Calvet M. Hahn – U.S. Express Company

Feb 1 , 1998


The presentation on this date is the second study given by Calvet M. Hahn of one of the four major express companies.  He had earlier made a study of Adams Express Company and Independent Mail that made up the entire issue of the May 1990 Collectors Club Philatelist.  This presentation discusses the United States Express Company.  The two other companies are Wells Fargo and the American Express Co.



© Calvet M. Hahn 1998


February1998page1The United States Express Company was third in size and importance among the 19th century express operations.  Is also the one about which the least has been written.  There were hundreds of express companies operating out of the major cities during the period, but only four were large.  The other three were: 1) Adams Express Company (an 1854 consolidation of Adams & Co., Harnden & Co., Thompson & Co., and Kinsley & Co.).  At the time of the Civil War, Adams spun off the Southern Express Company to handle its Confederate operations.  2) The American Express Company, a joint-stock company created in 1850 to consolidate Wells & Co. together with the Butterfield, Wasson & Co. together with Butterfield, Wasson & Co. and Livingston & Fargo.  3) Wells, Fargo, the smallest of the four, a joint-stock company formed in the spring of 1852 to handle western business.  All four still survive today with the United States Express Company being an airfreight forwarding business.

Actually there were two different United Express Company operations, both created in 1854.  The first, formed early in the year was created by Charles Backus, Hamilton Spencer and Henry Dwight, who along with others created a joint-stock company with a half-million dollars in capital (compared with American’s $125,000 capital in 1850).  This company lasted until July 1854, at which time it merged into the American Express Company, whose capital was then raised to $750,000.  This U.S. Express Company was primarily a financial venture to threaten the other companies rather than an operating express.  The degree of threat can be seen by the fact that the initial capital of Wells, Fargo of $300,00 had only reached $600,000, while the Adams Express consolidation capital was $1.2-milion in 1854.  These four express companies were among the largest American businesses at the time of the Civil War and their financial and operating techniques were copied in subsequently years by most leading businesses.

Of this first United States Express Company, few if any covers survive.  I had, for a while, thought I had located an example, figure 1, but the date in s 1856, not 1854.  The first company had a contract with the New York & Erie R.R., a line that was subject to considerable financial manipulations over the years by Vanderbilt, Daniel Drew and Jim Fiske.

The second United States Express Company was also designed to operate over the New York & Erie R.R.  It began with a capital of $500,000 and was headed by a banker, D. N. Barney, who was also the president of Wells, Fargo & Co.  A few months later, in the spring of 1855, he also headed the national Express Company, a joint-stock express company that consisted of Pullen, Virgil & Co. and the Northern Express of Johnson & Co.  As may be guessed, we have little actual information on the interworkings of the ownerships of the various companies, for little has been revealed in litigation such as was shown in the railroad court cases such as the ones that told us about the Drew, Vanderbilt, and Fiske interests.

The era of the express company’s greatest importance was one of buccaneer capitalism and it was reflected in the multiple roles of Barney in the United States Express Company and two other expresses.  The actual operating head of the U.S. Express was its superintendent, Henry Kip of Buffalo, who died in 1883.  (His obituary was in the January 18, 1883 New York Times, page 5 column 5.)

Kip had been an express man since 1846 and had earlier served in Livingston & Fargo’s operation in Buffalo, N.Y.  The U.S. Express Company treasurer was Theodore B. Marsh, who also served as the company’s New York agent, located at 82 Broadway.  Earlier he had worked in the American Express Company Buffalo office.  These past positions demonstrate the inter linkage between the express companies.

In order to compete successfully with the other three major expresses, the United States Express Company focused upon very prompt deliveries and low rates as noted by A. L. Stimson in his second edition (1858) ofHistory of the Express Companies.  He also cited the company’s well-managed operation.  The company did not operate in New England, which was largely Adams Express Company, but rather focused upon the states making up the old Northwest Territory where it had some 200 agencies and operated throughout the most remote areas.  As a result, U.S. Express items from New Jersey, Pennsylvania and New York are comparatively scarce, while those from the Midwest and plains states are common.