Welcome, fellow genealogists! My blog will teach you about U.S. land records and United Kingdom research. My family has roots in Niagara County, New York; Norfolk, England; and northeast Germany.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Wisdom Wednesday: Dating Letters

Genealogists have to be history detectives too. A woman in one of my groups recently asked how to date a letter with no envelope and just the month and day noted at the top of page one. I think a little history of the U.S. Postal Service and the Royal Mail might help.

First, I would consider whether the letter ever had an envelope. In the U.S., envelopes came into use at the time of the Civil War. Until then, writers would fold the letter sheet into quarters, seal the edges with wax, and then write the address on the outside. From the many pages and the one horizontal fold, it seems an envelope would have been the only way to secure the above example so it probably dates after 1860.

Hand-made envelopes were all that were available for both commercial and domestic uses until a British patent for the first envelope-making machine was granted in 1845. However, nearly 50 years passed before a commercially successful machine appeared for effectively producing the pre-gummed envelopes we know today.

Not having envelopes made postal workers jobs easier because they could determine the number of sheets of paper used and the distance it had come quickly.  These two factors determined the postage until the advent of stamps. One piece of paper cost one price and two sheets of paper cost double the first amount. The fee for the distance the missive traveled was harder to calculate.


If a letter is folded twice with an address on the outside, it is early correspondence. You should take note if there is a stamp.  In the earliest days, postage was paid by the receiver.  Postage stamps were first used in Britain in 1840 and in the U.S. in 1847.  Before that postal workers wrote ‘paid’ on the letter.
The Royal Mail can be traced back to 1516 when Henry VIII established a "Master of the Posts". The Uniform Penny Post Law was enacted on 10 January 1840 establishing a single rate for mail delivery anywhere in Great Britain and Ireland that was pre-paid by the sender.  A few months later on 6 May, a sender could affix the first adhesive postage stamp, the Penny Black, to certify that postage had been paid on a letter.

Benjamin Franklin was the first Postmaster General of the United States, appointed in 1775. Here are some significant dates from the Postal Service’s first one hundred years of operation:
1847 - U.S. postage stamps issued
1855 - Prepayment of postage required
1860 - Pony Express began

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