Illustrated Circulars and other Junk Mail
By: Michael Heller

Mar 1 , 1999

Mike Heller, the speaker for March, gave a presentation on illustrated circular mail (which could have been retitled “Junk Mail of the 1800’s”). The talk began with a review of the postal laws in effect prior to 1845, with some examples of early circulars. As the change in postal rates in 1845 introduced lower rates for circular mail, this served to increase the number and variety of printed matter entering the mail stream. Mike showed many examples of illustrated circulars, many depicting buildings and associated street scenes. One of the nicer examples showed a beautiful engraving of the New York City post office, while another showed an entire page of buildings, including the Astor House and the American Hotel. Mike reviewed the various rate changes in respect to circular mail through the late 1800’s. Cal Hahn also brought a number of examples of early stampless circular mail, including one of the earliest printed notices.


Illustrated Circulars – by Michael Heller

While this talk was originally entitled “Illustrated Circulars”, I decided to rename it “Junk Mail of the 1800s”. I’m sure most of us throw out our junk mail as quickly as we receive it, and this type of mail was probably handled in a similar way, one hundred to a hundred and fifty years ago. Luckily for us collectors, a few people and businesses actually saved their junk mail, allowing us to enjoy today’s topic.

As many of your know, postage rates for regular mail prior to 1845 varied with a number of factors, including the distance that a letter was to travel, the weight of the letter and the number of sheets of paper enclosed in the letter. While newspapers, magazines and pamphlets enjoyed reduced rates, there was no special rate given for printed matter, such as advertisements and circulars distributed by businesses. With few exceptions, printed circulars were charged the same rates as applied to all regular mail.
We have a few examples here of pre-1845 circulars:

1. The first is a folded letter containing a “prices current” from Fitch Bros. in Marseilles, France. A “prices current” was a printed notice, published at frequent intervals by merchants, that informed their customers of the latest prices of commodities. This circular is dated August, 1826 and was mailed to Boston. It shows the prices of many different types of imported items, such as candles, cocoa, coffee, flour, silk sugar and whale oil. This cover was apparently carried outside of the mail stream until it arrived in Boston, where it was handled as a “drop” letter. Letters dropped in the mail at the post office, to be picked up by individuals who lived in that city, were charged only a penny. Such letters often show no rate markings and only a ‘PAID’ marking, as illustrated here.

2. The next circular was sent from Washington, D.C. to New York in 1842, rated 18 3/4 cents for a distance of 150 to 400 miles. It Advertises “Gardiner’s

March1999page1Improved Cotton and Hay Press” and illustrates the cotton press in great detail. Note the picture of the slave standing next to the press. Illustrations of slaves are relatively scarce. With the act of March 3, 1845, postal rates were drastically changed. Effective July 1, 1845, the cost to mail a single letter dropped to five cents for distances up to 300 miles and 10 cents for distances in excess of 300 miles.

The development of lithography made it possible for business to print up large quantities of advertising circulars at relatively low costs. With the growth of American industry and need to advertise their wares, the business community pressed for lower postal rates for printed matter.

In response to these needs, the new postal law provided for a special rate for printed or lithographed circulars, handbills or other advertising material. The rate was 2 cents for each sheet, regardless of distance. As with regular mail, it could be sent prepaid or collect. To qualify for this lower rate, circulars generally had to be sent unsealed and could not contain any additional writing. If there was any writing on the circular, it was treated as ordinary mail.

3.  The first example of this rate is a circular containing an advertisement for a newly patented carriage wheel. It was sent from New York City to Norwich, Mass. in February, 1846, and is postmarked with a large New York 2 cents CDS.

4.  The following circular was sent from Schenectady, NY to New Haven, CT in July, 1846. It was rated 2 cents in                   manusMarch1999page3cript. It was an invitation to attend a literary anniversary at Union College. The circular includes a beautiful engraving of the Union College campus at the top, showing the various buildings and grounds. This illustration was engraved by Rawdon, Wright, Hatch & Smillie, who engraved our first postage stamps just a short while later. Union College is one of the oldest colleges in the country, founded at Schenectady in 1795. It’s now part of Union University.



5. This circular was sent from New York City to Richmond, VA in January, 1847. It was prepaid and postmarked with the large NY CDS with the integral 2 cent rate. It’s December2000page1one of my favorite circulars, with a beautiful engraving of the downtown NYC post office. It also shows the offices of Chesebrough Stearns & Co., importers of silk goods, located on Nassau St. 





6. The next circular depicts a wonderful illustration of an umbrella manufactory, along with all of the activity on theMarch1999page2 streets, including horse-drawn carriages and a number of people carrying parasols. John Smith’s manufactory was located on Pearl St., in downtown New York City. While the circular is dated February1, 1847, it was actually postmarked on March14, with the large New York 2 cent CDS.

This circular was mailed out just in the nick of time, as the Act of March 3, 1847 raised the circular rate from 2 cents to 3 cents. While the effective date is not entirely clear, the earliest known example of this rate is postmarked on March 17, 1847. This act also required that circulars be prepaid at the time of mailing, since many circulars that had previously been sent unpaid were refused by the addressee. It seemed that many people had a problem with paying the postage for their junk mail!

7. The next illustrated circular is datelined April 19, 1847, but is postmarked with a Boston 5 Cent CDS. It was rated 5 cents instead of 3 cents, as the second page of the circular contains March1999example7a hand-written letter. As noted before, letters sent at the circular rate could not contain any additional writing, although there are some examples where a few words were successfully included. This circular shows the new offices of John Gove & Co., who were wholesale dealers in clothing.


8. This circular advertising shoes made from Goodyear rubber is a good example of the 3 cent circular rate. Mailed in September, 1848, it was struck with a large red New York Paid 3 Cent CDS. This circular also has a black circle marking with the word “circular”. Within the circle is a diamond enclosing the word “paid”. This is not a common marking.

9. The following circular is dated November 7, 1850 and was actually postmarked on that date, with a blue Philadelphia 3 Cents Paid CDS. The circular refers to the sale of a firm’s entire wholesale and retail stock of hardware and cutlery. You’ll note that the circular states the goods are “slightly damaged by fire”. Clearly, this was an early example of a “fire sale”.


10. March1999example10 The next circular is datelined May 30, 1851 and shows an illustration of a theological seminary. It is postmarked   with a Cincinnati Paid 3 Cents CDS. This an invitation to the laying of the seminary’s cornerstone.


11. The following circular advertises the fourth annual exhibition of the Maryland Institute for the promotion of the mechanic arts. The circular describes the upcoming exhibition to be opened in October, 1851, including a request for exhibitors of industrial products. The

March1999page4 top of the circular shows a large illustration of the exhibition hall, which was then in the process of completion. The cover is postmarked with a blue (May 24th) Baltimore CDS and a red “Paid 3” in a circle. This is a very early advertisement for an exhibition in the U.S. 

The Act of March 3, 1851 (effective July 1, 1851), represented an important change in overall postal rates. The act reduced the cost of a prepaid, first class letter to 3 cents, for all distances up to 3,000 miles. If not paid in advance, the letter was charged 5 cents. In essence, the Post Office wanted to actively encourage all patrons to prepay their mail. While all regular letters travelling less than 3,000 miles were now not subject to rates that varied by distance, the opposite was true for circulars. Instead of a single, 3 cent rate, the new circular rates varied as follows:

Under 500 miles: 1 cent
500 – 1500 miles: 2 cents
1500 – 2500 miles: 3 cents
2500 – 3500 miles: 4 cents
Over 3,500 miles: 5 cents

Circulars weighing more than one ounce were charged proportional rates. If not prepaid in advance, these rates were doubled. Perhaps as a result of their complicated nature, these rates were only in force for 15 months.

12. The next circular, from an importer of dry goods, depicts a pretty scene of lower Broadway in the early 1850s. The circular was sent from New York City to Chesterville, Ohio in January of 1852. It bears a red New York Paid 2 Cts. CDS. March1999example12As Chesterville is slightly more than 500 miles from New York, the circular was rated 2 cents.

The Act of August 30, 1852 (effective October 1, 1852), greatly simplified the circular rates. All unsealed circulars, not more than 3 ounces in weight, could be sent for 1 cent to any distance if prepaid; heavier circulars were charged an additional one cent for each additional ounce. Unpaid circulars were charged double rates.

13. This circular for Stuart’s Steam Refined Sugar, mailed in April, 1853, shows the new one cent rate. It’s marked with a red New March1999example13York Paid 1 Ct. CDS and was sent to Ypsilanti, Michigan. The circular shows a nice view of the sugar refinery, which was located on Greenwich, Chambers and Reade streets.





14. The next advertising circular is one of my favorites. It shows an entire page of illustrations, including views of theDecember2000page2 front and back of thedry goods store that sent out the circular. But instead of just showing the store itself, it shows entire city blocks! This includes two views of the Astor House, the American Hotel and St. Paul’s Church. It’s one of the most detailed illustrated lettersheets I’ve come across. Mailed in February, 1853, from New York City to Salem, NY, it bears a red New York Paid 2 Cts.CDS. While the typical charge at this time would have been 1 cent, the higher rate of 2 cents may indicate that this circular contained some additional printed matter.



15. This next circular has no yearMarch1999example15 date marking but appears to have been used in the early 1850s. It bears a CDS of West Townsend, Mass. and a “Paid” marking. There is no specific rate marking, but the lack of a rate marking is fairly common with printed matter mail. It was likely charged one cent postage. This circular shows a fabulous engraving of the Townsend Female Seminary, including many different buildings.

The use of envelopes also became very popular in the 1850’s and businesses began to make extensive use of illustrated envelopes.



16. This example from the Rhode Island Seminary, used in 1858, bears a perforated one cent Franklin stamp neatly tied by a North Scituate, R.I. CDS. The advertising in the box on the front of the cover lists the names of the teachers at the school. The back of the cover shows a beautiful, overall illustration of the seminary building and grounds. You might notice that the envelope flap was not sealed and is merely tucked into the envelope. It was always required that printed matter be sent in unsealed folded letters or envelopes, so that postal employees could verify that the item did not contain any hand-written messages.

17. The following circular was sent from New York to New Salem, Mass., and bears a 1 cent Franklin stamp. The stamp is tied by a New York 1859 CDS. The circular contains an advertisement for a wholesale dealer in tea, located on Greenwich street. The illustration shows the deaMarch1999example17ler’s building, including the many cartons of tea stacked up in front of the store.





18. The next item is a circular for the Middlebury Academyof Wyoming, NY, announcing the dates of the school terms beginning in August of 1861. The impact of the beginning of the Civil War is reflected here, as the circular mentions the “young men” who have “responded to the call of their country”. The circular is franked with a one cent perforated Franklin stamp of the 1857 series. What’s interesting here is that the circular is datelined August 5, 1861 and the stamp was postmarked November 14. As all stamp issues prior to the new 1861 issue were demonetized in August of 1861, the use of an 1857 stamp at this time was a very late and illegal usage.

The Act of March 3, 1863 (effective July 1, 1863) raised the cost to send a circular from one cent to two cents.

19. To illustrate this rate, I have a prices current used from Baltimore in March of 1864. This circular was used with a two cent Black Jack stamp.

The Act of June 8, 1872 reduced the circular rate back down to one cent, for each two ounces of weight.

20. While the next example isn’t really a circular, it’s a good example of the printed matter rate. Clark’s Cleveland Almanac of 1873 was produced by the chemical firm of R.C. and C.S. Clark. They produced Clark’s Anti-Billous Compound, which was typical of the “wonder” medicines marketed in the late 1800’s, before the Pure Food and Drug Act eliminated most of these frauds. As described on the back cover, this compound possessed “astonishing power to remove disease”. The contents of the almanac contains many advertisements and testimonials for this drug. It also describes many of the diseases and conditions known in the late 1800’s, including scrofula, catarrh and salt rheum. There is no townmark, but we can assume that it was mailed in Cleveland with a one cent Banknote series stamp.

21. The next circular is also from a manufacturer of medicines, Dr. Radcliffe’s Family Medicines. The envelope shows a large, overall illustration, in green, of the company’s building and other adjoining buildings. Enclosed is a circular with the same, matching illustration in black. Particularly interesting is the legend at the left side of the envelope, which states that “If not called for in 10 days, the Postmaster will please give this circular to some live, active man, who will take hold of a good paying business, requiring small capital.”


22. The next item is an illustrated circular for the Northwestern Ohio Normal School. It sent from Ada, Ohio in 1880, bMarch1999example22earing a one cent Banknote series stamp. The circular include a wonderful, full page illustration of the school and campus. It’s interesting to note that, under the school’s “one year plan”, $105, paid in advance, would cover 47 weeks of tuition, including room and board!

23. The following illustrated envelope is a good example of the one cent circular rate, sent in 1886. It originally contained a catalogue for a dry goods store. It’s quite an ornate envelope and includes a nice view of the business.


March1999example2424, 25. The last two covers are examples of the one cent circular rate sent from Philadelphia to New York City in the late 1800’s. They make a nice pair, showing a very large and elaborate view of the lumber depot of AJ. Geiger. March1999example25