Sending and receiving letters and packages… A concept that has sometimes mystified me as I write historical fiction. I mean, it’s not like in 1782 you could walk into a post office and weigh the package on a kiosk scale, slide your credit card into the slot to pay for the postage labels to affix to the letter or box, and drop it in the bin.
The U.S. Postal Service has changed a lot over the centuries it’s been in service. As I’m sure all mail services have! Over the years that I’ve been researching and writing historical romance/fiction, this question has pestered me because the nuances are hard to pin down. Several methods existed in the 18th and then again the 19th centuries for sending and receiving a letter—personal contact traveling, currier, postal service between taverns along mail routes, boat carriers. There may be others, but you get the idea. Just how did one receive a letter?
When I started writing The Haunting of Fury Falls Inn I wanted to include letters sent and received between the folks at the inn and the absentee innkeeper. But how exactly would they have exchanged letters in 1821 in northern Alabama?
I know from my research that federal mail routes were in place by that time period. I also know that some mail was transported by boat down river, by horseback or wagon up river. Hand-carried letters by acquaintances also continued throughout the 19th century. (Note: The Pony Express was not an option in Alabama as it didn’t exist until 1860-61 from Missouri to California. I know, it would have been cool if it would have worked!) But the U.S. Postal Service started before the Revolution so how did it function in 1821 in the new state of Alabama?
I know postmarks went through evolutions in the 19th century. I even know the dates for when each post office in Alabama was started. Huntsville, for example, had a post office as early as 1811 according to Postal History. But it wasn’t until I went to the Alabama Constitution Hall Historic Park that I found out the details I needed to know about sending and receiving mail.
According to our tour guide Claire, the post office in 1819 was located in a first-floor front room of Judge Clement Comer Clay’s home and office. She talked about how the small room would have been crammed with bags and bags of mail for the post master to sort and list by recipient’s name. That list would have been posted on the outside of the post office so passerby could check to see if they had any mail. If so, they’d step inside and pay the postage in order to take possession of the letter or package.
Since the sender could send without cost, whoever the letter was picked up by would pay for the privilege of having the mail carried from one place to another. We all know people try to avoid paying for anything they don’t have to, right? Well, Claire shared that people back then would sometimes devise a scheme so that nobody paid for the postage!
Seems when a family member or friend was about to take a trip or a long journey, they’d come up with a fake name—say Cleopatra or Antony—and then when they arrived at their far off destination would send a letter from the false name back to the anxiously waiting family member or friend. When the person waiting to hear of the other’s safe arrival saw they had a letter from Antony, they knew all was well and ignored the letter in the post office. Clever but it makes me wonder whatever happened to those bogus letters? Did the post master open them? Throw them out after a time? Send them back?
I took pictures of the cubby holes with individual names on them, and then turned around to take a picture of Claire. Note how small this post office actually is! The door to the hallway is off to the left of the cubbies by a few feet.
Claire also confirmed that people would have to go to the post office to pick up their mail. No delivery service by the post office during those years. So I have Flint Hamilton in The Haunting of Fury Falls Inn make periodic trips to town for the mail, and even have a passing tradesman bring him some urgent letters as a favor. There’s probably much more to learn about how the system functioned, but for my purposes I believe I know enough to lend an authentic feel to the story without it become a history lesson.
Writing this new series is also helping me gain a renewed appreciation for the evolution of the postal service in America. During my lifetime I’ve seen some pretty cool advances in the services offered. Like not having to lick stamps anymore! (The taste of the glue used to be awful.) More reliable, even though not perfect. Delivery at home for most everyone, even rural residents. Forever stamps so you don’t have to buy penny and five cent stamps to make up the difference in price of each stamp.
What about you? What do you think is the most interesting or important change the postal system has undergone?
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Innkeeper’s daughter Cassie Fairhope longs for only one thing: to escape her mother’s tyranny. But in northern Alabama in 1821 marriage is her only escape. Even so, she has a plan: Seduce the young man acting as innkeeper while her father is away and marry him. He’s handsome and available. Even though he has no feelings for her, it is still a better option than enduring her mother.
But Flint Hamilton has his own plans and they don’t include marriage, even to the pretty temptress. Securing his reputation in the hostelry business and earning his father’s respect are far more important. He did not count on having to deal with horse thieves and rogues in addition to his guests.
When tragedy strikes, Cassie and Flint must do whatever it takes to rid the inn of its newly arrived specter—who has no intention of leaving…