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Transatlantic Mail

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Transatlantic cover to Haarlem, Netherlands

Prior to the nineteenth century, those wanting to dispatch mail from England to the American colonies suffered with irregular and extremely limited service. Ship captains crossing the Atlantic often carried mail as a favor, charging small fees for the service. These posts are known as ‘ship letters.’ The British government initiated the first transatlantic contract service in 1702, which conveyed mail between the West Indies and Falmouth, England. The fee for the government service definitely exceeded that paid to ship captains who carried mail as a favor. Government contract service expanded slightly in 1710 to include transport between Bristol and New York, but this was short lived, ending in 1712. Reliable monthly service between Falmouth and New York began in 1755, lasting until 1827. The United States had no government-subsidized service until 1847.

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Transatlantic cover to Great Britain

As a favor to individual letter writers, sailing ship captains carried letters to their vessel’s destinations. Though not documented, they probably charged small fees for this service. Immediately upon arrival, they delivered all the letters to the post office of the arrival port, where they received a small fee for each letter. Letters related to the cargoes they carried, often called ‘bills of lading’, were exceptions. Captains carried these letters without charge.

As early as 1711, the British provided a ship captain one penny for each letter delivered to the post office when the ship arrived. This amount was recovered from the letter recipient. An inland fee from the port to the destination of the letter was also collected. As the British saw a revenue-generating opportunity from the ship letters, they gradually increased the ship fee. The incoming ship fee was eight-pence by mid-1815, four times what it had been a century earlier.

After American independence, the shipping industry in the new nation flourished. By the early nineteenth century, American ships, built with hardwoods so readily available in New England, withstood the rigors of the Atlantic crossings far better than the British sailing ships. This was especially true during the winter months. Letter writers in the United Kingdom preferred the faster, more reliable American sailing ships to the British government’s expensive sailing ship service, which used old and slow ships. Privately owned sailing vessels carried the bulk of the transatlantic mail until the introduction of steamships in the mid-nineteenth century.

A ship fee of four cents per letter was effective from June 1792 for letters entering the U.S. The fee was reduced to two cents in March 1799. The Americans paid the fee to the captains of American vessels only. Regardless of the letter’s size and weight, those receiving letters addressed to ships’ the arrival ports paid only the incoming ship fee. Those letters going beyond the port were charged the ship fee plus the normal inland fee, which was based on the number of sheets of paper in the letter and the distance traveled to its destination.

Both the British and the Americans charged larger fees for letters carried on government contract vessels than they charged for those carried on private ships. Consequently, there is a distinct difference between letters carried on private ships and those carried on the government contract vessels. Before 1840, all transatlantic letters sent on British government vessels were carried on sailing ships. After that, steamships carried government mail. Private sailing ships could still be used to carry letters, and they charged the lower, sailing ship rates.

Sailing vessels carried the covers shown in this section. Some were private sailing ships, and the rates were the ship letter rates. Others were sailing ships on government contracts, and the rates were the higher, packet letter rates.

Richard Winter

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First treaty rate voyage, SS Niagara

On April 23, 1838, the small British steamship ‘Sirius’ of the British & American Steam Navigation Company arrived at New York. Just a few hours later, another British ship arrived—the ‘Great Western’ of the Great Western Steam Ship Company. Thus began the era of steamship-dominated Atlantic navigation. The newspapers carried by these steamers delivered information far more quickly than those carried by sailing ships. Typically, sailing ships made westward crossings in an average of thirty-three days; the eastward crossings took twenty-two days. The new steamships shortened the westward crossing to an average of seventeen days and the eastward crossings to fifteen days. Though the first steamships carried only a small amount of mail, the volume grew rapidly. When ‘Sirius’ departed on her return voyage to London in May 1838, she reportedly carried over 17,000 letters.

The early steamships are called ‘pioneer’ steamships. Only a handful of these vessels were put into service across the Atlantic during the next few years, and almost all were British vessels. None had a contract to carry mail. That changed in 1840, when Samuel Cunard, who formed the British & North America Royal Mail Steam Packet Company, obtained a contract with the British government to carry mail. Cunard built four steamships, which made two sailings a month from Liverpool to Boston via Halifax, Nova Scotia, from spring through fall. During the winter months, they made a single voyage. Cunard’s steamship service from Liverpool replaced the government sailing packet service from Falmouth, England. The first American contract ocean steamship service began in June 1847, carrying mail between New York and Bremerhaven, Germany, and stopping near Southampton, England, to deliver mail en route.

As steamships became more numerous on both sides of the Atlantic and governments signed numerous postal conventions to regulate postal rates, greater numbers of steamships were placed under contract to carry mail. By the mid-1860s, most steamships carried government mail. Since most mail was placed on the contract vessels, non-contract steamship letters were less often seen after this.

Letters carried on steamships that had no mail contract were treated as ship letters with ship letter rates, the same as those carried on sailing ships. The Cunard contract mail steamers carried letters showing the higher, packet letter rates. Two details help differentiate non-contract steamship letters from those carried on the contract vessels: the name of the vessel that carried the letter (often written on the letter as a routing instruction) and the vessel’s departure or arrival dates. Each of the transatlantic contract mail voyages from 1840-1875 has been documented in North Atlantic Mail Sailings, 1840-1875, by Walter Hubbard and Richard F. Winter.

On the covers shown in this section, the steamships that carried the letters and their transit dates are provided whenever possible. An explanation of the rates either prepaid or charged on these letters are also noted.

Richard Winter

Steamships allowed significant improvements in transatlantic mail service. The United States conducted experimental steamship operations between New Brunswick, New Jersey, and New York City as early as 1809, but at that time steamships could not endure the North Atlantic’s treachery. The British made significant strides toward establishing regular steamship mail service in 1838, when the first steamship to cross the Atlantic carrying a substantial quantity of mail departed England for the United States. This vessel had no government contract and carried only ship letters. In 1840 the British government contracted with the Cunard line for bi-weekly service to Halifax and Boston. This service replaced the Falmouth service, and operations shifted from Falmouth to Liverpool. The United States established its first steamship-based transatlantic contract service in 1847. Two vessels owned by the Ocean Steam Navigation Company carried American mail from New York to Bremerhaven, Germany, via England.

Numerous nations attempted to regulate transatlantic mail services throughout the mid-nineteenth century. Between 1847 and 1875, the United States entered into various bi-lateral agreements to regulate international mail. Consequently, fees to send letters overseas varied significantly, depending on destination, weight, and applicable postal convention rates. The Treaty of Berne (1874), signed by 21 governments, established a General Postal Union, which set common rates for mail between the member countries. In 1878 the name changed to 'Universal Postal Union'.

Richard Winter