On April 23, 1838, the small British steamship ‘Sirius’ of the British & American Steam Navigation Company arrived at New York. Just a few hours later, another British ship arrived—the ‘Great Western’ of the Great Western Steam Ship Company. Thus began the era of steamship-dominated Atlantic navigation. The newspapers carried by these steamers delivered information far more quickly than those carried by sailing ships. Typically, sailing ships made westward crossings in an average of thirty-three days; the eastward crossings took twenty-two days. The new steamships shortened the westward crossing to an average of seventeen days and the eastward crossings to fifteen days. Though the first steamships carried only a small amount of mail, the volume grew rapidly. When ‘Sirius’ departed on her return voyage to London in May 1838, she reportedly carried over 17,000 letters.
The early steamships are called ‘pioneer’ steamships. Only a handful of these vessels were put into service across the Atlantic during the next few years, and almost all were British vessels. None had a contract to carry mail. That changed in 1840, when Samuel Cunard, who formed the British & North America Royal Mail Steam Packet Company, obtained a contract with the British government to carry mail. Cunard built four steamships, which made two sailings a month from Liverpool to Boston via Halifax, Nova Scotia, from spring through fall. During the winter months, they made a single voyage. Cunard’s steamship service from Liverpool replaced the government sailing packet service from Falmouth, England. The first American contract ocean steamship service began in June 1847, carrying mail between New York and Bremerhaven, Germany, and stopping near Southampton, England, to deliver mail en route.
As steamships became more numerous on both sides of the Atlantic and governments signed numerous postal conventions to regulate postal rates, greater numbers of steamships were placed under contract to carry mail. By the mid-1860s, most steamships carried government mail. Since most mail was placed on the contract vessels, non-contract steamship letters were less often seen after this.
Letters carried on steamships that had no mail contract were treated as ship letters with ship letter rates, the same as those carried on sailing ships. The Cunard contract mail steamers carried letters showing the higher, packet letter rates. Two details help differentiate non-contract steamship letters from those carried on the contract vessels: the name of the vessel that carried the letter (often written on the letter as a routing instruction) and the vessel’s departure or arrival dates. Each of the transatlantic contract mail voyages from 1840-1875 has been documented in North Atlantic Mail Sailings, 1840-1875, by Walter Hubbard and Richard F. Winter.
On the covers shown in this section, the steamships that carried the letters and their transit dates are provided whenever possible. An explanation of the rates either prepaid or charged on these letters are also noted.