Antebellum Illustrated Circulars
By: Michael Heller

Nov 9 , 2021

Michael Heller was our speaker on November 9, when he presented on “Antebellum Illustrated Circulars.” While the focus of this talk was on stampless and stamped mail that contained printed illustrated advertising, he reviewed the various changes in postal rates that gave businesses an incentive to produce and mail circulars that contained elaborate illustrations of their wares and business locations.  The talk covered mail sent from the 1830s to the beginning of the Civil War.

The presentation started with circulars sent before 1845, when there was no special rate for such mail matter.  One interesting circular showed a detailed illustration of a hay or cotton press, mailed from Washington, DC.  Most intriguing was the picture of a slave operating the press.  Another circular should the factory of a business that produced church bells, that actually remained in business to the early 1950s.

Effective July 1, 1845, postal rates were reduced for first class mail and unsealed business circulars had a special rate of 2 cents per sheet (increased to 3 cents in 1847), regardless of distance.  The significant reduction in postal rates, along with the advent of inexpensive lithographic printing, created a surge in circular mail.  Michael showed a fair number of illustrated circulars used during this period (1845 to 1851), either prepaid or with postage due.  One of the nicest items showed a full page, intaglio engraved view of a business located on Nassau Street. This view also included the New York City post office which was then housed in the former Dutch reformed church.  Other illustrated circulars included the Union College campus, two umbrella manufacturers, a boarding school and a seminary.

Effective July 1, 1851, first class mail rates were further reduced but circular mail was subject to rates that varied by distance.  Several illustrated circulars were shown as examples of these rates, which only lasted 15 months.  In late 1852, circular rates were simplified to one cent, regardless of distance.  Michael showed many examples of circulars sent under the new rate, both stampless and with stamps.  One very elaborate illustration filled an entire page and showed several blocks in downtown NYC, including views of the Astor House, the American Hotel and St. Paul’s Church. Other circulars illustrated various schools, foundries, a sugar refinery and other businesses.