Dear Price of Dear Whoevers

“The Letter” Vittorio Reggianini

What You Don’t Know About 1816

We’ve been looking at surprising things you don’t know about 1816. That was the year Pittsburgh got big enough to become a city.

So far, we’ve learned:

  • There was no summer that year.
  • The City of Bridges had no bridges yet.
  • Public love-making was quite popular (waltzing).

Now we look at another surprise: You paid nothing to mail a letter. You paid a lot to get one.

Pittsburgh-Bicentennial-FeatureMail service was very different.

There were no stamps, and you didn’t have to pay a cent to send a letter on its way.

Nice! Free mail!

Not quite.

You had to pay if you wanted to read your incoming mail, and it wasn’t cheap.

That’s right. Postage was paid on the receiving end.

It was expensive because  mail was transported over rugged wilderness in wagons and stage coaches, and then a lot of it sat unpaid for in deadletter offices. The local post office advertised the names of all those who had not picked up their mail in the hopes someone would tell them to come to town and get it.

Those ads are a great resource today for genealogists tracking people over geography and time, but back then it only added to postage costs.

Today, a 49-cent stamp will send a one-ounce letter anywhere in the country.

In 1816, taking inflation into account, you paid the equivalent of $1.73 in Pittsburgh.

That’s if the letter traveled no further than 40 miles. Anything over 500 miles, say from Boston,  cost you $5.21 in today’s dollars.

Oh, and we’re talking just a single-page letter folded and sealed, not even an envelope.

A two-page letter would cost twice as much. Three pages. . . well, you get the idea.

Writing at Cross Purposes

Add to that the fact that the average Pittsburgher in 1816 seldom used cash. He traded for what he needed. Even fines were levied in barrels of flour. Couldn’t do that at the post office.

So, letter recipients appreciated it when letter writers wrote on both sides of a page, even though the ink bled through the thin paper as the quill scratched over it.

19th Century readers must have been accustomed to that, though, because some muddled the letters even further.

Correspondents such as  Mary Schenley, the Pittsburgh heiress, filled one side of a page with her news, rotated the page 90 degrees, and wrote more across the words already there. Then she turned the page over and did the same thing on the reverse.

See a sample below. At first I feared she suffered from some mental disorder, but it was just a way of getting the most out of a page.

A page of a letter written by Mary Schenley to her father in 1842. The high cost of mail service caused even an heiress to minimize sheets of paper.

A page of a letter written by Mary Schenley to her father in 1842. The high cost of mail service caused even an heiress to minimize sheets of paper.

There are examples of people adding a third layer diagonally. Historical scholars are still trying to read them.

The practice annoyed Lewis Carol, the author of Alice in Wonderland. He wrote an article on proper letter writing and encouraged people to remember the proverb: “Cross-writing makes cross reading.” He immediately confessed to inventing the proverb.

Why didn’t the postal service require people to pay in advance as they do now?

Lack of confidence in the mail system was part of it.

Payment in advance didn’t seem like a good idea until 25 years later.

It started with postal reforms in England in the 1840s and very quickly postage stamps papered this hemisphere. Postage rates plummeted and letters got longer.

Pittsburgh, the maker of steamboats when it became a city, had something to do with that.

Fast-moving steamboats began traveling the rivers, replacing packet boats, rowboats, and rafts as a means to carry mail.

That is commemorated today in the city’s skyline.  As you sit in PNC Park, look out. The oldest building you see, the one with the pierced side to allow river air to reach its inner sanctums, is the Fulton Building. It is named in honor of Robert Fulton, an inventor whose boats steamed up and down the nation’s rivers.

If you wanted a license to operate such a boat, you had to deliver mail, and do it on schedule.

Beginning in 1815, river captains had to deliver letters and packets to local postmasters within three hours of docking in daylight, or two hours after sunrise the following day.

1940 portrayal of early 19th Century mail service by Greer Garson in "Pride and Prejudice."

1940 portrayal of early 19th Century mail service by Greer Garson in “Pride and Prejudice.”

All the News That’s Fit to Mail

A close cousin to mail service was the newspaper.

There’s a reason reporters were called correspondents. They wrote letters from their distant posts,  the mail service delivered them, and  newspapers printed them. The “news” was a month or two old by then.

In Pittsburgh, the first newspaper printing office was also its first post office.

Everybody wanted to read local news, right?

Not really. They could get that for free from their neighbor, and get it a lot sooner than a newspaper could deliver it.

Pittsburgh was still small enough that gossip on the street, in the tavern or outside the church was where one got local news.

John Boucher notes in his 1908 history of Pittsburgh that historians scanning its early newspapers are hard-pressed to find anything local.

“European news necessarily nearly two months old, long articles on the management of public affairs, controversies carried on from week to week between rival exponents on different theories, essays on morality and amateur poetry, fill up the columns of nearly all the early newspapers of Western Pennsylvania,” he wrote.

Boucher did note an exception: advertising.

“From these one may gather some important information concerning Pittsburg’s early days.”




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