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.

The Erie Railroad Connection Under Rice & Peck

February1998page1Circa 1855, the Erie R.R. decided to enter the express business itself, and set up the Erie R.R. Express under the supervision of a man identified by Stimson as H.D. Rice.  Both a handstamp and a label are known from this operation, figure2.  Sometime prior to mid-1858, this operation became Rice & Peck’s express, figure 3, but it was closed and turned back over to the U.S. Express Company August 1, 1858.  Mr. Rice had died prior to this date.

Who was Rice?  There was an H. F. Rice, also cited by Stimson, who had been a Harnden agent in 1841.  In 1844, this Rice bought out N.G. Howard’s interest in the express firm of Virgil & Howard, thus creating the firm of Virgil & Rice.  This Rice also partnered with Phineas S. Fiske in the Fiske & Rice Express Company that bought out Liberty Bigelow’s Bigelow Express Company in January 1851. (See my piece in Stamp Collector 5/18 and 5/25/1991 for details on the Bigelow Company as well as the express ‘sickness’ covers shown in the December 1997 U.S. Philatelic Classics New York Chapter ‘show-and-tell’ presentation I gave on ‘death’).   By late 1845, this Rice was no longer connected with the company, which had become Virgil & Company.  Later it became Pullen, Virgil & Co..  Sometime between 1854 and 1855 Fiske & Rice operated a United States & Canada Express Company, however, this operation also vanished by 1856.

Separately, both Rice and Fiske joined with Benjamin Cheney, one of New England’s better-known expressman.  The resulting Cheney & Fiske operation ran from 1850 to July 28, 1860.  There was also a separate Cheney & Rice operation, which focused upon carrying money, invoices and packages in New England and into Canada.  It subsequently merged into the British & North American Express Company.  Years later, in turn, that company became the Canadian Express Company.

In July 1854, the Northern Express Company was jointly owned by Cheney & Co., Fiske & Rice of Boston, and C. P. Geer of Rouses Point, N.Y., the border-crossing town for much mail.  This company connected with Pullen & Virgil.  I suspect that the two Rices mentioned by Stimson, H.D. and H.F. Rice, are related, if they are not the same individual with a middle initial misidentification by Stimson.

The Peck in the Rice & Peck express firm was Elijah Peck, one of Daniel Drew’s associates.  He served as part of Drew’s People’s Line of Steamboats in 1846, at which time he owned the Isaac Newton; again Peck was part of the Stonington Line, which Drew later controlled.  Drew became president of the New Jersey Steam Navigation Company in 1845 and remained in that position for twenty years.  The People’s Line, the Stonington Line and the New Jersey Steamboat Company were intimately linked through Daniel Drew.  Drew began loaning the Erie R.R. Company owners large sums of money in 1855; he foreclosed on the Erie in 1857.  Consequently, it is likely he was responsible for the decision to sell the Erie R.R. Company’s express operation back to the U.S. Express Company August 1, 1858.  With Rice’s death, Drew, who was a financial not an operations man, had no reason to keep Peck who was a steamboat man running an express.  The financial liability of the express to make good on any lost money parcels was the alleged reason for selling off the express.

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.

Key Personnel and the New York Office

February1998page1In 1881, the New York City office of the U.S. Express Company had a stable just back of Trinity Church (on Wall Street in the landfill section).  Edwin Pultz headed the stable.  He had served since about the date of the company’s founding (probably as stable master.)    However, the chief freight office in the east was in Jersey City, next to the Erie rail depot; there A. Thayer was in charge.  The combined freight operations of these two offices included 130 horses, 33 double wagons, 29 single wagons, 100 drivers and helpers and 25 stable hands.

Around 1870, Charles DeWitt replaced the company’s first president, D. N. Barney.  De Witt also operated out of New York rather than Buffalo.  In turn, Thomas C. Platt (7/15/1833-3/6/1912), figure 4, replaced DeWitt.  Platt had earlier become the company secretary in 1879 and was named president the following year.  He was an investor in mid-west timberlands as well as past president of the Tioga County Bank.  He served in the House of Representatives from 1873 to 1877 and then was briefly in the Senate during Garfield’s administration, resigning along with Senator Conkling in May 1881 in a major dispute with President Garfield.  He was then ‘out of politics’ for some years but by 1890 he was the Republican boss of New York and a close friend of Assistant Postmaster General Clarkson.  Platt was back in the U. S. Senate between 1897 and 1909, dying in 1912.

It was Platt who nominated Theodore Roosevelt for Vice President, as a means of getting Roosevelt out of New York politics.  Figure 4 shows Platt.  His predecessor, as president was Charles DeWitt, who had been a route agent between 1855 and 1858 on the Buffalo, Corning and New York railroad and on the Buffalo and New York rail line.  From a large white express label, we know he was the superintendent of the U.S. Express Company at Elmira, N.Y. sometime prior to his presidency.  In 1882, Platt was the company president, Kip was vice president and Seymour DeWitt was superintendent.


Price Impact on Express Company Artifacts

Express company philatelic artifacts comprise: a) bills of lading (which I do not collect, but which can be very helpful in determining agents, locations and rates), b) printed envelopes (of which I own a number, but mostly where they also have handstamps or labels, c) manuscript marked covers (found chiefly on covers of the smaller expresses or as auxiliary markings of the four major express company’s covers to show amounts, routing, etc.), d) handstamps (scarce on the U.S. Express Company covers) and e) adhesive labels.  Bags, boxes, wagons, etc. are usually considered too bulky to be philatelic artifacts.

With the current market prices as seen in the western express market, and individual auction realizations of eastern express items offered, it is clear that any fully comprehensive holding of all the express company philatelic artifacts would involve an investment of over a billion dollars.  No collector has ever been willing to invest even a small portion of this amount so that express company collecting is still such a very murky area as to what exists and how the companies operated. Yet, until a number of these artifacts are assembled it is difficult to comprehend in detail the manner in which the companies operated.

Express company operations are significant, for the companies were among the largest enterprises in America in the years just preceding the Civil War.  They are also a key link between colonial business practices, as modified by the largest enterprise in the post Revolutionary period, the Post Office Department, a discussion of which is found in my 10-part  “Post Office During Confederation” (Collectors Club Philatelist January 1991-July 1992). The express company business and financial practices were copied by other companies and set the pattern for the later industrial and financial amalgams of the late 19th century.  These, in turn, set the administrative and operational patterns for modern 20th and 21st century capitalism.  Unfortunately this critical link in the development of modern capitalism has been grossly unexplored and under appreciated.  One of the best business historians, Alfred Chandler, Jr. basically ignored the expresses in his studies of business institutions and practices.

Philatelic records of the U.S. Express operation in New Jersey, Pennsylvania and New York are much scarcer than those of its main Midwest base of operations.  Figure 5 is the only example from its New Jersey operations I have recorded.  The cover originated at Dover, a town on the southern edge of the New Jersey lake district, about ten miles north of Morristown, on the Delaware, Lackawanna & Western R.R. line.  The ‘Bill to Corning’ note probably refers February1998page4to Erastus Corning president of the New York Central railroad.

Figure 6 shows one of the scarce handstamps of the U. S. Express Co.  It is a black oval used at the company’s main operating office in Buffalo during 1855.  This office was run by superintendent Henry Kip and its location falls within the advertised office location of the American Express (numbers 13 through 19 on Seneca St.) showing how closely the two companies were tied together.   The contents were written by C. H. Henshaw, who reports he had Thanksgiving dinner with Henry Kip and that his salary is now $700 a year, which compares with the Hartford agent’s salary of $1,500 (probably Hartford, CT, not Hartford, N.Y.)

Figure 7 shows a selection of labels and covers.  First is a cover dated December 30, 1859 at Susquehanna Depot, PA that enclosed $20 and which bears a red label style #20.  This location is where the Delaware & Lackawanna R.R. enters New York.  Also seen are three other red Pennsylvania labels, two from Sharon, PA (Style 25½ and 26), a town where the Pennsylvania railroads enter Ohio (north of Pittsburgh), as well as a 25½ style from Athens, PA, where the Lehigh R.R. enters New York (south of Owego, NY).  To date I have not found a pattern behind the colors used for U.S. Express Co. labels, although the company generally favored green compared with the Adams Express yellow and American’s red.  I also have not identified the significance of the various printing number styles.

Figure 8 shows red 25½ labels from Salamanca, NY (where the Erie R.R. meets the Rochester & Pittsburgh rail line.)  It is the eastern terminus of the Atlantic & Great Western railroad (which ran to Dayton, Ohio by 1865 and which was leased by the Erie beginning in late 1868.)  Also seen in red is the 25½-style label of Buffalo, headquarters of the company’s operations, while a green (style #42) Buffalo label is also shown.  The red Lancaster (25½) is from the junction of the Erie and New York Central rail lines, just east of Buffalo.  The red 25½ Elmira label represents the junction point between the Erie and the Delaware & Lackawanna line.  Charles A. DeWitt was listed as the U.S. Express Company’s superintendent at this location.

Figure 9 is one of my New York favorites, a red 25 style label from New Paltz on a late 1870s cover carried locally on the Wallkill Valley R.R. to Goshen, N.Y.  The three cent adhesive did not pay postage, but was killed by a purple straightline ‘D. MARSH, Agt.’ Handstamp, presumably by the New Paltz agent in compliance with the government’s requirement that expresses must pay postage on letters whey carried privately by them. It is this point that Coster failed to recognize, although he did note the check claim nature of labels when they reached a junction between two rail systems.   Figure 10 is a C.O.D. label (style #45), from Buffalo with specific instructions on handling this type of letter or package signed by Henry Kip.

Figure 11 shows two examples, on cover, of the Money Package yellow route designation adhesives used by the U.S. Express Co.  The top one is a Wabash Valley Route with the messenger’s name in manuscript and is style #47.  The cover also gets a label from the Omaha office in Kansas Territory as the cover is addressed to W. H. Wells at Denver, Colorado J.T.  to show how it traveled west from Omaha.  This undated cover with its express charges of $1.25 can be assigned to the period between October 1859 and January 1861 because the former is the date of the establishment locally of Jefferson Territory and the later is the date of Kansas’ statehood.  I don’t record another item with the rare Jefferson Territory designation—no postmarks are recorded with that designation by David Jarrett in his 1976 Colorado Territorial and Pre-Territorial Postmarks  The second cover, with a similar yellow label is unusual in that the company’s name is in manuscript as is that of its messenger, but the label is an undated yellow generic style (unnumbered) of the U.S. Express Company’s Chicago & Rock Island Route on a cover addressed to Ottawa, Illinois.  The date is probably circa 1860.

Figure 12 is another unnumbered yellow Rock Island route cover addressed to Ana-wan, Illinois, while a New York and Erie unnumbered label from Winchester is seen both off cover (for detail) and on a cover, figure 13, where it is addressed to New Paris, Ohio that is noted as carrying $25.  One of my handstamp favorites is figure 14, a black strike of a railroad car illustrated handstamp from Atchison, Kansas addressed to Lampasas, Texas, a location southwest of Waco in the heart of that state.  A blue crayon  notes the cover was ‘Paid to Sedalia (Missouri)’, as well as a red pen payment of $20 and a pencil ‘paid’.  The content was a legal document.

A quick and dirty survey of labels and covers in my holding shows some 19 Ohio, 11 Indiana, 5 Illinois, 4 Kansas and 21 Iowa towns were represented, each with one to three different labels.  This does not include some eighteen years of cover sightings posted in my auction catalogs and not yet transferred to my U. S. Express Company file listings.  Nevertheless it does give some idea of the distribution pattern of the company’s operations.  Stimson tells us some information about the number of offices in the mid-1870s.  He reported about 300 offices in the old Northwest Territory, of which 100 were in Michigan; he also noted the company was strong in Pennsylvania and Ohio.  There were 100 offices in Missouri in 1879, while only the U.S. Express Company and American Express Company had offices in Wisconsin, possibly 150 each.  There were 300 U.S. Express offices in Iowa, while Nebraska was divided between American and U.S. Express Co. offices.  Minnesota offices were limited, for the Northern Pacific had its own express company there.  American and the U.s. Express Co. shared offices along the Chicago, Alton & St. Louis R.R. system.

Contracts with the railroads were a critical competitive weapon in the 1870s and 1880s.  There was some attempt at exclusivity, but in the Westcott vs. L.I.R.R. case this was challenged and it was held that a railroad could not stop an express from operating over its lines.  The Adams Express Co. was a major competitor for the U.S. Express Company.  It had negotiated an exclusive contract with the Pennsylvania R.R. and used that contract to drive the U.S. Express Co. out of that state.  Similarly in November 1871, Adams signed up the Kansas and Topeka line from Sedalia to Fort Scott and a month later signed up Missouri contracts to eliminate Wells Fargo as well as the U.S. Express Co. in those states.

The market currently seems to find that conjunctive uses and double labels are scarcer than I find them.  Probably what has happened is that one label of the labels has been soaked off in a number of cases.  Figure 15shows a conjunctive use with the Merchant’s Union Express.  This express company was an upstart that lasted from 1866 to 1868 with heavy financial backing and a wide distribution system.  It was bought out by the American Express Company, which renamed itself American Merchant’s Union for the next four to six years before resuming the American only name.  This cover traveled in a style #52 envelope from Summit, Iowa bearing a green style #44 label.  It was then turned over, in Chicago, to the Merchant’s Union Express to go on to Rockford, Ill.  Figure 16 shows a companion late Merchant’s Union style #87 envelope from Rockford, Ill. to Farmington, Iowa that bears an unusual pink ‘cut out’ instruction that when the cover is returned it is to be billed to M. A. Pinney, the Ottumwa, Iowa agent.  It is dated July 21, 1868.

A triple conjunctive use of March 1869 is seen as figure 17.  It is a collection attempt to gain $49,55 for a Philadelphia firm.  It used a Howard Express Philadelphia envelope, which carried it to Dunkirk, N.Y. where it was taken over by the U.S. Express Co. to carry it to Erie, PA for collection by the American Express Co. there.  Another triple label cover is seen as figure 18.  This 1861 cover contained $50; it originated at Wintersett, Iowa on the Rock Island R.R. whence it traveled to Marengo, the junction point with the Chicago & Milwaukee R. go on to Chicago for retransfer to the American Express Co. for final delivery at Rockford, Ill.  Not illustrated for lack of room is the rare negative black handstamp used at Marengo, Iowa in June 1866.