New York postal history: 1838 – 1862
By: Calvet M. Hahn

Oct 1 , 2000

The speaker for October was Cal Hahn.  The basic thesis of the talk was that most events concerning classic U.S. philately can be found during the approximate quarter century beginning circa 1837 and running through 1863, and that, during this period, New York served as a major testing ground for postal policy.  Only the introduction of commemoratives (15¢ Lincoln 1869s etc.) and the UPU events fall outside the critical quarter century.

An inchoate recognition of this seems to have been made by a number of collectors ranging from Chambers and Bond to Stollnitz and Grunin, but I don’t believe the proposition was ever previously laid out in detail.  Too, the New York post offices and the postmasters involved are little known.  The attached leave-behind pulls together much of the information about both that has been scattered through many different sources.

New York had earlier become a major city after linking up with the Midwest through the Erie Canal, which diverted much trade going down river to new Orleans or overland to Philadelphia, so that by the mid 1830s, it was the predominant trading city in America.

The critical quarter century begins with the reconstruction of the New York City carrier system following the great fire of December 1835, which destroyed much of the business district and bankrupted many carriers who had extended credit to their customers.  The carrier system was basically reorganized in 1836 as a result of the fire and the new act of 1836.

Regular transatlantic steam transport of the mails began in May 1838 (race between the Sirius and Great Western) and was followed in 1840 by the Cunarders.  This new transportation era coincided with the introduction of the 1837-1839 express mails and the introduction of route agent handstamps on the railroads (1838).

Between 1836 and 1845 the independent mails rose and fell, while the 1840s and 1850s saw the growth of locals and their near demise.  The 1840s also saw the beginning of regular treaty mails as well as the use of New York port as a jumping off point for the Gold Rush mail and special Caribbean mail services.

The last flailings of the old party system played out during the late 1840s and 1850s, with the basis being set in the late 1850s for our present Republican and democratic parties as well as machine pol8tics (Tammany Hall), with New York playing an important role in these events.

In adhesives, the first American adhesive showed up in New York (February 1842) Greig’s local), while the federal government got into the adhesive business in August of that year when the Post Master General authorized the New York postmaster to acquire Greig’s operation and issue its own stamps.  The first use of adhesives for intercity operations took place in 1843 as a result of a political experiment.  The failure of Congress to include adhesives in the final Acts of March 1845 led the Postmaster General to use the New York provisional (9X1) as an experimental general issue.  The provisional issues showed the government did not have to fear revenue loss from the 1845 rate reductions and led to the further rate reductions of 1851.  The evidence was strong enough that a general adhesive was authorized in 1847, with New York being a first use city.

New York was a testing ground for the branch post office system in the late 1830s and early 1840s and was used as an instructional source for other post offices (Collectors Club Philatelist article of July 1984 on Robert Morris).  It had its own procedures for money letters possibly as early as Philadelphia’s ‘R’ system.  Its City Despatch Post stamps were the model for the LO1 and LO2 government issues and the model for special service stamps of later years such as postage dues, officials.

The era ends with the civil War and related events such as demonetizations, specials services (Free for the Regiment—see my 1971 article in American Philatelist), and the introduction of a national carrier delivery system.  It also saw the beginnings of organized philately (1859-1863), which concentrated initially in New York.

Route agents can flesh out additional details for this critical quarter century from their own holdings for themselves.  However, it seems clear that New York usually played a significant role in postal events of the era.

 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.

The Postal Guide for May 1852 informs us that during the quarter ending June 30, 1851 (before the new rate reductions), New York handled 4,494,430 letters and circulars (about 80,000 daily).  In the quarter ending March 30, 1852, New York got 642,179 letters and 310,812 newspapers by sea of which 183,342 letters were from the new California mails.  Some 435,136 newspapers were dispatched by ship.  Domestic mails handled included 5,603,493 letters and 180,000 circulars as this new promotional medium became popular.  It was also noted that New York’s population was now 650,000 and it was doubling every fourteen years, largely through immigration.

Brady had to deal with the burgeoning California and Caribbean mails as well as the rate complications resulting from the new European mail treaties.  The government also moved to end all city private locals during Brady’s administration by making city streets post roads.  When Franklin Pierce’s Democrats came to power following the 1852 election, Isaac V. Fowler replaced Brady on May 1, 1853.

Fowler was a Tammany man and his term of office coincided with Tammany Hall’s new reliance upon gangs of Irish emigrants who came over following the potato famine.  Fowler was removed from office in May 1860 with charges of ‘mismanagement’ and ‘recklessness’.  His replacement was General John A. Dix, a former New York senator and candidate for governor.  Although unfamiliar with postal operations, Dix quickly restored public confidence in the New York postoffice.  President Buchanan selected him as a ‘lame-duck’ Secretary of the Treasury so that he needed to be replaced by February 8, 1861.  His successor was a long-term postal employee, William B. Taylor, who continued to serve under the new Lincoln Republican administration.  Taylor’s replacement as assistant New York postmaster was Seymour Strong, who took office in March 1861.  Lincoln finally replaced Taylor April 1, 1862 by Abram Wakefield.  Taylor became Wakefield’s assistant postmaster.

The statistics for the year ending September 30, 1861 can be compared with those of the Coddington era to show the change in the department during the critical decades.  They reflect the tremendous growth of the city.  There were 14,142,021 letters mailed in New York with an additional 12,750,155 letter received from other locales for re-mailing.  This latter figure excludes the 403,137 letters to be sent to California.  First class letters for delivery within the city totaled 15,5 million.  Additionally there were 1,570,000 drop letters and 3,207,737 circulars.  The foreign mails handled totaled 4,918,937 letters.  In printed matter such as newspapers, New York was handling about 724,000 bags of mail letter, about evenly divided between bags received and bags sent.  About 146,433 domestic registered letters were handled while the carrier department delivered a total of 6,721,346 letters.

To handle this volume of mail, New York employed 355 postal employees including 117 carriers of whom 38 were devoted solely to collecting the local mails from the 574 cast-iron letterboxes attached to lamp posts around the city.  There were six branch post offices, with a seventh established on Broadway at what is now Herald Square in April 1861.  In addition to the carriers there were 238 postal clerks, mostly in the main office but a handful were in each branch.  Another expansion of the Old Dutch Church was proposed in early 1862.

Postage stamps were still being handled in a restricted fashion.  The stamp section was split in two in which one involved transactions of a dollar or upward, while the other involved purchases as low as a single one-cent stamp.  The first was still located at the head of the stairs leading to the entrance to the offices of the postmaster, secretary and cashier where a clerk presided over a counter in an enclosed space made by partitions and dispensed sheets and part-sheets.  His office was open from 9 to 3 and did about $2,800 daily.  On ‘steamer days’ the new prepayment rules meant he was busy dispensing high value stamps.  The ‘lower stamp window’ was located next to the general delivery window and only dispensed stamps in quantities of $1 or less.

Recording example of the New York blue c.d.s. of 1842.

Latest of the New York orange c.d.s. examples used for only three months in 1844.

One of less than a handful of the branch p. o. 2¢ rates.  Dated printed form of November 5, 1842 for the Snug Harbor sailor’s home.  This branch was the new Merchant’s Exchange.

Albany 1842 legal notice put into the ‘upper p. o.’ for box delivery but not for transmission.  This is to a box in the Rotunda.

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(Top) A New York Temperance Hotel. (Second) Earliest recorded gun cover, ex-Dave Beals. (Third) Just an attractive bordered cover, for Valentine’s Day. (Fourth) One of the famous transportation covers for cheap ocean postage.

The famous Father Knickerbocker cover, ex-Haas and Grunin—one of the two recorded—used on Long Island Sound by error.

Three unusual rates applied at New York.

The red New York/Paid 3 Cts used together with the rare black strike of the same.