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Mailing letter costly and complex for Hamiltonians in early 1800s; rates based on size and distance

1815 correspondence to Middletown, adjusted for inflation, would cost $4.20

Mailing letter costly and complex for Hamiltonians in early 1800s; rates based on size and distance

(Drastic reductions in U. S. Postal service have been proposed to address increased costs, reduced income and changes in personal and business communications. Cuts mentioned include reducing mail delivery from six to five days a week. This is the fifth in a series of columns looking at the early development of postal service in Butler County.)

Contributed by Jim Blount

Timely delivery of outbound letters in Hamilton’s early decades required residents to know the arrival and departure times at the post office and the distance to the destination. For quick, efficient service, postal patrons also had to know some geography – and pay much higher rates than today.

Postage charges in the first half of the 1800s were determined by distance and number of pages. The cost and complexity of the system discouraged correspondence among persons of meager means.

The schedule’s reliability depended on weather conditions and primitive roads. This was the era of mail carried by post riders on horseback or stagecoaches traveling over unpaved roads. Canals, railroads and improved roads were years or decades in the future. Mud, snow, rain and flood often stopped stagecoach travel and mail had to revert to a rider on horseback.

In February 1815, a single-sheet letter cost 12 cents if sent 40 miles or less; 15 cents for 40 to 90 miles; 19 cents in the 90-150 range; 25 cents for 150-300; 30 cents for 300-500 and 37.5 cents if more than 500 miles. The rates doubled for two pages, tripled for three, etc.

Compensating for inflation, the 1815 charges today would range from $1.34 for a letter to Middletown to $4.20 if addressed to an eastern seacoast city.

Postmaster John Reily announced a new schedule and lower rates in January 1822. Eastern mail that year was expected to arrive in Hamilton at noon on Saturdays and depart at noon on Mondays. Mail from and to other directions was more complicated.

The southern mail, for example, "arrives on Monday at 7 p.m., departs northwardly via Dayton on Tuesdays at 6 a.m." and "returning passes through Hamilton on Saturdays at 6 a.m."

There also were western and northwestern routes. Western mail – via Brookville, Ind. – was expected to arrive on Sundays at 6 p.m. with departure 12 hours later the next morning. The northwestern route – via Oxford – left Hamilton on Tuesdays at 6 a.m. and was supposed to return on Wednesdays, the next day, at 4 p.m.

No northern route was included in the newspaper announcement. Apparently items headed north left Hamilton on Tuesdays on "the southern mail" that reached Dayton before returning to Cincinnati..

Postage rates for a letter still depended on the distance between the Hamilton PO and the destination. In 1822, it cost six cents if the distance didn’t exceed 30 miles, and 10 cents for delivery between 30 and 80 miles. Allowing for inflation, that would boost today’s cost to 92 cents for a letter to Middletown and $1.54 to Dayton.

The higher tiers in 1822 were 12.5 cents for 80 to 150 miles; 18.5 cents for 150 to 400; and 25 cents for more than 400 miles. In today’s money that would translate to $1.92 to Columbus, $2.85 to Pittsburgh and $3.85 for a letter to Philadelphia or New York.

There was no telegraph, telephone, radio, TV, Internet or other form of electronic communication. The only source of news was newspapers and readers relied on the postal service. Publishers outside news centers – such as New York, Philadelphia and Washington – depended on prompt delivery by mail. Newspaper editors in remote areas – especially Ohio – copied major national and international stories from eastern papers.

The 1822 postal rates for newspapers started at one cent if "carried not over 100 miles." If delivered more than 100 miles, it jumped to 1.5 cents. An exception was "if carried to any place within the state where printed, whatever be the distance, the rate is only one cent."

By December 1842, arrivals numbered 23 at the Hamilton and Rossville post offices.

"The mail arrives daily from the east, via Dayton at 2 p.m. and departs southward, via Cincinnati, immediately," said a joint announcement by the two postmasters, James B. Thomas of Hamilton and Samuel Millikin of Rossville. "An extra mail" left for Cincinnati, via Mount Healthy, Monday, Wednesday and Friday at 8 a.m., and returned Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday at 6 p.m. Mail from Cincinnati was scheduled to arrive at 8 a.m. daily and depart as soon as possible "east and west, via Dayton and Eaton."

The 1842 schedule included Oxford mail arrival at noon Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday; Greenville at noon Friday; Lebanon at noon Monday and Friday; and Brookville at 4 p.m. Friday.

Collectors refer to letters of Hamilton’s early years as "stampless covers." Instead of using envelopes, letters were folded, sealed with wax and the necessary postal information was written on the back of the letter without a stamp. The stampless system survived into the 1850s.

Mail was held at post offices and couldn’t be collected until the postage was paid. After April 1, 1855, when the collect system ended, mail could be obtained without payment

The U. S. began issuing postage stamps July 1, 1847, in five and 10-cent denominations. Starting in 1845, it cost five cents to send a letter up to 300 miles and 10 cents if more than 300 miles. In 1851, charges were lowered to three cents, except mail bound for the West Coast.

Today that three cents would equal 74 cents. This year, 2010, first class postage weighing up to one ounce is 44 cents, regardless of distance within the U. S.

In 36 years -- 1815 to 1851 -- the cost in current dollars of a one-page letter between Hamilton and Middletown dropped from $1.34 in 1815 and 92 cents in 1822 to 74 cents in 1851. That was the year the Cincinnati, Hamilton & Dayton Railroad opened to the cities in its name. The previous year, 1850, the first telegraph lines were completed into Butler County.

The telegraph became a competitor to the postal system while the railroads allied with the mail service in speeding delivery.

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Jim BlountJim Blount's local history books are available in Hamilton at the Butler County Historical Society, 327 N. Second St, Tom's, 135 Main Street, and Ross Ave. Barber Shop, 907 Ross Ave.; Pleasantree Gift Shoppe, 702 Nilles Rd., Fairfield; and Books in Shandon, 4795 Cincinnati-Brookville Rd., Shandon. For mail orders, phone Books in Shandon, 513-738-2962. The columns will be posted monthly on the Lane Libraries Web site and will also be available via email subscription and an RSS feed. A searchable archive of these columns, as well as Mr. Blount's columns from the Journal-News dating back to 1988, is available at www.lanepl.org/blount.htm


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