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The New York City Post-Office (Part 1)

Harper's New Monthly Magazine
Volume 43, Issue 257 - October 1871 - pages 645-663

On the arrival of the vessel those letters relating to the cargo were delivered to the merchants; the members of the exulting, expecting crowd which welcomed their friends received their letters from hands warm with the grasp of friendship. If a solitary epistle found no owner, it was left in the possession of some responsible private citizen until called for. In time the intercourse with Holland increased, and there gradually developed a system of voluntary distribution which became eventually known as the “coffee-house delivery,” which maintained its popularity and usefulness more than a hundred years.

This system grew out of the custom of masters of vessels, and the people from the settlements of Breucklyn, Pavonia, and the distant Hackensack, leaving at some agreed-upon popular tavern letters intrusted to them which they could not personally deliver. Here these “waifs” were kept in a small box, conveniently placed within the reach of all, or gibbeted ingeniously upon the surface of a smooth board, by means of green haize, tape, and brass-headed nails, the “composition” displayed the while, like some choice picture, in the most conspicuous part of the public room. There were hangers-on at these popular resorts who unconsciously acted as agents for this arcadian post; for they acquired temporary importance, and sometimes a bit of tobacco or a glass of Schiedam schnapps, by circulating information regarding the “letter list.” It was a curious sight, these old depositories of commercial speculations and homely friendships.

Many were the neglected letters which were taken and examined by the simple-hearted old burghers, until the superscriptions were entirely defaced by the handling. Crabbed writing must, under the best circumstances, have made the characteristic and familiar Holland names of Guyshert van Imbroecken and Ryndert Jansen van Hooghten appear very much like an imitation of a Virginia fence; but when these same letters became here and there defaced and stained by soiling fingers, the superscription must have been a jumble indeed. It is asserted, however, that the possible contents of these “literary orphans” were sources of infinite gossip to the loungers at the tavern, for they would sit silently and smoke for long hours thinking over the important matter, occasionally uttering the vague speculation that they “were written by somebody ;“ and after this severe effort of conjectural thought would lapse again into dreamy somnolency.

The tradition, however, is doubtful that the earlier Dutch governors received their official dispatches through the coffee-house delivery, and continued so to do up to the time of the testy and resolute Stuyvesant, who conceived the idea that more rapid communication with the gubernatorial head-quarters might be had by sending these important documents, without any circumlocution, to his official residence.

For many years, even after the English took possession of New York, the coffee-house delivery was really the people’s institution for the distribution of written information. The custom continued with the population of the seaport towns of turning out and greeting the arrival of every important vessel, and there followed the consequent exchange of congratulations, inquiries, and letters; and even after a more comprehensive and responsible system was demanded it was difficult to get the people to wholly change their old and confirmed ways, to depart from habits associated with so many pleasant traditions.

But this simple style of conducting business gradually became inefficient; and the “mother country,” after England assumed the maternal position, turned its attention to the establishinent of post-offices throughout the few densely settled portions of the colonies. At this period, toward the close of the seventeenth century (1672), New York boasted of five thousand inhabitants. Both Philadelphia and Boston were her superiors in population and commercial importance, and their citizens entered upon the new arrangements with actively expressed zeal. But New York in spirit remained a mere village, for its old population was quite satisfied with things as they were, and resolutely maintained its correspondence, whenever it was possible, through private means. An innovation on this custom was evidently made by an official order, issued in 1686, that ship-letters must be sent to the custom-house; and we presume that the municipal government came to the rescue in 1692, by passing an act establishing a post-office.

In the year 1710 the Postmaster-General of Great Britain directed the establishment of a “chief letter office” in the city of New York, Philadelphia having been previously made the head-quarters of the colonial organization. In the succeeding year arrangements were completed for the delivery of the Boston mail twice a month, and propositions to establish a foot post to Albany were advertised. The New York Gazette, for the week ending the 3d of May, 1732, has the following interesting advertisement:

“The New York post-office will be removed tomorrow to the uppermost of the two houses on Broadway, opposite Beaver Street. “RicuAza Nicaol, Esq., P. M.”

In 1740 a complete road was “blazed” from Paulus Hook (Jersey City) to Philadelphia, over which road, without any stated intervals of time, the mail was carried on horseback between Philadelphia and New York.

Twenty-one years (1753) after the notice we have quoted of the removal of the New York post-office to Broadway we find it still in the same location, but designated as being opposite Bowling Green, and that it would he open every day, save Saturday afternoon and Sunday, from 8 to 12 A.M., except on post nights, when attendance would be given until ten at night. Signed, Alexander Colden, Deputy Postmaster, and Secretary and Comptroller.

Dr. Franklin must have been very active in the establishment of postal facilities throughout the colonies; for in the year 1753, much to his personal satisfaction, he was appointed Postmaster-General, with a small salary, which, it was quaintly added, “be could have if he could get it.” But in spite of the establishment of a city post forty years previously, New York did not attract any special attention, and the revenues derived therefrom are not mentioned, while those of Boston and Philadelphia have frequent notice. It is probable that the municipal and the colonial authorities carried on much of their correspondence through agents, who were left to their own ways, the habits of the mass of the people confining them to their old notions of volunteer distribution, which was also encouraged by the high rates of postage. So long, indeed, did the coffee-house delivery maintain its popularity, that we find “the constituted officials” complaining of the fact as injuring the revenue, and finally an attempt was made to break up the custom by the publication of severe penalties.

In Dr. Franklin’s celebrated examination before the House of Commons Committee on the situation of the colonies we find the following questions and answers, evidently aimed at the coffee-house distribution of letters:

COMMITTEE. “Do not letters eften come into the post-offices of America directed to inland towns where no post goes?“

Dr. FRANKLIN. “Yes.”

COMMITTEE. “Can any private person take up these letters and carry them as directed?“

Dr. FRANKLIN. “Yes, a friend of the person may do it, paying the postage that has accrued.”

But for many years, in spite of this governmental opposition, New York city kept up the custom. The coffee-houses maintained their popularity. To them resorted the chief men and the wits of the town. At them were to be met the sea-captains and strangers from abroad, and gossip answered the place of the daily paper; and there was kept up the “card-rack,” sticking full of letters and business notices; nor would public opinion severely condemn this custom, so peculiar to New York. Even the first Tontine Coffee-house, as it was called, had its place for exchanging letters. It was not until it was found out by experience that a well-regulated city post was safer, of less trouble, and more expeditious, that the coffee-house letter distribution came to an end.

The oppressions of the colonies by the British government occasioned a novel form of indignation, which expressed itself by the decided patronage of what appears to have been a “continental post,” which was carried on in opposition to the one under the control of the English Postmaster-General, for we find a notice that the deputy of the British government was vainly endeavoring to keep up a post-office.

Alexander Colden remained postmaster up to the breaking out of the Revolution, for in the year previous (1775) his name appears in the Gazette in connection with the office, and with the additional one of agent for the English packets, which sailed once a month.

Upon the British troops taking possession of New York, the old record of the post-office disappears. For seven years it was abolished by the exactions of the provost-marshal, and little correspondence ensued not connected with the movements of troops. William Bedlow was the first postmaster after the close of the war, as his name appears in that connection in 1785; but in the succeeding year (1786) Sebastian Banman was postmaster; and in the first directory of the city ever published — in which we find 926 names of citizens, the members of Congress, etc., John Hancock, Esq., President — is the following advertisement:




  • From November 1st to May 1st. On Wednesday and Saturday, at seven o’clock P.M.
  • From May 1st to November 1st. On Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday, at eight o’clock P.M.


  • From November 1st to May 1st. On Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, at nine o’clock P.M.



  • From November 1st to May 1st. On Sunday, Tuesday, and Thursday, at ten o’clock P.M.
  • From May 1st to November 1st. On Sunday, Tuesday, and Thursday, at ten o’clock P.M.


  • From November 1st to May 1st. On Sunday and Thursday, at two o’clock P.M.
  • From May 1st to November 1st. On Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, at four o’clock P.M.

** Letters must be in the office half an hour before closing.

To Part 2