Notes from the Past

Postmaster General Exhorts Postmasters in 1847

For many years the Post Office Department has worked to maintain the requirement that personal communications must be sent by the higher letter or first class rate.  For example, if a 4th class parcel contains anything more than an invoice, it must also have an added first class rate.  An historical example of the attention paid to this issue may be found in the page "TO POSTMASTERS" which serves as an introduction to Laws and Regulations for the Government of the Post Office Department published in 1847.  I have added paragraphing to the material which W. J. Brown, 2nd Assistant Postmaster General, wrote as follows:
I am directed by the Postmaster General to call your special attention to the multiplied and increasing attempts to violate the law and defraud the revenue, by writing on the wrapper, margin or other portions of newspapers, pamphlets, and magazines sent by mail.  The cheap postage system has removed every reasonable excuse for violating or evading the law, and too much vigilance cannot be exercised by Postmasters to detect and punish the offenders; and public sentiment when well informed, will not fail to sustain you in the faithful discharge of this duty, which is imperative upon you as any other.

That frauds of this kind may be detected and traced to their origin, you are particularly instructed to stamp, or mark in writing every transient (by which is meant all not regularly sent to subscribers) newspaper, pamphlet, or magazine, with the name of the office, and the amount of postage.  The wrappers of all such newspapers, pamphlets or magazines, when they have reached their destination, should be carefully removed; and if, upon inspection, found to contain any manuscript or memorandum of any kind, either written or stamped, or by circular, price current, pamphlet, or magazine or the wrapper in which it is enclosed by which information shall be asked for or communicated, except the name and address of the person to whom it is directed, such newspaper,  printed circular, price current, pamphlet, or magazine, with the wrapper in which it is enclosed should be charged with letter postage by weight deducting any amount which may have been paid upon such paper when deposited in the office.

If the person to whom the newspaper, printed circular, price current, pamphlet, or magazine is directed, refuses to pay such letter postage thereon, the Postmaster will immediately transmit the same to the office from whence it was forwarded, and request the Postmaster thereof to prosecute the sender for the penalty of five dollars, as prescribed by the 30th section of the act of 1825.  Suits may be brought either in district courts, or before State magistrates having civil jurisdiction in action of debt for this amount, under the respective State laws.  One half of the penalty recovered for the use of the informer, and the other half for the United States.  The name of the sender written or stamped either up on the newspaper, printed circular, price current, pamphlet or magazine, or the wrapper in which it is enclosed, communicates such information as subjects it to letter postage, and the consequent penalties, if such postage is not paid at the place of its destination.

The diminution of the revenue of the Department under the cheap postage system, and the great and increasing demand for additional mail facilities throughout our country, whose territory now extends to the Pacific, render it absolutely necessary not only that ever cent of lawful revenue be collected and accounted for, but that the utmost vigilance should be exercised for the prevention of fraud, and the sure and speedy infliction of the proper penalty upon the offender.  This can only be accomplished by the strictest attention of Postmasters, who are sworn agents of the Department, and are bound to see the laws faithfuly administered.

This draconian attitude reflects the view of Post Office officials regarding the letter rate which generated most of the revenue of the Post Office at that time.  New rates had been instituted on July 1, 1845, which sharply reduced the letter rates to 5¢ per ½ oz for less than 300 miles and 10¢ per ½ oz for more than 300 miles.  Since most Postmasters' pay was based on the revenue generated at their Post Office, the Postmasters were likely to be attentive to maximizing revenue.  One wonders how many suits were brought under this law.  It is interesting to note that even a return address was viewed as requiring letter rate postage.

 Posted May 4, 2000

Editor's Note:  Modern philatelists are indebted to Theron Wierenga who republished this volume in 1980.

Index of 508 Notes from the Past

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