, Pavonia, and the distant Hackensack, leaving at some agreed-upon popular tavern letters intrusted to them which they could not personally deliver. Here these “waifs” were kept in a small box, conveniently placed within the reach of all, or gibbeted ingeniously upon the surface of a smooth board, by means of green haize, tape, and brass-headed nails, the “composition” displayed the while, like some choice picture, in the most conspicuous part of the public room. There were hangers-on at these popular resorts who unconsciously acted as agents for this arcadian post; for they acquired temporary importance, and sometimes a bit of tobacco or a glass of Schiedam schnapps, by circulating information regarding the “letter list.” It was a curious sight, these old depositories of commercial speculations and homely friendships. Many were the neglected letters which were taken and examined by the simple-hearted old burghers, until the superscriptions were entirely defaced by the handling. Crabbed writing must, under the best circumstances, have made the characteristic and familiar Holland names of Guyshert van Imbroecken and Ryndert Jansen van Hooghten appear very much like an imitation of a Virginia fence; but when these same letters became here and there defaced and stained by soiling fingers, the superscription must have been a jumble indeed. It is asserted, however, that the possible contents of these “literary orphans” were sources of infinite gossip to the loungers at the tavern, for they would sit silently and smoke for long hours thinking over the important matter, occasionally uttering the vague speculation that they “were written by somebody ;“ and after this severe effort of conjectural thought would lapse again into dreamy somnolency.

The tradition, however, is doubtful that the earlier Dutch governors received their official dispatches through the coffee-house delivery, and continued so to do up to the time of the testy and resolute Stuyvesant, who conceived the idea that more rapid communication with the gubernatorial head-quarters might be had by sending these important documents, without any circumlocution, to his official residence.

For many years, even after the English took possession of New York, the coffee-house delivery was really the people’s institution for the distribution of written information. The custom continued with the population of the seaport towns of turning out and greeting the arrival of every important vessel, and there followed the consequent exchange of congratulations, inquiries, and letters; and even after a more comprehensive and responsible system was demanded it was difficult to get the people to wholly change their old and confirmed ways, to depart from habits associated with so many pleasant traditions.

But this simple style of conducting business gradually became inefficient; and the “mother country,” after England assumed the maternal position, turned its attention to the establishinent of post-offices throughout the few densely settled portions of the colonies. At this period, toward the close of the seventeenth century (1672), New York boasted of five thousand inhabitants. Both Philadelphia and Boston were her superiors in population and commercial importance, and their citizens entered upon the new arrangements with actively expressed zeal. But New York in spirit remained  a mere village, for its old population was quite satisfied with things as they were, and resolutely maintained its correspondence, whenever it was possible, through private means. An innovation on this custom was evidently made by an official order, issued in 1686, that ship-letters must be sent to the custom-house; and we presume that the municipal government came to the rescue in 1692, by passing an act establishing a post-office.

In the year 1710 the Postmaster-General of Great Britain directed the establishment of a “chief letter office” in the city of New York, Philadelphia having been previously made the head-quarters of the colonial organization. In the succeeding year arrangements were completed for the delivery of the Boston mail twice a month, and propositions to establish a foot post to Albany were advertised. The New York Gazette, for the week ending the 3d of May, 1732, has the following interesting advertisement:

“The New York post-office will be removed tomorrow to the uppermost of the two houses on Broadway, opposite Beaver Street. “RicuAza Nicaol, Esq., P. M.”

In 1740 a complete road was “blazed” from Paulus Hook (Jersey City) to Philadelphia, over which road, without any stated intervals of time, the mail was carried on horseback between Philadelphia and New York.

Twenty-one years (1753) after the notice we have quoted of the removal of the New York post-office to Broadway we find it still in the same location, but designated as being opposite Bowling Green, and that it would he open every day, save Saturday afternoon and Sunday, from 8 to 12 A.M., except on post nights, when attendance would be given until ten at night. Signed, Alexander Colden, Deputy Postmaster, and Secretary and Comptroller.

Dr. Franklin must have been very active in the establishment of postal facilities throughout the colonies; for in the year 1753, much to his personal satisfaction, he was appointed Postmaster-General, with a small salary, which, it was quaintly added, “be could have if he could get it.” But in spite of the establishment of a city post forty years previously, New York did not attract any special attention, and the revenues derived therefrom are not mentioned, while those of Boston and Philadelphia have frequent notice. It is probable that the municipal and the colonial authorities carried on much of their correspondence through agents, who were left to their own ways, the habits of the mass of the people confining them to their old notions of volunteer distribution, which was also encouraged by the high rates of postage. So long, indeed, did the coffee-house delivery maintain its popularity, that we find “the constituted officials” complaining of the fact as injuring the revenue, and finally an attempt was made to break up the custom by the publication of severe penalties.

In Dr. Franklin’s celebrated examination before the House of Commons Committee on the situation of the colonies we find the following questions and answers, evidently aimed at the coffee-house distribution of letters:

COMMITTEE. “Do not letters eften come into the post-offices of America directed to inland towns where no post goes?“

Dr. FRANKLIN. “Yes.”

COMMITTEE. “Can any private person take up these letters and carry them as directed?“

Dr. FRANKLIN. “Yes, a friend of the person may do it, paying the postage that has accrued.”

But for many years, in spite of this governmental opposition, New York city kept up the custom. The coffee-houses maintained their popularity. To them resorted the chief men and the wits of the town. At them were to be met the sea-captains and strangers from abroad, and gossip answered the place of the daily paper; and there was kept up the “card-rack,” sticking full of letters and business notices; nor would public opinion severely condemn this custom, so peculiar to New York. Even the first Tontine Coffee-house, as it was called, had its place for exchanging letters. It was not until it was found out by experience that a well-regulated city post was safer, of less trouble, and more expeditious, that the coffee-house letter distribution came to an end.

The oppressions of the colonies by the British government occasioned a novel form of indignation, which expressed itself by the decided patronage of what appears to have been a “continental post,” which was carried on in opposition to the one under the control of the English Postmaster-General, for we find a notice that the deputy of the British government was vainly endeavoring to keep up a post-office.

Alexander Colden remained postmaster up to the breaking out of the Revolution, for in the year previous (1775) his name appears in the Gazette in connection with the office, and with the additional one of agent for the English packets, which sailed once a month.

Upon the British troops taking possession of New York, the old record of the post-office disappears. For seven years it was abolished by the exactions of the provost-marshal, and little correspondence ensued not connected with the movements of troops. William Bedlow was the first postmaster after the close of the war, as his name appears in that connection in 1785; but in the succeeding year (1786) Sebastian Banman was postmaster; and in the first directory of the city ever published — in which we find 926 names of citizens, the members of Congress, etc., John Hancock, Esq., President — is the following advertisement:



>From November 1st to May 1st. On Wednesday and Saturday, at seven o’clock P.M.
>From May 1st to November 1st. On Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday, at eight o’clock P.M.


>From November 1st to May 1st. On Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, at nine o’clock P.M.



>From November 1st to May 1st. On Sunday, Tuesday, and Thursday, at ten o’clock P.M.
>From May 1st to November 1st. On Sunday, Tuesday, and Thursday, at ten o’clock P.M.


>From November 1st to May 1st. On Sunday and Thursday, at two o’clock P.M.
>From May 1St to November 1st. On Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, at four o’clock P.M.

** Letters must be in the office half an hour before closing.
Congress in those early days was more considerate of the personal comforts of the post-office clerks than at the present time; for, with business that was scarcely worth noticing under the head of “labor,” that deliberative body found heart to pass a solemn act directing “that all letters left at the post a half hour before the time of making up the mail must be forwarded therein.” Therefore, advertised the sagacious Sebastian Bauman, all letters left at the office not conformable with this act will be left over until the next post! The income of the New York post-office the first year (1786) of this most excellent red-tape official was $2789 84; and from this amount, as a starting-point, can be correctly estimated the annual increase of the postal business of New York city.

On the 30th of April, 1789, Washington was inaugurated President, and the establishment of the General Post-office as now organized immediately followed. Samuel Osgood was appointed Postmaster-General, and assumed his duties in the city of New York under the tuition of Sebastian Bauman. What should be done with this important official was evidently a subject of Congressional discussion; for we find officially recorded, that “the Postmaster-General shall not keep any office separate from the one in which the mails arriving in New York are opened and distributed, that he may by his presence prevent irregularities, and rectify mistakes which may occur.” In fact, this now most important officer of the general government, and his solitary assistant and one clerk, then had nothing to do; so they took their first lessons in the service in the post-office of the city of New York. At this time there were throughout the United States seventy-five legally established post-offices and one thousand eight hundred and seventy-five miles of post-office routes.

In a very short time the national capital was transferred to Philadelphia, which had three penny-post carriers when New York had one — suggestive data of the comparative importance of the two cities at that time. The Southern, or Philadelphia, mail left New York daily, the Eastern mail tri-weekly, special mails for New Jersey and Long Island once a week. Mails to Albany were carried on horseback, contractor’s remuneration, “postage collected.”

“Colonel” Sebastian Bauman disappears in 1803; and his successor, Josias Ten Eyck, after what was to the public probably an uneventful year, gave way to General Theodorus Bailey, who received his appointment January 2, 1804, and who satisfactorily performed the duties of his office for nearly a quarter of a century. General Bailey was a gentleman of high standing in the community. He was a member of the House of Representatives two sessions, and a United States Senator in 1803, which position he held one year, and then resigned to assume the duties of postmaster.

The post-office was removed from Broadway by General Bailey, who established it in a house he had purchased, 29 William Street, corner of Garden, now Exchange Place. The building, even at that early day, was considered and spoken of as an “old-fashioned house.” The windows were wide apart, and between the two on the lower story was a narrow door, the entrance of which was protected by a stoop lined with the usual wooden benches. A single dormer-window broke up the monotony of the peaked roof. The window-frame on the left of the door was divided into the novelty of small boxes (now for the first time introduced), one hundred and forty-four in number. The office occupied was twelve feet in width and fifteen deep. The room was so small that it soon became overcrowded, and the increase of the newspaper mail became so great that William Coleman, publisher of the Evening Post, who kept a bookstore corner of William and Wall streets, used to take the accumulated newspapers, generally of an entire week, over to his store, and assort them at his leisure, tying up each distribution with a string, and then sending them back to the post-office to be distributed through the mails.

General Bailey occupied the upper part of the house with his family. In accordance with the custom of those times, between twelve and one o’clock he closed up the lower part of the door and joined his family at dinner. If any parties were delayed by this attention to refreshments, they would, if strangers, reach around, and, seizing hold of the huge lion-headed knocker, make a clatter that could be heard a block away. If the solitary clerk answered this clamor, he generally remarked that the banks closed between twelve and one, and why shouldn’t the post-office? and, with other evidences of dissatisfaction, would dismiss the impatient citizens. But if General Bailey was forced to reply, he would answer the call with the courtliness of an officer of the army associated with General Washington, and he would dismiss the inquirer after written and sealed information with the same old-school bow with which he would have delivered an order from head-quarters or a bouquet to a lady. If any of General Bailey’s personal acquaintances happened to call in an unpropitious hour, and no one was in attendance, they would help themselves, carefully leaving the money for postage on the table, which occupied almost the entire interior of the room.

The establishment of the “embargo” in the year 1807 paralyzed all business, and, of course, seriously affected that of the post-office. >From this time onward for several years there was little that occurred of general interest. It was not until the agitation of the right of the British government to impress seamen sailing under the American flag that New York was aroused from what seemed to be a chronic apathy, and the name of General Bailey, the postmaster, suddenly appears, among others, attached to certain resolutions resenting this monstrous assumption on the part “of the self-styled mistress of the seas.” The war of 1812 followed, and the post-office business continued to suffer. The clerical force, in consequence, was reduced one-third by the dismissal of a junior clerk; Archibald Forrester, one of the two retained, acting occasionally as a volunteer in throwing up earth-works “above King’s Bridge,” and again in superintending laborers engaged in constructing the round fort which still adorns the Battery. Jimmy Mower, the junior clerk, was drafted, but saved his place by hiring a substitute. Thus the post-office took a front rank in the patriotic efforts made to save the national honor. This war excitement had a healthy action on the country; the post-office business began to increase, and from that time steadily developed in importance.

In the summer of 1822 the city was desolated by the yellow fever, and was almost absolutely deserted by its population. The infected district was separated from the outer world by a high board fence, which ran across the city through the line of Duane, and what was then known as Harrison Street. Persons who had the temerity to climb to the top of this barricade relate that in the height of the plague not a living person could be seen. The post-office, for the public accommodation, was moved to Greenwich village, the desks, mail - bags, and all making hardly enough to overcrowd a modern furniture cart. The building temporarily appropriated was a handsome two-story frame house, erected for a bank but not occupied, situated corner of Asylum, now Fourth, and what was subsequently known as Bank Street. The magnificent trees which surrounded the house still have representatives standing in Hammond Street. Between Greenwich village and New York at that time was a vast tract of unoccupied and broken land. Woodcock and snipe “from the Jerseys” still found shelter in the marshes, the waters of which drained through old Canal Street.

When the yellow fever was raging, the rural population of the village, much to their annoyance, found their houses filled with people flying for their lives; these inflictions were borne with patience, since any fears were quieted by liberal pay for shelter; but when the post-office arrived, followed by the fear-stricken clerks, they concluded that disaster had indeed fallen in their midst, and that the letters and those grim road-worn mail-bags were but seeds and depositories of pestilence. With the sharp, biting frost of the latter part of November the post-office was removed back to its old quarters.

In the year 1825 there was an imperative demand for better, or rather for more roomy, accommodations, and the government leased the “Academy Building,” opposite Dr. Matthew’s church in Garden (now Exchange) Street. The free school which had been its occupant for many previous years was under the control of the “Reformed Dutch Consistory.” It was a two-story wooden building, and familiar to the youthful population, and especially “the rising young men,” for they had one and all within its incjosure been more or less severely disciplined in the principles of a useful education, and had been physically invigorated by the virtues of a sound thrashing.

The front of the building had some pretensions to novelty by slight attempts at ornamentation, and the unusual covering of a flat roof. On one side was a small pen, through which was the entrance into the yard, and underneath was a sort of dungeon for the confinement, if so ordered, of fractious boys, whom reason, mingled with Scripture, worldly advice, and birchen rods, had failed to reform. On the opposite side was Postmaster Bailey’s residence, a narrow two-story house, with a single dormer-window, and a cellar in the basement, protected from observation by doors, which, from their propitious angle, formed the “summer sliding-pond” of Young New York.

In this new location two windows were knocked into one, and the acquired space was filled up with nine hundred letter boxes, and, to the astonishment of many, they were soon leased for business purposes. To make every thing satisfactory to the public, General Bailey obtained permission from the government to build a wooden shed over the sidewalk, so that people waiting at the delivery window were protected from the snow and rain. At this time there were eight clerks — W. B. Taylor, Joseph Dodd, George Abell, Courter Goodwin, W. S. Dunham, James Lynch, James Mower, and Charles Forrester. On the 1st of January, 1871, three of these clerks, after forty-five years of faithful service, were still at work, viz., W. B. Taylor, Joseph Dodd, and Charles Forrester - the two last named are all that are leeft of those who were on duty in the first quarter of the century.

In those days the prevailing spirit was one of quiet. There was not apparently even a foreshadowing of the “lightning speed” which is characteristic of every event of this generation; for, thirty or forty years ago, a voyage from Liverpool to New York was “rapid” if accomplished within two months, and quite satisfactory if not prolonged to ninety days. Even after the lapse of this last-mentioned time, there was no anxiety in the minds of self-possessed friends. The vessel, they would say, has met with some accident and put in at Faynl, of Azores or Western Islands, then a sort of half-way station,where ships and passengers alike rested from their fatigues. After repairing sails and cordage, and supplying the exhausted stores of provisions, the good ship and easy-going passengers would renew their slow progress westward, possibly consuming a third of a year in the voyage. It was after one of these “long-drawn-out events,” when the skipper probably consumed more time to get his craft from Sandy Hook to the “Dover Street dock” than is now necessary to make the entire voyage across the Atlantic, that a passenger, evidently born out of his time, so fully realized the misery of the programme that he indignantly, and with some tendency to hyperbole, asserted, “that if all the trees in the world were pens, and all the men in the world scribes, and all the water in the sea ink, they couldn’t explain the calamity of such a voyage.”

There were no telegraphs, no speedy movements by the aid of steam, and consequently nothing of what is now designated newspaper enterprise. As a consequence, the people, even like their Knickerbocker predecessors, depended upon, and were quite satisfied to wait upon, chance for information. A well-known citizen “from the interior,” now designated the “rural districts,” was button-holed (“interviewed,” we would say) under the post-office shed regarding the corn and potato crop of his section. A “Southerner,” or a live sea-captain, or a passenger “just from Europe,” were severally perfect magazines of news. Information thus obtained — if used with spirit — would frequently appear within a week or ten days. here at the post-office was to be met, every pleasant morning, Charles King of the American, Redwood Fisher of the Doug Advertiser, and the pleasantest man of all the press, Major Mordecai Noah of the Gourier, and other distinguished editors, who, having exchanged the ordinary courtesies of the day, would in an oracular manner give utterance to startling political or social observations, the pleasant interlude very likely terminatifig in a practical joke, profanely indulged in by an irreverent bank clerk, or valuable assistant of a popular auctioneer.

But the post-office had among its clerks Jimmy Mower. He was a smart business man, of wonderful capacity for work, and of the most equable good-nature. In addition, he was pretty well read; he boasted that he got his information in connection with his business of distributing the newspapers. One of his jokes grew out of the fact that in the war he was drafted, but, to avoid the responsibility, hired a substitute, who was killed at the famous sortie on Fort Erie, Canada frontier, and consequently that he (Jimmy Mower) had been killed in the service of his country, and that his bones were absolutely whitening on the battle-field. His efforts to get a pension for his heirs and get his post-office pay at the same time proved a puzzler to the best legal minds. The fashion of the times was rather “stately,” but Mower, dead as he was, had life enough in him to amuse his fellow - clerks by sometimes joining in the conversations held under the shed outside of the post-office, and turning what was serious into ridicule. He generally hallooed his remarks through a broken pane of glass, at the same time making his hands almost invisible iu the distribution of mail matter.

He was popular with the crowd, and if he could give the erudite Charles King, or the subtle Redwood Fisher, or the worthy Major Noah what the “boys” termed a “side-winder,” it would set the post-office congregation in a roar. If Jimmy was turned on by some indignant individual who didn’t see his joke, the light-hearted official retreated to the interior of the post-office, leaving the vehement eloquence intended for his head to be expended against the obtruding glass. Colonel Dodd and Charley Forrester, who are still cleiks in the post-office, were great admirers of Jimmy Mower, and they still insist, after forty-five years of serious reflection on the subject, that Mower was the smartest man they ever knew, and that in his fights with “the editors and the big-bugs” he always got the advantage.

The post-office now began to be an institution, and this growing importance was pleasant to General Bailey, who, with more enlarged quarters and a private house entirely at his disposal, seemed to grow more courtly than ever, and dispensed his pleasant hospitality of conversation from the benches of his front-door, where he could often be seen side by side with the Clintons, the Willetts, and Schuylers, indulging in mutual congratulations upon the growth of the city and country, both of which they had assisted to rescue from colonial dependence and place on the high-road to national greatness.

At that time there were six letter-carriers, the extreme up-town boundary of their field of labor being a straight line crossing the island at Catharine and Canal streets. Colonel Reeside was now becoming of national importance by his connection with the Post-office Department. He carried the great Southern mail through from Washington, Baltimore, and Philadelphia, delivering it by contract at Paulus Hook (Jersey City). Here it was taken possession of by Colonel Dodd, who brought over the bags in a skiff, and then trundled them up to Garden Street in a wheelbarrow.

At the foot of Rivington Street, in the year 1825, was an important spot of high ground, known as “Manhattan Island — a place where were located the ship-yards, among them the large one belonging to Henry Eckford. The proprietors of these yards had an extensive correspondence with the South, especially with Georgia and Florida, from which States they obtained their fat pine and live-oak used in ship-building. Mr. Charles Forrester, more than forty years an employe of the post-office, and who still performs his daily and arduous duties, then a boy, lived in the suburbs, and he would bring up the letters directed to these ship-builders, carry them across the wet meadows that lined the eastern side of the island, and deliver them to their owners.

The year 1825 was made memorable by the fact that Colonel Reeside obtained the contract to carry the mails from Boston to New York, the route being over the old post-road. Reeside’s stages were very showy, drawn by four blooded Virginia horses, and driven by the most accomplished “Jehus.”

On pleasant summer afternoons the people confined to the lower part of the island would purposely walk up the Bowery to see the “Boston mail” come in. Some time before the vehicle reached the old hay-scales, just where the Cooper Institute now stands, the driver would herald his approach by a melodious winding of his horn; then, laying aside this vulgar instrument, he would assume his legitimate sceptre, the whip, which he would harmlessly crack over the heads of his spirited steeds with a noise that, on a clear day, could be “heard a mile.”

On Saturdays the jolly school boys and girls would gather together under the tall poplars and button-wood trees, and as the stage dashed along they would wave their hands as a welcome, and the most venturesome would catch hold of the straps, and thus have the glory of riding a few yards under the overhanging “boot.” The characteristic gamins of that period would evince their enthusiasm by following the coach and rollicking in the dust of its revolving wheels; would cheer it and its passengers to the end of the route; and especially was this the case when the driver would make purposely abortive attempts to drive these human flies away with his whip, or a jocose passenger would bandy wit with the boys, and make them crazy with delight by the scattering of a few pennies in the road.

In the winter these gay coaches were put aside, and in their place was a huge box on wheels, the combination not unlike a hearse, in the heart of which was deposited the load. The practice then was to abandon passengers, when the roads were heavy from mud and rain, and carry the mails; but nowadays, if the reports from many of the existing stage routes be true, under unfavorable circumstances the drivers abandon the mails to carry the passengers. Amos Kendall, the indefatigable Postmaster-General, by  his industry and good management, reduced the carrying time between New York and New Orleans from sixteen to seven days. The event was celebrated at the Merchants’ Exchange and the post-office by the raising of the national standard, and there was a general rejoicing in Wall Street. Jimmy Mower had his joke by gravely asserting, that all newspapers delivered at the office from New Orleans less than sixteen days old were printed at the Advertiser office.

Progress was now perceptible in the whole city in the evident growth of wealth and population. The merchants (1825) were suddenly inspired with the ambition to have an Exchange worthy of their increasing importance, and an honor to the growing metropolis. To realize this idea they purchased a lot of seventy feet fronting on Wall Street, and at that time practically between William and Pearl streets. The foundations of the building were laid with imposing ceremonies, and its gradual erection, joined with the promising grandeur, was to the citizens a source of daily surprise and self-congratulation. In due time the structure was completed, and to give proper importance to the event, and a characteristic recognition of one of New York’s greatest financiers and lawyers, a marble statue of Alexander Hamilton was placed conspicuously under the dome.

The “solid men” went from this stately pile around to the humble post-office in Garden Street, and the board front and “shanty” shed became distasteful to their eyes and unworthy of the city. This public sentiment was utilized into well-written articles for the newspapers, and the people grew suddenly amhitious for a better and more convenient post-office. The merchnnts favored the idea, and a part of the basement of the new Exchange was leased to the federal government, and in the year 1827 the post-office was established in its new and excellent quarters.

Wall Street at this time presented a picturesque mingling of the highest social life with churches, banks, and business stores combined. That it was in a transition state was apparent, yet we much doubt if the fact was fully realized by even the most sagacious citizens. The monetary institutions had a solid, unpretentious look, and the buildings in which they were lodged, in some instances, were occupied in their upper stories by the presidents, or cashiers, with their families. Then our most solid merchants did not find it 

inconsistent to live over their stores, and have at their tables their confidential clerks. Large trees still shaded the sidewalks, and private residences were to be seen, at the windows of which, after business hours, the ladies of the household presented themselves, or, standing at the front-door, according to the early custom of New York, chatted with neighbors. “Wall Street Church” and grounds occupied half the block that reached from Nassau to Broadway; while over the whole towered the venerable pile known as “Old Trinity,” its grave-yard adding to the rural aspect, and giving an air of quiet to the surroundings. The Merchants’ Exchange occupied only the eastern half of the square on which it was built; and directly adjoining it was a little candy shop, where they sold spruce-beer and “taffy” by the penny’s worth. Then came the shop of a fashionable haberdasher, and on the corner was Benedict’s well-known watch establishment, the regulator of which governed Wall Street time.

In the rear of the eastern corner of the basement of the Exchange was located the celebrated lunch-room of Charley King. How his restaurant would compare with the more pretentious ones of modern date we will not assert; but for hearty good-will, substantial fare, high respectability, and unquestioned manners, the proprietors of this now almost forgotten lunch-room have not, since its destruction, been surpassed. In the basement corner of Wall and Hanover streets James Buchanan, British consul, and David Hale printed a paper with the happily selected name of Journal of Commerce. It was at the commencement an unpretending sheet, and from the fact that it was semi-religious in its tone, and refused advertisements for ths sale of liquors, was assumed to he a “temperance sheet.” Among the well-known characters then living in New York was one “Johnny Edwards, scale-beam maker.” He lived “up town,’ in the vicinity of what is now known as Fourth Street and Second Avenue. He was a man of the most harmless eccentricity, dressing himself in a Quaker garb, and riding about in a rickety old gig. He used sometimes to come down to Wall Street in business hours, and, taking advantage of the crowd in front of the Exchange, would proceed to harangue the “thoughtless generation” on the virtues of his patent scale beams, and the necessities of temperance. As he clinched his arguments regarding temperance with the distribution of tracts, he took great umbrage at the assumptions of the Journal of Oommerce, pronouncing it a rival sheet on the great subject of temperance. The crowd enjoyed these interruptions of the usual routine of the street, to the great annoyance of David Hale, who considered the whole thing an undignified travesty on his gravely attempted efforts to bring about a moral reform.

Even at this dawning era the spirit of New York was unambitious, and the people, with few exceptions, were evidently unconscious of the changes in its character which were impending. One mail delivery a day was all the merchants demanded. The newspapers were rarely excited about the receipt of their exchanges. The hurry and bustle and anxiety which now pervades Wall Street were totally unknown. Groups were constantly in and about the Exchange conversing upon trivial matters; the marry, hearty laugh was heard time and again through the day, expressing admiration of harmless jokes uttered hy persons at the time enjoying the hospitality of Charley King’s lunch; while the clerks, less able to pay, made merry at Billy Niblo’s, or Clark and Brown’s, where for a six-pence they commanded a plentiful dish of Fulton Market beef, and trimmings to match; and, if extravagantly inclined, they would pay another sixpence for a cup of coffee and a kruller, to make the equal of which has ceased to be possible outside of the “kitchen-houses” belonging to our old population.

The Exchange had a narrow front on the street, and ran through to Garden. The entrance to the basement was under a circular opening, which was made of the arch which supported the steps that led up to the rotunda. The post-office was established in the rear eastern half of the basement, where it had ample room and much to spare. Two delivery windows were established, and three thousand boxes for the accommodation of the merchants; and so seemingly enormous had now become the business that twenty-two clerks were employed, and twenty-two letter-carriers, whose routes now reached up as high as Houston and Ninth, now Fourth Street. Now for the first time was found a demand for the assignment of a clerk wholly to a special duty, and “little Sam Gouverneur” was appointed to the exclusive care of the money department, and dignified with the title of “cashier.”

To facilitate the arrival and departure of the mails, and give light to that part of the basement occupied by the post-office, what is now known as Hanover Street (which had, thirty years previously, been used by foot passengers as a short-cut to Hanover Square) was cleared out and made a street, and a small court on this side of the Exchange conveniently opened itself for the accommodation of the wagons and other vehicles employed by the post-office.

General Bailey, who had been an acceptable and honored postmaster almost a quarter of a century, full of years and honors, on the 4th of September, 1828, passed away. The veterans of the Revolution, as they now began to be called, State and city soldiery, the various civic societies, and representatives of the army and navy, vied with each other in paying to his memory every possible respect. General Jackson, in compliment to ex-President Monroe, who was then living, appointed his son-in-law, Samuel L. Gouverneur, to succeed General Bailey. With this event the old-times history of the post-office of New York may be said to have passed away.

The business of the post-office steadily increased, nd the public grew more and more satisfied with its location in the Exchange. The newspaper press centred in its vicinity; and even the sad summer of cholera (1832) did not altogether destroy a certain air of vitality, that maintained itself in spite of the most unhappy surroundings.

On Wednesday night, December 16, 1835, a fire hroke out in a building in the rear of the Exchange, and in fifteen hours destroyed an area of fifty acres of the most valuable business part of the city. In this dreadful calamity the Merchants Exchange, after resisting the surrounding fire for seine time, was involved in the general destruction; and the post-office, of which the people were so proud, no longer existed. Through the almost superhuman energy of the clerks — for no  volunteers could be obtained to help them — all the mad matter and most of the furniture were saved. This result was largely due to the fact that the fire made at first slow progress in penetrating the brick walls, but more especially to the plentiful supply of mail-bags at hand, which were filled and instantly removed, by United States soldiers from Governor’s Island, to what was then the new Custom—house, now the Sub—treasury, corner of Wall and Nassau streets. Jimmy Mower, who had charge of the newspaper department, was exceedingly disgusted when he subsequently discovered that the oil-cans and inkstands were promiscuously mixed up with his printed documents.

On the morning of the 18th of December, a day after its destruction in the Exechange, the post-office was extemporized in two brick stores in Pine, near Nassau Street. The destruction of such an enormous number of buildings made it impossible, even if economy was no object on the part of the government, to obtain a suitable building in the vicinity of the burned district. In this strait the city authorities offered the Rotunda in the City Hall Park, erected in the year 1818 by Vanderlyn, the artist, for a studio and the exhibition of panoramic pictures. When it was understood the government proposed to accept the Rotunda, busy as the merchants were in re-establishing themselves and counting up their losses, they found time to get up very demonstrative indignation meetings and protests against locating a post-office so far up town. 

The post-office was, however, installed in the Rotunda, and the commercial pressure of 1837, which followed the great fire, diverted the puhlic mind from the location of the post-office. Illustrative of the pecuniary disaster of the period maybe mentioned that, in the “collapse,’ many of the merchants of the day owed the letter-carriers various sums, ranging from fifty to one hundred and fifty dollars, much of which money was never paid, the debtors being irretrievably ruined. This year the mail time between New York and New Orleans was reduced to six days and six hours. But the people, nevertheless, were impatient for more rapid communication, for we find in a Chicago paper of the time this notice:

“HIGHLY IMPORTANT. — By a foot passenger from the South we learn that the long-expected mail may be looked for in a week.”

Fortunately for the interests of commerce and the unity of the country, rapid transit of news, cheap postage, and facilities for traveling were approaching consummation in the erection of railroad lines, with which private enterprise was threading every section of the country. One triumph announced seemed only to create a demand for another, and when Amos Kendall carried out the idea of connecting the non-continuous lines of railways by pony expresses, there was added a new value to the post-office of New York. It began to assume its present

central importance, and the promise of its brilliant future was almost realized, when the firing of guns from our national forts and vessels, with the ringing of bells, and cheers of thousands of exultant men, all joined in welcoming the first appearance of steam merchautmen in our harbor — the ever-to-be-remembered Sirius and Great Western.

The event which revolutionized the commerce and business enterprise of the world seemed to be most thoroughly appreciated; for, besides the incidents of welcome we have alluded to, crowds of curious spectators surged day by day at the foot of Clinton Street, where the vessels were at anchor, to admire and wonder; and even long journeys were taken from distant cities to behold the daring innovators. “Daddy Rice,” the father of negro minstrelsy, then reigned supreme at the Bowery Theatre, and called forth his greatest shouts of applause when, as Jim Crow, he sang:

“And while they were discussing,

And making mighty talk,

The steamboat Greet Western

Came to New York:

So turn about, and wheel about,” etc.

The inconvenience of having the post-office so far from the centre of business was still complained of, and, to quiet dissatisfaction as far as possible, a letter delivery was established in the new Merchants’ Exchange, where the Custom-house is now located, and placed in charge of Jemison Cox, an alderman and ex-chief-engineer. For letters two cents, for papers one cent, extra, was charged, which sums were paid without complaint by the merchants, and the amount thus collected paid the letter-carriers’ charges.

In the year 1836 Mr. Gonverneur had been removed, and James Page, Esq., postmaster of Philadelphia, commissioned to take charge, which supervision was maintained for six weeks, when Jonathan J. Coddington was commissioned postmaster. When the latter assumed the duties of his position the post-office was in the Rotunda building and in the house of a hook-and-ladder company adjoining, and a “hose-house on the opposite side of the way.” Nothing could have been more inconvenient, contrary to good discipline, and injurious to expeditious business operations. To remedy these evils Mr. Coddington built a handsome extension facing toward Wall Street. With this important addition, and other improvements, he brought the entire business (now constantly increasing) under one roof. The mails were received in Chambers Street, the box delivery was on Centre Street, while the interior of the Rotunda was devoted to the general delivery.

The location of the post-office in the Rotunda seemed to be unsatisfactory to citizens living in every part of the city. An application was therefore made for the establishment of a branch post-office for the receipt and delivery of the mails in the upper part of the city. The reply was that such an office could only be a branch of the one already existing, and that no compensation could be allowed for services beyond the two cents per letter paid the carriers. It was also doubted if the extent of New York demanded such an addition to its postal facilities. The proposition was also submitted to Mr. Coddington, and was opposed by him and his clerks. The subject was finally referred to the Chamber of Commerce, which recommended that there be established a subpost-office for the reception of letters at Chatham Square, but not any place for the delivery of letters other than the existing arrangements at the post-office and by the penny post. Such was the origin of the Chatham Square post-office, which maintained its popularity and usefulness until its occupation was destroyed by the present iron boxes now so familiar on the street corners.

So much esteemed was Mr. Coddington by the officials at Washington that the Postmaster-General, under General Harrison’s administration, informed him that, though a political opponent of the administration, he might retain his position. One week after this notice President Harrison died, and his successor, John Tyler, promptly requested Mr. Coddington to renew his bonds. On this hint, after some hesitation, he did as requested, and forwarded them to Washington in June. The reply was promptly returned, in the form of a commission creating “John Lorimer Graham postmaster of New York, in place of Jonathan Coddington removed.”

Mr. Coddington is still remembered among the old clerks of the post-office, and the old merchants of the city, as one of the best of officers. He tried to learn the details of his position, and took pride in making every improvement that would render his department efficient. He was a man of great personal independence, and though a decided politician, he would not allow his bias that way to affect his official conduct. On one occasion a committee of ward politicians called upon him, and stated, through their chairman, that he had been assessed fifty dollars for partisan purposes. Mr. Coddington heard the proposition with patience, and then rising from his seat, said:

“I refuse to pay any such assessment as this you speak of. I’d have you understand that I am postmaster of New York city, and not postmaster of a ward committee.”

The pressure to get the post-office “down town” still continued, and advantage was taken of the fact that the “Middle Dutch Church” was for sale to procure it for a post-office. There was nothing in the world so unsuited as the building for such a purpose; but the location was desirable, and the merchants went to work to press the matter upon the government. The property was offered for $350,000, but the Postmaster-General decided not to give more than $300,000. Lest the purchase might not be consummated, the merchants in a few hours raised by voluntary contributions the additional $50,000, and the old church was secured for secular purposes.

The extravagance and folly of the federal government in buying property erected for a church, and attempting to alter it to accommodate a post-office, or in leasing any kind of private property and fitting it up for public service, finds an illustration, hut not an exceptionable one, in this “high old Dutch Church post-office of New York city.” It may not be out of place to mention to the general reader that this old church was dedicated, in 1732, as a house of Christian worship. Until the close of the century its services were carried on in the “Holland language ;“ after that it was alternated with the English language. In the year 1776 the British tore out its pews, and (with the adjoining building, the old sugar-house) used it as a prison for American patriots, taken and treated as rebels. When no longer needed for this purpose, it served in rainy weather as a school-house for cavalry. When the British evacuated New York the congregation again took possession, removed the pulpit and altar from the eastern side to the northern end, and erected the heavy formidable galleries, destined eventually to become so conspicuous in the economy of the post-office.

Perhaps no building could be invented more unsuited for the purposes to which it has been appropriated. John Lorimer Graham, who had the responsible and difficult task of making it available, commenced hy expending on the attempt what was then the large sum of $80,000.

He then issued a printed circular, surmounted by a picture of the old church, dated New York, January —, 1845, which read:

“The postmaster has great pleasure in announcing to his fellow-citizens that the new post-office build lug (112 years old), in Nassau Street, will he ready for occupation in a few days, and respectfully invites etc., etc., to view the interior arrangements of the establishment,

It was a grand time when the citizens crowded into this old church to look for the post-office. The eighty thousand dollars had made no material change; to he sure, the altar railing was gone, but the pulpit and its ornanientation remained; and the galleries, left intact, resembled great overhanging amphitheatres, from which to witness a gladiatorial display. But the post-office was finally installed, and then commenced that era in its business history that has made it a sort of visible standard, or gauge, of the mighty growth of old Manabatta toward the honor of being one of the mightiest of metropolitan cities.

The inconvenience, the necessarily miserable arrangements, the total unfitness of the place — inherently so by the original design of the building — has been a source of constant discomfort and annoyance, and made the labors of the clerks, and the supervision of the executive officers, onerous to the last degree. During the first year of the occupation the space immediately around the building as still covered with the tablets of what should have been the truly honored dead; for there lay the representatives of large part of our ancient and best population. The vaults under the church and the vaults around the church gave np their dead when the profane feet of the busy multitude pressed forward toward the church, not for prayer, but from absorbing interest in the living, active, bustling world. For a long year the spectacle was presented of coffins and mail-bags, of carts and extemporized hearses, jostling each other while engaged in their allotted work; but at last this incongruous mingling of the dead population and the living ended; but the forbidding look of that old castellated church remained.

The tower, bonntifully made of stone, continued, and still continues, to look down sullenly on the bustle beneath, while the strong walls of the church, inside, announcing, in Dutch, that “My house shall be called a house of prayer,” and the rough plastered walls, outside, speaking of the wasting storms of nearly a hundred and fifty years, repudiate all harmonious minglings and sympathies with the secular business of distributing the mails.

But the place is not without its living defenders of old traditionary possession. The mynheers are gone; the Knickerbockers know the place no more; but the rats, descendants of the original stock, keep high revel still, and continue to dispute possession with Uncle Sam and his salaried cohorts. And they, the rats, have had a queer history — these old Low-Dutch-Church-post-office rats.

For many years they lived a hard life, suffering starvation and dyspepsia under the preaching of Dominie Bogardus; but when the old sugar-house was erected adjoining the church, they felt that their trials and tribulations had brought them great reward, for the sweets of the Indies were at their disposal, and they reveled, until, in an evil hour, the sugar-house and church were filled with sad men, who starved and suffered and perished under a prison discipline that made the bodies of its victims not even passable fare for famished rats.

Then came the jolly times when the church was turned into a stable, and oats and hay and profanity were abundant; again another change, and the old-fashioned times returned, and the rats went into mortifications and fastings as a punishment for the good fare of the past. And tribulation was not soon to end; for, to their discomfort, the sugar-house, even as a place to hide their sorrows, disappeared, and the old church itself was finally consigned to the evil doings of the post-office.

Under this new administration even the dead bodies in the vaults underneath the church were carted away, and nothing, for the time being, was left to prey upon but the poorly paid post-office clerks. But this resource, together with brown soap, the paste-pots, bits of apples, and the lunches of the night watchmen, left matters even worse than the most solemn times, when they heard sermons without any refreshments six hours long. But relief was to come to these historically interesting and brave old rats.

The Agricultural Bureau at Washington commenced an annual distribution of “choice seeds” through the mail, and good times dawned again for these old Dutch-Church rats. Once possessed of the secret of the rich contents of the plethoric mail-bags, the rats soon became such experts that they could smell a paper of marrowfat peas buried in newspaper walls as solid as an iron safe. In the pursuit of an honest living they have sharpened up their teeth until they can bore through a pile of compressed mail matter with the precision of an auger. They revel in cutting into leather pouches, laughing at the tough exterior, and treating the “patent, compound, burglar - proof padlocks’ with infivmite sscorn. It is asserted by some of the old clerks, who have been hiddgn away for a quarter of a century in the damp vaults of the church until they are as gray and as sharp as the rats, that these rodentia read the agricultural papers; and the annual announcement in the Tribune of the distribution of seeds is celebrated in the lower vaults by a grand ‘‘rat—ification.”

>From this era onward the New York post-office becomes of too much magnitude to permit individuals to figure prominently in its history. Its leading characteristic, from the time it was established in Nassau Street, has been a constant increase of business. Robert H. Morris, W. V. Brady, Isaac V. Fowler, John A. Dix, Wilhiam B. Taylor, succeeded each other as postmasters without any marked change in the routine except the employment of additional clerks. Abraham Wakeman accomplished a long-desired reform by abolishing the independent offices of Washington Heights, Bloomingdale, Manhattanville, and Yorkville, making the whole island one postal district. The names of James Kelly and P. H. Jones bring the succession down to our day.

The hard - working employes, who have carried on the department with such marked success that they have made its leading features the rapidity and correctness with which the mail matter is received and distributed, seldom appear above the surface. There are a few whose efficiency, knowledge of details, and unvarying faithfulness have secured them against the unhappy law of removals, which is especially an evil in the post-office. Among these “permanents” we must mention Colonel John Dodd, regularly in service for fifty-four years, and now the oldest clerk in the department. Fifty years ago it was his business to carry the Southern mail on his shoulder down to the Cortlandt Street landing, transport it by skiff to Paulus Hook (Jersey City), and receive the Southern mail in let in. The change ma be vaguely realized when we consider that it takes four stout horses each day to draw the same mail to the “Washington train.” In spite of the infirmities of advancing years, at eighty the colonel was faithfully at his post in the letter-delivery department. A year or more ago his desk and its business, when he was absent from duty, were moved up stairs. The old colonel, after this change, went to his accustomed place, and found it occupied by another; where there had heen letters were piles of newspaper packages — all was changed. He was shown where was in future to he his desk, but he objected, and wanted to he put on duty in his old location; the spot and its surroundings had become necessary for his happiness. This, of course, was impossible, and he has never recovered from the disappointment. In the month of, June, 1869, when the foundations of the new post-office were laid in the Park, he was a prominent actor. When all had been concluded the old government officer observed, “Now let me live to see this building completed, and I will die content.”

The windows of the post-office for the distrihution of letters and the selling of stamps, “in sums less than one dollar,” are interesting places to study the cosmopolitan character of our busy population. It is not uncommon to witness people of every nationality “in line,” waiting for their turn to inquire for correspondence. The ladies’ window is especially a centre of observation; and the appearance of the sex dressed in gay colors and wreathed in smiles lightens lip the otherwise care-worn, pell-mell, rushing, and sombre-looking crowd. Here the “young lady of the period” contrasts with the old crone whose undutiful son is “off at sea.” The widow in her weeds throws sly glances at the dashing clerk; her hopefulness of the future contrasting strongly with the face of the suffering wife, who, sad and discontented, turns abrupt1y away because her absent spouse “had failed to write.”

During the rebellion the post-office clerks, by virtue of their duties, were often made unwilling participants in many sad scenes and associations. There was a terrible significance in the hymn or prayer book returned “from the front,” often saturated with blood or marred by the bullet. Then there were the packets of unclaimed letters, dictated by loving, patriotic hearts, returned to the mother, wife, or sweetheart of the soldier, hearing the formal but terrible indorsement of the adjutant of the regiment, of “William Brown, killed in battle.” It was often almost like stabbing the recipients to the heart to hand them such a fatal gift, and the look of unutterable anguish that sometimes followed haunted the day musings and midnight dreams of the sympathizing official. But there sometimes, nay, often, came a letter that conveved to wife and family a respite to agonizing suspense, and then the old post-office was for the moment bright, and the dangers of war for an instant were forgotten. Lessons of human nature are taught at the delivery window of a post-office in the classified peculiarities of the universal patrons of the “republic of letters,” among which are developed the common facts, that “clergymen, as a class, and women, universally, are the most difficult to please ;“ certainly they seem to complain the most.

Romantic incidents are not unusual in the history of specific mails. When the Japanese empire was opened to the outside world, the first mail from that legendary country was sent to New York in a sailing vessel via San Francisco, Panama, and Aspinwall. By a coincidence a mail from China via England arrived at the post-office simultaneously, and the written ideas and wishes of these two Oriental nations for the moment reposed side by side. In their route of destination they separated, and made the circuit of the world, to meet again in our great Western city of “mushroom barbarians.” But speculation is brief in the post-office when work is to be done; the words, “Who separates ?“ are heard, the “travelers” are “broken up,” and piecemeal sent to their various destinations.

Some years since a steamer running between Liverpool and Quebec was involved in a terrible storm that swept over the mouth of the St. Lawrence. The stanch ship was lost, and all living creatures on board perished. Two months afterward the divers, among other things, recovered from the wreck the New York city mail, and it was promptly forwarded to its place of destination. When opened the contents were found comparatively safe; the letters were carefully dried and duly distributed; and these frail, delicate, paper memorials of thought remained intact, while the iron-ribbed ship and the brave men who commanded her still repose in their ocean grave.

No service in any department of the federal government is more exacting in hours of labor and hard work than the post-office, and no government service has more enthusiastic and faithful officers. On a recent occasion a ward politician was appointed to a place in the post-office. He was set to work “killing postage stamps” — that is, defacing the stamp on mailed letters. He worked away from 8 o’clock A.M. until noon, then deliberately quit his table, went up to the postmaster, and drawled out, “Look here, gineral, I wanted an app’intment, not hard work; and ef this is the best thing you can do for me, I’ll quit.” And the “wielder of powerfel political influence” quit, and departed to the more genial quarters of a drinking saloon up town.

The pay of the post-office clerk is exceedingly small, and, however earnest he may be as a partisan, the political tax annually levied is by no means a bright spot in his hard fortunes. We have mentioned how Mr. Coddington treated this custom; another example may not be out of place. When General Dix was post-master he was approached on the subject of allowing a subscription to be taken among the clerks for party purposes. He appeared to promptly coincide with the idea, making only one condition — that it should he taken up in his own way. He accordingly took a small blank book and wrote the following:

“This book will be handed to you by Mr. —, who is authorized to collect moneys of the clerks for political purposes; but I wish each clerk distinctly to understand that giving funds for such a purpose is at his own option. Those who give will not be helped by it, and those who refuse will not be injured.”

Possibly it is necessary for us to state that while the clerks saved their money, and the party wasn’t injured, the “grand central committee” was deprived of nothing more nor less than the means of indulging in a Champagne supper.

A post-office clerk, under the most favorable circumstances, has a delicate and responsible position to hold, for he is constantly subjected to suspicion. Money letters can be robbed before they reach the office, and can be robbed before they reach their owners after they leave the office. One day a person called on the postmaster with a letter written by a lady of great respectability, in which it was stated that “inclosed you will find ten dollars in liquidation of your bill against me.” But.the letter had apparently been opened, and the remains only of the edges of the remittance, sticking to some paste, were left behind. The bill, save the remains of the slight mutilation alluded to, was gone. By examining the fragment still adhering to the paste the word one, one, one, oft repeated, presented itself. Thus this base attempt to swindle an honest creditor and defame the credit of the post-office was exposed.

People who come to the post-office and make complaints of being robbed, when they discover that they were mistaken never call and make reparation, or relieve the department of the charge made against its employes. A merchant, mutch excited, complained that a letter sent to him “by a most responsible house,” containing $500, had not been received. This charge was fortified by showing a letter from the postmaster who mailed the missing letter, certifying that it was forwarded, and contained the $500. Detectives were at once set to work to unravel the iniquity, but all efforts proved unavailing. Finally the post-office authorities, after weeks of hard work, called on the complaining merchant and asked if he had heard any thing about the missing money. “Oh,” replied the gentlemnan, with great vivacity, “that’s all right; by mistake that letter was thrown into the safe, and remained unopened nearly four weeks. Funny, wasn’t it ?“ Not even an apology was made for charging the post-office with purloining the money, or for giving its officers so much unnecessary trouble.

Charges of dishonesty against the post-office are made where nobody but “extraordinary circumstances” are to blame. A letter containing two $1000 bills in it was delivered by the carrier, who, according to custom (ignorant of its contents, of course), at the house of its owner, shoved it into the hallway, under the door. The letter was missing. Complaint was made at the post-office; evidence was produced that the money had been forwarded. The detectives were set to work to trace out the robbery. The poor carrier, and the clerks in the office who handled the letter, were placed under surveillance. The clerks where the letter was mailed were “shadowed.” Every dollar they expended after the probable robbery was secretly inquired into, to see if any of them had been at any given time, after the letter was lost, unusually “flush;” but all signs failed. After a long time the floor covering of the hall was taken up, and there was the letter, “safe and sound :“ the unfortunate carrier had thrust it under, instead of over, the oil-cloth.

The misdirection of letters is the cause of serious charges against the post-office. A letter containing $700 was mailed from Albany to New York. It was sent from a well-known person, and the package which was supposed to contain the letter, made up in Albany, was not opened until it reached New York. Both ends of the line were under suspicion. It was stated that the letter was addressed Mr. _ _ Broadway, New York. After a long search it was found that the letter had never left Albany at all, being directed by mistake Mr. _ _ ,Broadway, Albany, and the faithful clerks had thrown it into their own city delivery box instead of forwarding it to New York. The confusion in the mind of the writer of the letter grew out of the fact that there is a Broadway in both cities, and from force of habit he wrote the wrong address.

Miserable chirography is one of the most prolific causes of post-office inefficiency. It is safe to say that unmistakenly written directions would remove nine-tenths of the complaints. What is a nonplused clerk to do with letters addressed to “Mahara Seney,” “Old Cort,” or “Cow House,” when Morrisania, Olcott, and Cohoes were really intended?

One day, possibly four years ago, Mr. Kelly was sitting in his private office opening his personal letters, and enjoying the delusion that every thing was working satisfactorily, when, to his surprise, he found one letter from Washington calling his especial attention to the “inclosed editorial,” cut from the Tribuae, in which the carelessness of his clerks, and the generally unsatisfactory manner with which he carried on his business, were dilated upon, ending with the startling announcement that, under the present management of the department, it took four days to get a letter from New York to Chappaqua, distance about thirty miles, and made literally no distance by a fast railway! Consternation ensued, and Mr. Kelly, to commence examination into these serious charges, sent a special agent to Chappaqua for he envelope of said delayed letter. At the place named the official fortunately not only found what he went after (the envelope), but also Mr. Greeley and “Miles O’Reilly.” After due explanations the envelope was handed to Miles O’Reilly, with the query of what he thought was the meaning of the superscription.

“Why,” said that genial wit, who had once been a deputy postmaster, “the devil himself couldn't make it out.”

The envelope was then brought to the attention of the berated clerks, who looked at it with glazed eyes, the hieroglyphics suggesting somewhat the same intellectual speculation that would result from studying the foot-prints of a gigantic spider that had, after wading knee-deep in ink, retreated hastily across the paper.

At the post-office, when they distribute letters, those on which the direction is not instantly made out, to save time, are thrown in a pile for especial examination; if a second and more careful study fails, they are consigned to an especial clerk, who is denominated the chief of the bureau of “hards.” To this important functionary the envelope of Chappaqua was at last referred. lie examined it a moment, and his eye flashed with the expression of recognizing an old acquaintance. “This thing,” said he, holding up the envelope with the tip ends of his fingers, “came to me some days ago along with the other ‘hards.’ I studied the superscription at my leisure a whole day, but couldn’t make it out. I then showed it to the best experts in handwriting attached to the office, and called on outsiders to test their skill; but what the writing meant, if it was writing, was a conundrum that we all gave up. Finally, in desperation, it was suggested, as a last resort, to send it to Chappaqua,” which happened to be its place of destination. Such is the literal history of the reason of an earnestly written denunciation of the inefficiency of the city post.

We have traced the growth of the post-office of New York from the time when it found but partial employment for one postmaster and a single assistant to the present, and what a change! Language fails to give an idea; statistics pall on the ear in unmeaning sounds, and only confuse the mind. A few random illustrations must therefore suffice.

The discipline and efficiency of the city post is shown in the reminiscence that, twenty years ago, before there was a postal treaty with England, people in that country, according to their caprice, indorsed on the outside of their letters by what line of steamers they desired them to be sent. By some accident neither of the two composing the American line crossed from England in six months! The consequeuce was an extraordinary accumulation of letters indorsed “by American steamer;” and when the Washingtonn did reach this port, having “broken her shaft, and heen frozen up in the harbor of Bremen,” she had a six months’ mail on board. This enormous collection of letters was taken to the post-office, and the clerks, without neglecting their daily routine duties and working “overtime,” distributed this accumulation in ten days! The same number of letters, without interfering with the daily business of the office, would now be distributed in one hour!

Large publishing houses and newspaper establishments afford great assistance to the post-office by making up their own mails according to printed lists and instructions furnished by the Post-office Department. If this were not the case, the facilities afforded would not be adequate to perform the required service. To illustrate: If it were not advantageous to publishers to aid in the prompt circulation of their papers and magazines, and they should send their daily distribution to the post-office in one indiscriminate mass, that institution would be literally “avalanched ;“ floors, desks, clerks, and every available place for storage would be buried under one vast pile of accumulated mail matter.

Instead of there being as formerly only a few straggling letters, two hundred and fifty thousand postage stamps are, on an average, daily canceled, and that is a representation of the number of domestic letters delivered at the post-office every twenty-four hours.

It costs the government sixty thousand dollars annually for cartage to haul this vast amount of mail matter to the stations and railway lines.

One comparative statement more. The city of New York is divided into twelve postal stations, each one having its distinct officer and clerks. Station A, situated in the heart of New York, does a larger business than either of the cities of Buffalo, New Haven, Hartford, Hudson, or Troy.

Such is the epitomized history, illustrated by the post-office, of the growth and prosperity of the city of New York.

The Dead Letter
by John G. Saxe

Harper's New Monthly Magazine - Volume 43, Issue 258, November 1871, page 870

Published by Harper & Brothers

A poem

Harper's New Monthly Magazine

Volume 43, Issue 258, November 1871, page 870

Published by Harper & Brothers, New York



And can it be? Ah, yes, I see,
‘Tis thirty years and better
Since Mary Morgan sent to me
This musty, musky letter.
A pretty hand (she couldn’t spell),
As any man must vote it;
And ‘twas, as I remember well,
A pretty hand that wrote it!

How calmly now I view it all
As memory backward ranges—
The talks, the walks, that I recall,
And then—the postal changes!
How well I loved her I can guess
(Since cash is Cupid’s hostage)—
Just one-and-sixpence—nothing less—
This letter cost in postage!

The love that wrote at such a rate
(By Jove! it was a steep one!)
Five hundred notes (I calculate)
Was certainly a deep one;
And yet it died—of slow decline—
Perhaps suspicion chilled it
I’ve quite forgotten if ‘twas mine
Or Mary’s flirting killed it!

At last the fatal message came:
"My letters—please return them;
And yours—of course you wish the same—
I'll send them hack or burn them."
Two precious fools, I must allow,
Whichever was the greater
I wonder if I’m wiser now,
Some seven lustres later?

And this alone remains! Ah, well!
These words of warm affection,
The faded ink, the pungent smell,
Are food for deep reflection.
They tell of how the heart contrives
To change with fancy's fashion,
And how a drop of musk survives
The strongest human passion!

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