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.

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