As a favor to individual letter writers, sailing ship captains carried letters to their vessel’s destinations. Though not documented, they probably charged small fees for this service. Immediately upon arrival, they delivered all the letters to the post office of the arrival port, where they received a small fee for each letter. Letters related to the cargoes they carried, often called ‘bills of lading’, were exceptions. Captains carried these letters without charge.
As early as 1711, the British provided a ship captain one penny for each letter delivered to the post office when the ship arrived. This amount was recovered from the letter recipient. An inland fee from the port to the destination of the letter was also collected. As the British saw a revenue-generating opportunity from the ship letters, they gradually increased the ship fee. The incoming ship fee was eight-pence by mid-1815, four times what it had been a century earlier.
After American independence, the shipping industry in the new nation flourished. By the early nineteenth century, American ships, built with hardwoods so readily available in New England, withstood the rigors of the Atlantic crossings far better than the British sailing ships. This was especially true during the winter months. Letter writers in the United Kingdom preferred the faster, more reliable American sailing ships to the British government’s expensive sailing ship service, which used old and slow ships. Privately owned sailing vessels carried the bulk of the transatlantic mail until the introduction of steamships in the mid-nineteenth century.
A ship fee of four cents per letter was effective from June 1792 for letters entering the U.S. The fee was reduced to two cents in March 1799. The Americans paid the fee to the captains of American vessels only. Regardless of the letter’s size and weight, those receiving letters addressed to ships’ the arrival ports paid only the incoming ship fee. Those letters going beyond the port were charged the ship fee plus the normal inland fee, which was based on the number of sheets of paper in the letter and the distance traveled to its destination.
Both the British and the Americans charged larger fees for letters carried on government contract vessels than they charged for those carried on private ships. Consequently, there is a distinct difference between letters carried on private ships and those carried on the government contract vessels. Before 1840, all transatlantic letters sent on British government vessels were carried on sailing ships. After that, steamships carried government mail. Private sailing ships could still be used to carry letters, and they charged the lower, sailing ship rates.
Sailing vessels carried the covers shown in this section. Some were private sailing ships, and the rates were the ship letter rates. Others were sailing ships on government contracts, and the rates were the higher, packet letter rates.