Calvet M. Hahn – U.S. Express Company

Feb 1 , 1998

Extent of the U.S. Express Company Operation

The United States Express grew rapidly, and by the late 1870s had 900 agencies.  By 1881 it had over 1,000 agencies according to Stimson. This means it used an immense number of different gummed adhesives.  Many of the early expresses are known to have had four or more different labels survive from a given office.  As press-printing runs were short, the labels were revised just about every time they went to press.  The change might be a different border, different wording, or different type face letters, but a great variety of labels are known and few are differentiated in what little published records and catalogs we have.

The number of agency offices meant that the United States Express Company alone had issued more different adhesives  (an estimated 1,000 offices issuing about 4,000 different labels) during its first 15-20 years of existence than the U.S. government did from the first U.S. City Despatch Post adhesive of 1842 through World War II (about 1,000 Scott numbers). With multiple printings possible for each agency office, the number of possible labels of this company alone is four for fivefold what the government produced in variety terms.  Any given label had a fairly small print run so that any hope of a collector completing more than a small sample of the total put out by an express company is impossible.  Only a few collectors have even the hope of approaching that.  Taking the entire field of 19th century express labels, the task becomes impossible.

What is being shown here is arguably the largest holding of the U.S. Express Company ever assembled.  Ferrari had as one lot 1,614 covers for all the American expresses, while the Edward Knapp sale holding had an off-cover label holding of several hundred assorted different express company labels as well as six U.S. Express Company covers, most of which are shown here, as I acquired much of the Knapp material.

Why have so few labels survived?  The basic reason is a) the very conservative nature of philately and b) its reliance upon catalogs, which lead to c) the comments of Charles Coster on pages 2-5 of the introduction to his 1882 edition of Les Postes Privées des États-Unis d’Amérique, the basic early reference for collectors in the area that,

“It is desirable to seek to dissipate the general illusion, particularly among European collectors, who accept as local stamps all sorts of labels of which the U.S. has a prodigious quantity of claim check labels.  These labels are placed everywhere on packages, letters, and printed on envelopes.  The express companies moreover make great use of advertising labels, which they apply on the packages, which they transport. These have not the least postal value and do not cover any part of the cost of transport.  When one of these labels is found glued on a letter or printed on an envelope it does not follow that they represent a stamp. It is therefore good to exclude from stamp collections or catalogs such American labels as American Express Co., Eastern Express Co., Utica, Gay’s Express, Livingston, Wells and Pomeroy and all the others.

All the express companies who carry correspondence make no use of stamps; the tax is paid in kind; but these companies make no distinction between letters and do not distinguish the object entrusted to them and apply their labels in a general fashion as a means of claim-checks and not as stamps.  This explains their presence on letters that have passed through the agencies of Livingston, Wells and Pomeroy, Munro, Harnden & Co., etc.

The Express Companies desiring to bring their firms to the notice of the public and put forth the concept of claim checks everywhere and always, employ the labels without the least burden of transporting letters, or envelopes printed with various designs; but these designs like the Adams Express Co. eagle, monogram, etc., the Harnden messenger with a bag, the New Jersey Express horse head, or others designs are no more than the labels of which I have spoken above: these letters are carried by the government post like all other letters of the public.

There are many stamps that can be attributed to a fecund imagination and speculator interest, for example, the Acapulco S. Francisco Line, Arthur’s City Post, Baldwin’s R.R. Express, Barker’s City Post, Bowery Express, Bancroft’s City Express, Bell’s Dispatch, Florida Express, Hunt’s Despatch, International Express, Ker’s City Post, Langton & Co. (steamer), Lathrop’s Express, Le Beau’s Express, Moody, M. Robish & Co, New Haven and New York Express, Richmond (flag), U.S. Express Post, Warwick’s, and Walker’s….”

Here we have not only Coster’s basic misunderstanding of the express labels, which were applied on packages or orders relating to packages the express companies, not the government, carried as in the case of Adams, Harnden, American Express, U.S. Express Company etc., we also have the last published version of his attempt to debunk the fantasy labels put out by people like S. Allan Taylor who create bogus material for what were apparently genuine locals such as Barkers, Bowery, Ker’s, etc.  A1so Coster had publicly changed his mind several times on specific locals, his denunciations can only be regarded as an ongoing process, which he may have still further revised prior to his death in his personal copy of this work, which was cited by a J. P. Morgan biographer in the 1950s.   Coster’s acceptance of the Fiske & Rice labels, pg. 165, helped insure the higher survival level of these labels than some others.

Because Coster condemned the express labels large quantities were destroyed.  Several European dealers held bon-fires of express label material, to get these pernicious things off the market.  In the U.S. collectors, ignored them or discarded them.  The result was a low survival rate of those that originally existed.