Benjamin Franklin Papers

Philadelphia Post Office Record Book, 1757–1764

Philadelphia Post Office Record Book, 1757–1764

MS record book: American Philosophical Society

[March 30, 1757]

When Franklin was preparing to leave for England his son William, who was going with him, resigned the Philadelphia postmastership, which he had held since June 1753 (see above, IV, 513). In his place Franklin appointed his wife’s nephew-in-law William Dunlap (see above, V, 199 n, and below, p. 168), who had been a printer in Lancaster. Among the Franklin Papers is a paper-covered book of 174 pages (88 of them blank) which contains Dunlap’s record of letters received in that Post Office from March 30, 1757, to Oct. 5, 1764. It is set up in the form prescribed for Book C in the instructions Franklin and Hunter prepared in 1753 for the local postmasters (see above, V, 172–4).

Dunlap fell far behind in settling his accounts and was removed from office in 1764, but, in spite of his financial unreliability, he kept this record of incoming mail faithfully and, it would seem, accurately. The detailed entries are not of sufficient general interest to justify printing the contents of the book in full, but an analysis of the records does provide a view of the postal system, with Philadelphia as a focal point, during these years after Franklin and Hunter had assumed the deputy postmaster generalship and had introduced reforms and improvements in the service.

Dunlap’s records show that by 1757 a weekly post rider was setting out from Boston, usually on a Monday, carrying mail from that town and usually from others as far north as Portsmouth, N. H. Letters for Philadelphia normally arrived on a Wednesday, nine days after leaving Boston, together with other mail picked up at post offices in southern New England, New York, and New Jersey.6 Beginning in June this service was expanded to twice a week through the season of good weather, though the nine days usually required for delivery from Boston remained the same.7 On very rare occasions the trip took only eight days, but much more often, especially in the winter and early spring, it took as much as twelve to seventeen days. In such cases the schedule of later trips might be badly disrupted.8

Before the establishment of the second weekly trip from New England through to Philadelphia and thereafter during the winter months when it was not running, a separate weekly service normally left New York on Thursday and arrived in Philadelphia on the following Saturday. The trip rarely took more than two days. Thus correspondents in these two cities and in New Jersey towns along the route could count on semi-weekly service throughout the year.

By contrast the service from the south to Philadelphia was highly erratic. Theoretically, mail left Williamsburg every two weeks, except in winter, and took ten days to reach Philadelphia; this was cut to nine days by 1762. By the time the mail arrived it might also include letters from Fredericksburg, Dumfries, Alexandria, and Annapolis. In the winter the service operated only once a month at best and took much longer, if indeed any mail came through from further south than Alexandria.9

Comparison of this volume with Franklin’s record book of 1748–52, when he was postmaster of Philadelphia (see above, II, 182–3), shows little change in the southern mail service but a distinct improvement in that from the north. Before Franklin and Hunter took charge of the entire system the northern post was on a weekly schedule during the favorable season of the year and a biweekly schedule during the winter. Now mail came in regularly from New York twice a week and from New England once, throughout the year, and beginning in 1762 the New England service during the best months was put on the same much improved basis as that from New York. Except when weather conditions intervened (or possibly illness of a post rider), these schedules were maintained with substantial regularity. While the methods of recording the quantity of mail differed enough between the two periods to make exact comparison difficult if not impossible, it is also clear that the amount of mail coming to Philadelphia had considerably increased with the growth in population and the increased frequency of the service.

[Note numbering follows the Franklin Papers source.]

6An example of the schedule on this route is in a series of entries recorded in August 1761. Letters for Philadelphia were billed out by the postmasters of Portsmouth and Newbury on the 7th, Boston the 10th, Newport the 11th, New York the 17th, and Woodbridge and Elizabethtown the 18th, arriving in Philadelphia the 19th. On other trips the post rider might have nothing to deliver from one or another of these places but might bring letters from such offices as Salem, Marblehead, Providence, New London, New Haven, Newburgh (picked up at New York), Brunswick, Trenton, or Princeton.

7The second weekly trip normally left Boston on Thursday and reached Philadelphia a week from the following Saturday.

8This record book shows only incoming mail at Philadelphia; presumably schedules and length of time en route were similar for the outgoing mail. In estimating how long a person in Boston, for example, might expect to wait before receiving even an immediate reply to a letter he sent to Philadelphia, it should be remembered that outgoing mail might lie in the post office for several days before the post rider set out. Depending on the season of the year and the days of the week on which a letter and its reply were written, an exchange of communications between Boston and Philadelphia during these years probably took at least three weeks and doubtless often more.

9Something of a record may have been established by one parcel of letters billed at Williamsburg Nov. 30, 1761, which was joined either there or in transit by another packet billed from the same place on December 17; to this mail were added letters from Fredericksburg, Jan. 7, 1762, and from Annapolis, January 30, before the lot reached Philadelphia on February 3, nine weeks and two days after the first letters had been recorded at the Williamsburg office.

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