“Out of the Mails”

Now through Jan. 31, 2008; National Postal Museum, Washington, D.C.

This small exhibit illustrates the ways Revolution-era Americans corresponded via secondary means. In 1773 Parliamentary postal surveyor Hugh Finlay discovered that most letters in British North America were carried by friends or private couriers or were illegally franked. Intended strictly for official correspondence, the franking (free postage) privilege dated back to the 17th century. Its abusers included President George Washington and Benjamin Franklin, founder of the U.S. Postal Service, underscoring that even the Founders operated out of the mails.

Fearing interception, Patriots and Loyalists alike employed their own postal services where possible, but other means when necessary. A letter postmarked “Providence,” the only known example of a Loyalist postmark, illustrates the circuitous routes employed in unsettled times. Its author, Henry Lloyd, who lived near Boston, mailed the letter to Messrs. Delancey and Watt of New York through friends in Providence, R.I. In it, he noted that their letter to him arrived unopened.

The exhibit displays three artifacts from Valley Forge, a .69-caliber musket ball, a lead pencil and a stone inkwell, which demonstrate how Continental soldiers improvised writing materials by melting musket balls to fashion crude pencils. The soldiers could then use an officer’s frank to correspond for free. For more information, visit the Museum Web site [www.postal museum.si.edu/outofthemails/index.html].


Originally published in the December 2007 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here