New York City in the Critical Decades (1837-1863)
© Copyright Calvet M. Hahn 1999
The period of about a quarter of a century between 1837-1838 and 1862-3 was critical in the formation of the American postal institution, as we collectors know it. The era opened with the movement of domestic mails onto the new railroads, with their concomitant route agent marks. Internationally, it began with the development of regular steamer mail across the Atlantic with the corresponding need for feeder independent and express mail services. The telegraph was introduced to speed information while local and carrier services began to compete in the major cities for the same reason. New reduced rate structures were introduced while the mail lies were extended to California and Cuba on an ongoing basis. Postage stamps were introduced, tested and expanded into a national domestic requirement. At the same time new services were begun: late mail ‘express mail service’, branch post offices, registry, drop letters (no longer a postmaster’s emolument), and circulars and other advertising became common in the mails. The New York City postoffice played a significant role in almost all of these developments.
New York’s Places and People
During Andrew Jackson’s second term, Samuel L. Gouverneur was New York postmaster with a very able assistant postmaster, Barnabas Bates (later a leader in the ‘cheap postage’ movement). At this point, the office was in the basement of the merchant’s Exchange in Exchange Place. Newspapers and ship letters were received at the Hanover Street door while the Postmaster’s private office was entered from the Exchange side. The newspaper, box and carrier delivery operations were in the basement and entered from the Wall Street side, with the alphabetic, advertised and lady’s windows located near Hanover Street. The service was in four major parts: city delivery, forwarding, newspaper and letter carriers. Letterboxes were placed throughout the city from which carriers brought the mail to the office.
On December 16, 1835, a major fire swept lower New York and the Exchange went up in flames. Temporary offices were found at Pine and Jackson, but fairly rapidly a more permanent office was located in the City Hall Park Rotunda. This fronted on Chambers and City Hall Place. The box section, lady’s window, carrier and alphabetic section was entered from Chambers street, ship letters were taken in at the City Hall Place entrance, while the newspaper and delivery sections were at the rear of the Rotunda, with newspapers received and delivered from the windows on Tyron Row. Following the Van Buren election, Gouverneur resigned and, for a six-week span, James Page, the former Philadelphia postmaster took over. With the new administration taking office in March, Jonathan J. Coddington became postmaster in 1837. He added an extension to the Rotunda to make it more usable.
There was objection to having the office as far uptown as it was, and a branch post office, or carrier’s office was established in the New Exchange, at Williams and Exchange Place under the direction of Jamison Cox. A special branch postoffice rate of 2¢ was established for mail here, the first branch post office in U.S. postal history. Only a handful of covers are known showing the rate. (The Act of May 18, 1842 mentions branch post offices relative to New York, Boston, Philadelphia, Baltimore and New Orleans.) Ship letters were put out in ‘deliveries.’ If a larger number arrived than anticipated a ‘2nd delivery’ was made and so marked. One rarity of this system is the unusual ‘3rd delivery’ found only at New York and Boston.
The Coddington era was under the shadow of the panic of 1837, which was a full depression. Two major events that affected postal practice were the development of railroads to the point where they became important in speeding the mails while acquiring mail route agents, and the rise of steam transport across the Atlantic, which also speeded the mails. The first led Massachusetts train conductor William Harnden to quite his job and begin a package express business between Boston and New York in February 1839. Harnden talked to a friend, James W. Hale, owner of a New York new reading room into setting up a complementary independent letter mail operation.
The May 1838 race between the steamers Great Western and Sirius inaugurated regular fast steam transatlantic mail service. Steamer operators were quick to impose a seed surcharge on letters, and ‘freight money’ was born. Britain decided to subsidize a mail steamer line owned by Cunard in the summer of 1840. The pre-contract Cunard sailing of the Unicorn in May 1840 brought the new British adhesives (penny blacks) to America and inspired Americans to emulate British postal reforms. (Daniel Webster introduced a new postage stamp almost immediately, which did not get approval.) The need for feeder services to get mail to Cunard’s Boston sailing port fueled the express and independent mail operations now competing with the postoffice. Barnabas Bates pursued his ‘cheap postage; carrier idea, abandoned by Coddington, and set up the New York Penny Post in late 1839—the first U.S. private local. It was modeled on British practice.
The 1840 elections were won by ‘Tippecanoe and Tyler, too.’ Harrison died within weeks of inauguration; he would have kept Coddington on. Tyler, estranged from his own party, selected Charles Wickliffe as his Postmaster General and campaign manager. Wickliffe chose a friend, James Lorimer Graham, as the new New York postmaster. He took office April 1, 1842 and would be Wickliffe’s ‘point man’ in a new postal reform program designed to win a Tyler election in 1844.
Not understanding the nature of the depression, Wickliffe blamed depressed postal revenues on the expresses and developed a program to fight them. This included legal action, the 1842 express mails (a concept similar to the late fees of the English floating receiving house but without extra charge) and an adhesive stamp program. The floundering New York Penny Post local had been revived in early 1842 with English money backing Alexander Greig, who created the first U.S. adhesive local. Its success was great and by summer Wickliffe authorized postmaster Graham to buy it. He did, and we had a new U. S. government local, with adhesives, effective August 16, 1842. (These were the first U.S. government authorized adhesives.) At this point the postoffice delivery program ran as far north as 22nd Street with some 25 carriers making deliveries in 1840. Graham had planned to meld the old general carrier system (existent from colonial days onward) with the new operation, but was advised not to do so. In the spring of 1843, he did use the new adhesives as part of an experimental inter-city adhesive mail program designed to enhance Tyler’s chance of nomination. He failed, but Wickliffe still wanted a U.s. adhesive and lower postal rates. The new 5¢ and 10¢ rates were signed into law in the last day of Tyler’s administration, to go into effect July 1, 1845. The adhesive authorization that was in the March 3, 1845 bill was stricken out in the Senate; however, the section on counterfeiting adhesives remained.
With the new administration coming in, Graham was out, but he had one last chore—to obtain a new postoffice building. He negotiated for the old Middle Dutch Church. An August 12, 1844 notice reported both branch office 2¢ fee, and the new Merchant’s Exchange branch office, were at an end. The new postoffice was inaugurated January 28, 1845 and opened for business February 4th, the same day a new branch office e, but no 2¢ fee, was created at Chatham Square.
The Old Dutch Church was eminently unsuited as a postoffice, but served as such anyway right through the Civil War. Three-times New York City mayor, Robert Morris replaced Graham on May 21, 1845. Pictures of the interior layout of the Dutch Church postoffice are well known. The Siegel auction gallery has a large print of the interior, for example. There were 3,228 rental boxes as well as 15 general delivery windows, a lady’s window and a newspaper receipt and delivery window. The city delivery section consisted of about eight men, who handled the box mail, general deliver and packets. The forwarding department consisted of about seven men. It took in letters for other offices and stamped and sorted them. The carrier department of about 25 men, divided into eight sections, delivered letters and newspapers to residents whose addresses were known and who did not rent boxes, on a twice daily basis. The newspaper distribution and delivery section, which handled about 70% of the bulk of the mails, was located in the basement.
When Morris took over he employed one brother-in-law, Marcena Monson, to be assistant postmaster (the old position held by Barnabas Bates), while a second, Alonzo C. Monson, a recent Columbia law graduate, headed the branch office. Morris also introduced the New York provisional as a dry run for a general U.S. issue following a discussion with the Postmaster General. The provisionals were available at both the main and branch offices in strips of five, as were the later 1847 issue. However, as Hunt’s Magazine noted, stamps were not available at the windows as late as 1850,
“You had to go around by a back way, through an obscure door, up a narrow, winding stairway into a lobby having several doors, and when you find the one leading to the cashier’s room, you may enter there and be allowed to purchase stamps!”
Morris had to deal with the final months of independent mail competition as well as the growing local post competition. He also had to handle the mails to Mexico during the Mexican War as well as the new U.S. reduced rates and the various rate changes introduced by the U.S. Bremen treaty (which replaced the old U.S. postoffice in Hamburg of the 1820s). He also had to deal with freight money, the Cunard in and out bound mail bags, the initial recorded mail system, which developed into the 1855 registry system, and the conflict with England over rates that gave us reprisal and retaliatory rated covers. When William V. Brady replaced him on May 19, 1849 as the new postmaster, he went to Washington as head of the postoffice contract department. His Monson relatives lasted but a week longer. It was Brady who had to deal with the new British treaty mails as well as the newly developing California mails and the West Indies routes. As a side-light it was during this period that the only American stamp with the portrait of a sitting president was issued (the Swarts ‘Rough and Ready’ local stamp.