Part V The United States In 1790: The Postal Service


Chapter II Pages: 23-25

The post office system established during the Continental period was continued when the Federal Government was established. This system was based upon an "Ordinance For Regulating the Post Office of the United States of America," passed by the Continental Congress, October 18, 1782. In 1790 there were 75 post offices and 1,875 miles of post roads; for the first quarter of that year the receipts were $37,935 and the expenditures $32,140, which left a surplus of $5,795.

The main post road ran from Wiscasset, Me., through Boston, Springfield, Hartford, New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Alexandria, Wilmington, and Charleston, to Savannah. With this as a main system, crossroads branched off, connecting the principal settlements; but a large number of important towns, and even entire states, had no communication by post. Many of the
post roads were marked by milestones, set up when Franklin was Postmaster-General, to assist the postmasters in ascertaining the postage. Indeed, some of these milestones are still in existence.'

Most of the mail was carried by stages, the Postmaster-General being instructed to favor stage lines in awarding contracts. (1) The only portions of the main system served by post riders were from Wiscasset, Me., to Newburyport, Mass., and from Georgetown, S.C., to Charleston, S.C. Post riders still rode, however, on several of the crossroads.

At this time there were about twenty different contracts for carrying the mail, and this had a tendency to confuse the system. (2) The Postmaster-General states, in a report submitted to Congress in 1790, that "every contractor consults his own interest as to the days and hours of arrival and departure of the mail, without having a due regard to the necessary connection of the post office. A regular system of days and hours of departure has never been established farther southward than Alexandria."

The revenue of the post office at this period arose "principally from letters passing from one seaport to another." The amount of postage depended upon the distance the letter was to be carried. The postage on letters was usually collected at the place of delivery, but the postmaster had authority to collect it at the place of posting if he desired to do so.

In 1787 the postage on letters established in the ordinance of 1782 was reduced 25 per cent, and the Postmaster-General was instructed to fix such rates for the carriage of large packages as he judged would be most likely to induce persons to patronize the post. These rates continued in force until 1792.

It has been asserted by many historians that newspapers were not sent by post at this period, but the ordinance quoted seems to make provision for them to be so sent. Moreover, the Postmaster-General states that "newspapers, which have hitherto passed free of postage, circulate extensively through the post offices; one or two cents upon each would probably amount to as much as the expense of transporting the mail."

By a law approved February 20, 1792, the following rates of postage went into effect: For the postage of every single letter under 30 miles, 6 cents; 30 to 60 miles, 8 cents; 60 to 100 miles, 10 cents; 100 to 150 miles, 12 1/2 cents; 150 to 200 miles, 15 cents; 200 to 250 miles, 17 cents; 250 to 350 miles, 20 cents; 350 to 450 miles, 22 cents; over 450 miles, 25 cents. "And every double letter shall pay double the said rates; every triple letter, triple; every packet weighing one ounce avoirdupois, to pay at the rate of four single letters for each ounce, and in that proportion for any greater weight."

The rate on newspapers was fixed at one cent for carriage under 100 miles, and one and one-half cents for a greater distance. But every printer of newspapers was allowed to send one paper free to each and every other printer of newspapers within the United States, subject to such regulations as the Postmaster-General should provide. These rates continued until 1816. The franking privilege at this time was quite extensive and undoubtedly made serious inroads upon the revenue.

Postage could not be paid in paper currency; specie alone was receivable. As the coins in the different states varied, the payment was attended with some confusion. The Postmaster-General, in his report to Congress in 1790 states that "the postage on a single
letter from New York to Philadelphia is one penny-weight eight grains, or sixpence two-thirds Pennsylvania currency. This can not be made out in any pieces of coin current in the United States. The letters are charged with seven pence, which is right; for if there must be a fraction, it ought always to be taken in favor of the post office." He further stated that the postage on letters probably averaged about fifteen cents.

The 75 post offices which had been established up to 1790 were distributed as follows:

Maine,__Wiscasset, Portland.

New Hampshire,__Portsmouth.

Massachusetts,__Newburyport, Ipswich, Salem, Boston, Worcester, Springfield.

Rhode Island,__Providence, Newport, East Greenwich, South Kingstown.

Connecticut,__Hartford, Middletown, New Haven, Stratford, Fairfield, Norwalk, Stamford, New
London, Norwich.

New York,__New York.

New Jersey,__Newark, Elizabethtown, Brunswick, Princeton, Trenton.

Pennsylvania,__Bristol, Philadelphia, Chester, Lancaster, Yorktown, Carlisle, Shippensburg, Chambersburg, Bedford, Pittsburg.

Delaware,__Wilmington, Duck Creek, Dover.

Maryland,__Elkton, Charlestown, Havre de Grace, Hartford, Baltimore, Bladensburg, Georgetown, Warwick, Georgetown Cross Roads, Chestertown, Chester Mills, Easton.

Virginia,__Alexandria, Colchester, Dumfries, Fredericksburg, Bowling Green, Hanover Court House, Richmond, Petersburg, Cabinpoint, Smithfield, Suffolk, Williamsburg, Yorktown, Hampton, Norfolk.

North Carolina,__Edenton, Washington, Newbern, Wilmington.

South Carolina,__Georgetown, Charleston.


It appears from this analysis that the state of Vermont, the district of Kentucky, and the Southwest Territory (Tennessee) possessed no postal facilities whatever; and that three states, including the prominent state of New York, had but one post office each. It is evident, however, that the postal conditions at the date of the First Census were generally regarded as inadequate and unsuited to the requirements of the country. The act of 1792, which was an attempt to effect a material improvement in the postal conditions, resulted in the prompt increase in the number of post offices. The number reported by the Post Office Department in 1796 was 503.

Analysis of the geographic location of the post offices in existence in 1790.

United States
New England States 22
New Hampshire
Rhode Island

Middle States 19
New York
New Jersey
Southern States 34
  ] 15
West Virginia ]
North Carolina
South Carolina
Southwest Territory

It will be observed that in 1790 just about half of the post offices were situated in the Southern states. An analysis of the larger number reported in 1796 shows a similar proportion, suggesting an apparent desire on the part of the Federal Government to maintain equal postal facilities in the various sections of the Republic.

FOOTNOTES: Chapter II pages: 23-25

1) "The mail is now carried in stagecoaches in which there are generally several passengers, sometimes as many as six, and it is supposed that many more letters go by the passengers than by the mail; it is to be supposed that most persons would wish to be excused from the trouble of carrying these letters, and if this section passes they will be furnished with an excuse for not taking them; and it appears very unreasonable and absurd that the public should pay the proprietors of the stages for transporting the mail, and in this way be defrauded out of that revenue which they are undoubtedly entitled to receive."__Mr. Livermore, of House of Representatives, June, 1790.

2) "No letters from the northward or eastward of this, bearing date between the 15th and 30th of May, have come to my hands; and having abundant evidence, before I reached Charleston, of the slow movement of the mail, through the three southernmost states, I did, before I left that place, on the 9th of that month, direct that all letters which might be for and following me, be returned to Fredericksburg, as the first place I should touch the post line upon my return. But, these directions not arriving in Richmond in time, as I conjecture, the letters of that interval agreeably to the superscriptions, which I am informed were on them, were forwarded from that place to Taylor's Ferry in expectation of meeting me there. But to this circumstance, which was unknown to me, and to finding from better information than I set out with, that it would be more convenient to cross James river higher up than at Taylor's, is to be ascribed my missing the communications, which were made between the 15th and 30th of May, as mentioned before. These dispatches I may be long without, and perhaps never get; for there are no cross posts in those parts, and the letters, which will have to pass through many hands, may find some who are not deficient in curiosity."__The Writings of George Washington, Vol. XII, page 45.


Website: The History
Article Name: Part V The United States In 1790 : The Postal Service
Researcher/Transcriber Miriam Medina


BIBLIOGRAPHY:  "A Century of Population Growth-From the First Census of the United States to the Twelfth 1790-1900."
Department of Commerce and Labor Bureau of the Census.
Publisher: Washington Government Printing Office-1909
Time & Date Stamp: