Postage Costs in the 1840s

I wrote a post last year about the difficulties of mail service during the California Gold Rush years. I was thinking about this issue again recently when I bought first-class stamps at our local Post Office. I typically wait until I’m almost out of stamps (which I was last week), then I buy 100 stamps. I paid $49.00 for my five sheets of twenty stamps, or 49 cents per stamp. These stamps will last me until Christmas time, when I’ll have to stock up again with Christmas stamps.

1850s letter showing 40 cents paid for postage

In 1847, it cost five cents to send a letter less than 300 miles within the United States, ten cents to mail it over 300 miles (but still within the States), and 40 cents to mail it from Oregon or California to the States.

So in the past 170 years, the cost of mailing a letter from the West Coast to the East Coast has increased nine cents. Just think about that the next time you complain about postage costs.

Of course, because of inflation, one dollar in 1847 would be worth $28.14 in 2017. So the forty-cent cost of mailing the letter in 1847 would be equivalent to $11.26 today. In other words, our forty-nine cent price of a first-class stamp is a real bargain.

The fact that we can transport letters in mere days—using airplanes and automated sorting machines—at a price far below the cost our ancestors paid shows the miracle of technology.

Another 1850s letter showing postage paid

And the fact that our pioneer ancestors could transport letters at any cost from a frontier that didn’t even have roads shows the miracle of human tenacity and desire to maintain relationships and communications.

In my novel Lead Me Home, I had one character send a letter from a campsite in what is now Nebraska (Ash Hollow) to his parents in Boston. According to David Dary, author of The Oregon Trail: An American Saga (2004), in 1846 someone constructed small log cabin at the Ash Hollow spring, and the cabin served as an informal post office until 1850. So I had my character leave his letter in this cabin for someone headed back East to pick up and carry back to the States.

But as I wrote the scene, I was curious about how the emigrants paid postage on the letters. I didn’t think they would leave their letters with coins for postage attached, so I wondered how their correspondence actually reached their loved ones back home.

Then I learned that letters could be mailed “collect,” meaning that postage was due from the recipient when delivered. In some years during our nation’s history, collect letters cost more than those with prepaid postage, but a letter could be mailed with postage due. Prepayment of postage did not become mandatory until 1855.

So now I picture some kind-hearted mountain man on his way back East picking up a packet of letters at Ash Hollow and dropping them at the Post Office in Independence or St. Louis. From an official Post Office, the letters would make their way—just as ours do today—to the appropriate location. But the postman would only deliver the letter to my character’s parents in Boston if they paid the ten cents for delivery from Missouri. Of course, my character came from a wealthy family, so the ten cent cost would not have been a problem for them to pay.

What technological advances in the last 200 years do you think are the most important?

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Great pictures on Adventure Dates of Ash Hollow, Windlass Hill, and Courthouse and Jail Rocks — all important landmarks on the Oregon Trail. I’ll be writing soon about the emigrants’ progress along the Trail in June, but for now, take a look at these pictures.