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Part of the fun of writing historicals comes in learning little tidbits about the past. These intriguing morsels come in handy when adding a little flavor to novels. Writers hope they’re also of interest to readers. On occasion, I thought I’d add a few Historical Flavors that catch my attention. I’m starting with postal rates from the 19th century, something that affects all of us. 

So much correspondence is accomplished online these days that our postal system struggles to survive and seems to raise rates every few months. In January, first class stamps were upped to forty-five cents. Now the postal service is talking about raising them again another nickel.

I came across some long ago postal rates in The Housekeeper’s Friend (available on Google Books), as well as on Wikepedia and other websites. This is what you would pay for postage in 1880: 

  • Post cards could be mailed across the United States and Canada for one cent. To send one to Europe would cost an additional cent.
  • Letters were mailed to anywhere in the U.S. and Canada for three cents per half ounce, a rate in effect from March 1863 to October 1883 when the rate went down a penny. (When was the last time you saw a stamp price go down?) For sending to most of Europe, people paid five cents per half ounce. 
  • “Drop” letters, those intended for someone in the same town, were two cents when delivered by a postal carrier or one cent where there were no carriers. (Does anyone know when that “discount” stopped?)
  • If a subscriber received a newspaper weekly or more frequently, it cost two cents per pound. Delivery less than once per week ran three cents per pound. Then, there were rates for magazines, books, seeds, plants, etc.

Until 1968, prices fluctuated between two cents per ounce and six cents per ounce. It’s only been in the past forty-four years that the rates have steadily risen. But take heart. According to an inflation-adjusted chart we’re actually paying a couple pennies less than the postal patrons of 1880.

My questions for you: How have your mailing habits changed over the years? Do you use the postal service as much as you did, say, ten years ago? What is the lowest rate you remember for a first class stamp?

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