San Francisco History

Early Post Office

The Steamer Has Arrived.THE HISTORY OF A LETTER.

Language is incapable of expressing the thrill of feeling which passes through the mind, when, from the outer telegraph station at Point Lobos, a telegram announces in San Francisco that "the mail steamer—is in sight,—miles outside the heads." To almost all "expectation is on tip-toe," and the welcome intelligence is rapidly passed from lip to lip, and recorded on the various bulletin boards of the city, that the "—steamer is telegraphed." After an hour or more of suspense, the loud boom-oom-oom-o-o-o-o-o-m of the steamer's gun reverberates through the city, and announces that she is passing between Alcatraz Island and Telegraph Hill, and will soon be at her berth alongside the wharf.

Almost simultaneously with the sound of the steamer's gun, the newsboys are shouting the "arrival of the steamer," and the "New York Herald," "New York Tribune," "Fourteen days later news from the Eastern States." Meanwhile, all the news depots are crowded with eager applicants for the latest news; and, in order to obtain it as early as possible, small boats have been in waiting off Meiggs' Wharf, to receive the bundles of "express" newspapers thrown them from the steamer as she passed, and the moment these boats reach the dock, fast horses, which have also been kept in waiting, speedily carry the bundles to the city.

Carriages and other vehicles now begin to rumble and clatter through the streets, in the direction of the steamer's wharf; men commence walking towards the post office, or gather in groups upon the sidewalks, to learn or discuss the latest news. Interest and excitement seem to become general.

On the dock, awaiting the delivery of the mail-bags, mail wagons and drays are standing; and as fast as the mail matter is taken from the vessel, it is removed to the post office.

San Francisco Post Office and Custom HouseWhile the loaded wagons and drays, with mail matter, are hastening to the general delivery, and the passengers who have just arrived are seeking the various hotels, in carriages or on foot, after hiring a porter to carry their baggage, or becoming their own for the time being; let us, while all this is going on, make our way to the post office, there to see what we can.

Men we find are hurrying to and fro, and gathering in front of their letterboxes; some, with the doors open, are waiting to see when the first letter finds its way there, that they may not lose one moment before the contents are enjoyed.

At the various windows—alphabetically arranged, with about as many letters to each window as, in all probability will make the number of applicants at each about equal—men are congregating in single file, forming long and crooked lines, and patiently awaiting the time when the little window will be opened, from which the treasured letter from some dear and absent one is expected. Who can tell the hope and fear, the joy and sorrow, the love and (perhaps) hate, the good and evil, that occupy the minds of those who thus stand watching and waiting for the little missives.

Distributing the Mails.Further on, too, at the end of the building, and apart from the rest, is the ladies' window; and here stand a row of ladies and gentlemen, waiting as patiently as at the others. The gentlemen, who form part of the line, do so to obtain letters for their wife, or sister, or perhaps sweetheart, or other lady friend; and, if they are there first, they invariably give precedence to the ladies, no matter how many may come, or how long they may be thus detained.

At the centre of the building, mail-bags are being carried in from the mail wagons and drays, one after the other, to the number of from two to three hundred and upwards; we wonder how, out of that mass of apparent confusion, order will be restored; or how, in the course of a few hours, thirty-five thousand letters and newspapers will be properly arranged for distribution to the various boxes and delivery windows. Have patience, and we shall see.

Before entering the post office with the reader, we wish most sincerely to express our thanks to Mr. Charles L. Weller, the Postmaster, Mr. John Ferguson, his assistant, and the other gentlemen belonging to this department, for the courtesy and promptness with which they placed the various and interesting particulars concerning this important branch of the public service, at our command. While the mail-bags are being examined, to ascertain their contents, whether letters or papers, for San Francisco or the interior cities, let us read over the rules of the office, for our especial entertainment:


I.—General office hours from 8 A. M. to 5 P. M., Sunday excepted, on which day the office will be kept open from 9 to 10 A. M.
II.—The mailing clerks will be at their posts at 6 A. M., the box clerk at 6½ A. M., and all other clerks and employés at 7½ A. M.
III.—No clerk will absent himself from the office during office hours, without the knowledge and consent of the Postmaster, or, in his absence, the Assistant Postmaster.
IV.—Courtesy and forbearance, and a spirit of accommodation, being requisite to efficient services, they should be extended to everybody with whom clerks may have business intercourse.
V.—Memory must not be trusted to, but when an applicant presents himself for a letter or paper, thorough search must be made in the appropriate place, and care will be taken to let the applicant see the search made.
VI.—When an applicant shall Exhibit a disposition to aggravate, or insult, or even abuse, he should be met with forbearance and gentlemanly conduct, recollecting that the contact is of a business nature only, and that personalities should be adjourned to outside the office entirely. If a clerk fails to satisfy an applicant, let him be referred to the Postmaster,
VII.—Angry or excited discussions upon any subject must not be indulged in during office hours.
VIII.—Clerks will not carry from the office, letters for their outside friends and acquaintances, nor receive letters from such out of the office for mailing.
IX.—Each clerk will confine his delivery of letters to his own alcove, except when he may be acting as a relief for the time being.
X.—None other than delivery clerks will disarrange, handle, or deliver letters, at any alcove, at any time.
XI.—If application be made for letters inside the office, when deliveries are not open, the applicant will in all cases be referred to the Postmaster or his assistant.
XII.—No person except sworn clerks and employés must be permitted to handle mail matter, or come within reach thereof.
XIII.—During any absence of the Postmaster, his whole authority over the the internal affairs of the office rests with his assistant, and that officer will be respected accordingly.

Now the scene around us is becoming interesting. The bustle and exciting life that first presented itself on the outside, by the arrival of the mail-bags, seems to have extended within; for on all sides great activity—systematic activity—is the order of the time. It appears that the Postmaster, on the arrival of each steamer, engages a corps of from fifteen to twenty-five extra assistant clerks, in order to facilitate more rapidly the distribution of the mail; aud these, with the regular force, are all busy in the departments assigned them.

While all this is going on in one department, the mail-bags containing packages of newspapers for the different newspaper firms in the city, are being opened, checked, and removed, in another. Every part of the office is literally alive with active business; slow coaches would be at an immense discount here at all times, especially when the mail has just arrived, and when it is about to depart.

The bags containing the letter mail for distribution in San Francisco, are rapidly selected from the others, and passed to the "examining table," where they are opened, and the contents compared with the "post bill" which accompanies them; after which they are deposited in "alphabetical cases" in the following manner: A letter, for instance, addressed "John Adams," is placed under the division A; those addressed "Timothy Brown," under division B; and so forth, to the end of the alphabet. From thence they are taken to the different alcoves, to which they belong alphabetically, and where each delivery clerk has cards placed, upon which is written the name of every box-holder, commencing with letters belonging to his alcove, with the number of the box; and, as each letter is examined, it is marked with the box number to which it belongs; it is then sent out to be placed in a case, and distributed according to number, thus: Letters from 1 to 100 are placed in one division; from 100 to 200 in another; and so on, to the highest corresponding number of the box; and from this case they are taken by clerks to the boxes of the parties to whom they are addressed. If it is not a box letter, it is put up in its proper place in the alcove for general delivery, which is generally opened immediately the whole of the letters are assorted and arranged.

The Newspaper Distributing Table.This being a distributing post office, and the only one on the Pacific coast, a great amount of mail matter is sent here for distribution to other points. Newspapers for the interior, and for Oregon and Washington Territories, are taken to the newspaper distributing table, rapidly to be distributed in accordance with their address. Bags of newspaper matter are made up for Sacramento, Marysville, Benicia, Shasta, Stockton, Columbia, Martinez, Petaluma, and other places; and all newspapers addressed to points in these respective districts, are placed in those bags.

At the same time, another division of the forces is engaged in assorting the letters addressed to offices on this coast other than San Francisco. To facilitate this, a letter-case, with apartments for all the offices in this State and Oregon and Washington Territories, respectively labelled, is used, in which are placed all letters for those points, and mailed as usual.

The following Table will give the name, day of arrival, and number of days out from New York to San Francisco, of each Steamer, from August 31st, 1854, to December 16th, 1857; also, the number of bags of mail matter brought to the San Francisco Post Office:

Name of Steamer. Date of Arrival. Time
of Mail
Name of Steamer. Date of Arrival. Time
of Mail
Sonora Aug. 21, 1854 26 315 Golden Gate April 13, 1856 24 339
California Sep. 19, 1854 29 323 J. L. Stephens May 1, 1856 27 348
J. L. Stephens Oct. 2, 1854 27 293 Golden Age May 22, 1856 31 329
Golden Age Oct. 16, 1854 26 303 Sonora June 1, 1856 26 298
Sonora Nov. 1, 1854 27 291 Golden Gate June 15, 1856 25 354
Golden Gate Nov. 13, 1854 24 292 J. L. Stephens July 1, 1856 26 336
J. L.  Stephens Dec. 1, 1854 25 317 Golden Age July 14, 1856 25 331
Golden Age Dec. 14, 1854 24 296 Sonora July 29, 1856 24 318
Sonora Dec. 30, 1854 25 268 J. L. Stephens Aug. 14, 1856 24 313
J. L. Stephens Jan. 13, 1855 24 249 Golden Age Aug. 28, 1856 23 337
Golden Age Jan. 29, 1855 24 277 Sonora Sep. 16, 1856 27 359
Golden Gate Feb. 17, 1855 28 317 J. L. Stephens Sep. 29, 1856 24 309
Sonora Mar. 2, 1855 25 286 Golden Age Oct. 14, 1856 24 299
J. L. Stephens Mar. 17, 1855 25 266 Sonora Nov. 1, 1856 26 296
Golden Age Mar. 28, 1855 23 295 Golden Gate Nov. 14, 1856 24 277
Golden Gate April 12, 1855 23 317 Golden Age Dec. 1, 1856 26 321
Sonora May 1, 1855 26 333 Sonora Dec. 16, 1856 26 302
J. L. Stephens May 16, 1855 26 300 J. L. Stephens Dec. 30, 1856 25 290
Golden Gate May 30, 1855 25 274 Golden Gate Jan. 15, 1857 26 307
Sonora June 16, 1855 26 306 Sonora Jan. 30, 1857 25 286
Golden Age June 30, 1855 25 242 J. L. Stephens Feb. 14, 1857 25 267
J. L. Stephens July 13, 1855 23 268 Golden Gate March 2, 1857 25 342
Golden Gate July 28, 1855 23 303 Sonora March 17, 1857 25 295
Sonora Aug. 18, 1855 29 326 J. L. Stephens March 29, 1857 24 282
J. L. Stephens Sep. 1, 1855 26 294 Golden Age April 12, 1857 23 327
Golden Age Sep. 12, 1855 23 314 Golden Gate April 29, 1857 23 357
Panama Oct. 2, 1855 26 257 J. L. Stephens May 15, 1857 25 310
Golden Gate Oct. 16, 1855 26 234 Golden Age May 29, 1857 24 318
Sonora Oct. 29, 1855 24 279 Golden Gate June 15, 1857 26 316
J. L. Stephens Nov. 14, 1855 25 323 Sonora June 30, 1857 25 319
Golden Age Nov. 29, 1855 24 291 J. L. Stephens July 15, 1857 25 295
Sonora Dec. 15, 1855 25 316 Golden Age July 31, 1857 25 294
J. L. Stephens Jan. 1, 1856 27 322 Sonora Aug. 14, 1857 25 295
Oregon Jan. 12, 1856 * 37 J. L. Stephens Aug. 30, 1857 25 295
Golden Age Jan. 15, 1856 26 289 Golden Age Sep. 14, 1857 25 306
Sonora Jan. 30, 1856 25 274 Sonora Oct. 1, 1857 26 318
Golden Gate Feb. 14, 1856 24 301 Panama Oct. 22, 1857 31 294
J. L. Stephens March 1, 1856 24 295 J. L. Stephens Nov. 2, 1857 26 290
Golden Age March 14, 1856 23 278 Golden Age Nov. 17, 1857 28 315
Sonora March 28, 1856 23 322 Sonora Nov. 30, 1857 25 276
Oregon April 12, 1856 * 22 Golden Gate Dec. 16, 1857 26 344
* Only from Panama.

Alcove of the General Delivery.Now, hoping that the reader has received very interesting correspondence from his friends, and digested the contents, let us see what is done with those large piles of bags that are as yet unopened. Some we see are marked "Sacramento Dis.," others "Stockton Dis.," others Marysville, Placerville, Nevada, Sonora, or some other "Dis." in the interior; and are placed upon the mail wagons, conveyed to the steamboats plying nearest to those places, and sent away as speedily as it is possible for them to be. No unnecessary delay is allowed to detain them, nor are they in the general bustle, by any means lost sight of. One would suppose that Argus, with his hundred eyes, would find opportunity fully to employ them all, were he postmaster at such a time as this. Every part is worked by system which experience has so far perfected; and this is the secret why so much is accomplished in so short a time. Those who ever feel desirous of complaining of delay, might do well to remember how matters went some four or six years ago.

Supposing that the mail which has arrived is all distributed, we should like the reader's company to see how the letter and newspaper mails are made up for Eastern conveyance and distribution.

The Drop Basket.Of course we take it for granted that you have written your letter; and which, being prepaid in stamps if it is for any portion of our Union, and in money if for foreign distribution, has found its way into the "drop basket" within the office. From this they are first taken to the "facing up table," that they may all be "faced" with the address before you: they are then conveyed to the "sorting case," for the purpose of weighing and ascertaining that the full amount of postage due on each letter is paid: after this is satisfactorily settled, they are passed to the "stamping-block," that the office-stamp, with the date of mailing, may be imprinted upon them: they are then placed in the "distributing case," that they may receive proper distribution according to their address. The letters are now ready to be entered upon the "post-bill"—similar to the one received with the lettermail on the arrival of the steamer at this port—which is done in this wise: say, for instance, the mail is now made up for "New York Distribution," which includes all letters addressed to the following places: New York State, Rhode Island, Connecticut, eastern and northern counties of New Jersey, northern counties of Pennsylvania and Ohio, Michigan, and Lower Canada. Letters thus addressed are laid upon the "mailing table," when all letters of the same rate of postage are placed together, and their number and rate of postage is entered on the "post-bill." After this is done, they are put up in convenient-sized packages (generally about eighty letters in one package) and stamped "New York Dis." They are then put in a mail-bag labeled "N. Y. Dis.," and are then ready to be dispatched over their route of destination. The same process is adopted in the making up of all the mails to every portion of the Union; and all this is done with the view of securing dispatch, and avoiding unnecessary labor and consequent delay.

Register of Departure of the Mails for the Atlantic States, via Panama, &c.; names of the Steamers, date of sailing, and number of bags of mail matter:

Name of Steamer. Date of Departure. No. Bags
Name of Steamer. Date of Departure. No. Bags
John L. Stephens Sep. 1, 1854 108 John L. Stephens May 21, 1856 129
Panama Sep. 16, 1854 89 Golden Age June 5, 1856 149
Sonora Sep. 30, 1854 101 Sonora June 20, 1856 150
Golden Gate Oct. 16, 1854 116 John L. Stephens July 5, 1856 142
John L. Stephens Nov. 1, 1854 100 Golden Age July 21, 1856 147
Golden Age Nov. 16, 1854 114 Sonora Aug. 5, 1856 121
Sonora Dec. 1, 1854 91 John L. Stephens Aug. 20, 1856 141
John L. Stephens Dec. 16, 1854 93 Golden Age Sep. 5, 1856 140
Golden Age Jan. 1, 1855 107 Sonora Sep. 20, 1856 114
Sonora Jan. 16, 1855 98 Golden Gate Oct. 6, 1856 129
John L. Stephens Feb. 1, 1855 108 Golden Age Oct. 20, 1856 113
Golden Age Feb. 16, 1855 99 Sonora Nov. 5, 1856 115
Golden Gate March 1, 1855 102 John L. Stephens Nov. 20, 1856 122
Sonora March 16, 1855 85 Golden Gate Dec. 5, 1856 99
John L. Stephens March 31, 1855 95 Sonora Dec. 20, 1856 112
Golden Age April 17, 1855 103 John L. Stephens Jan. 5, 1857 120
Golden Gate May 1, 1855 89 Golden Gate Jan. 20, 1857 96
Sonora May 16, 1855 80 Sonora Feb. 5, 1857 121
John L. Stephens June 1, 1855 100 John L. Stephens Feb. 20, 1857 119
Golden Gate June 16, 1855 102 Golden Age March 5, 1857 103
Sonora June 30, 1855 92 Golden Gate March 20, 1857 119
John L. Stephens July 16, 1855 97 Golden Gate March 23, 1857 6
Golden Age Aug. 1, 1855 95 John L. Stephens April 6, 1857 115
Golden Gate Aug. 18, 1855 94 Golden Age April 20, 1857 102
Oregon Sep. 5, 1855 93 Golden Gate May 5, 1857 122
Sonora Sep. 20, 1855 96 John L. Stephens June 1, 1857 116
John L. Stephens Oct. 5, 1855 82 Sonora May 20, 1857 104
Golden Age Oct. 20, 1855 95 Golden Age June 20, 1857 96
Sonora Nov. 5, 1855 93 Sonora July 4, 1857 109
John L. Stephens Nov. 20, 1855 96 John L. Stephens July 20, 1857 108
Golden Age Dec. 5, 1855 101 Golden Age Aug. 5, 1857 121
Sonora Dec. 20, 1855 113 Sonora Aug. 20, 1857 102
Golden Gate Jan. 5, 1856 89 California Sep. 5, 1857 112
John L. Stephens Jan. 21, 1856 125 John L. Stephens Sep. 21, 1857 109
Golden Age Feb. 5, 1856 101 Golden Gate Oct. 5, 1857 91
Sonora Feb. 20, 1856 106 Golden Age Oct. 11, 1857 23
Golden Gate March 5, 1856 95 Sonora Oct. 20, 1857 96
John L. Stephens March 20, 1856 107 Golden Gate Nov. 5, 1857 125
Golden Age April 5, 1856 126 John L. Stephens Nov. 20, 1857 110
Sonora April 21, 1856 116 Golden Age Dec. 5, 1857 110
Golden Gate May 5, 1856 92 Golden Gate Dec. 21, 1857 94

South Pacific.—Eucador, Bolivia, and Chili, 34 cents; Peru, 22; Panama, 20 cents; and Mexico, 10 cents. Spain, 78 cents; West Indies (not British), Cuba excepted, 44 cents; Cuba, 20 cents; West Indies (British), 20 cents. Payment required for all the above.

Great Britain, 29 cents; Canada and Provinces, 15 cents; France, 15 cents per quarter oz.; Germany, 30 cents; Russia, 37 cents; Norway, 46 cents; Sweden, 42 cents; Italy, 33 cents; Switzerland, 35 cents; Holland, 26 cents; Austria 30 cents; and Prussia, 30 cents. For the above, prepayment is optional.

All ship letters, prepaid, are one cent.

Stamping the Letters.The number of stamps and envelops sold monthly at the San Francisco Post Office will about average—of one cent stamps, 45,000; three cents, 27,000; ten cents, 32,000; twelve cents, 500. Of stamped envelops, three cents, 120,000, (of which Wells, Fargo & Co. use nearly 100,000 per month); six cents, 500; ten cents, 12,000. This statement, it should be remembered, is principally for the city of San Francisco alone; inasmuch as the principal interior offices obtain their supplies of stamps and envelops direct from the General Post Office, Washington.

The U. S. postage on letters for each half ounce is, if under three thousand miles, three cents; over three thousand miles, ten cents. For newspapers the postage is one cent to any part of the U.S. Magazines not exceeding one and a half ounces one half cent; not exceeding three ounces, one cent; over three ounces, one and a half cent.

On newspapers sent to foreign places, the following are the rates of postage: To the West Indies, 6 cents; South Pacific Coast, 6; German States, Denmark, Holland, Prussia, Russia, Sweden, Norway, Switzerland, and Italy, 6 cents; Great Britain and France, 2 cents; British North American Provinces, 1 cent.

Making up of the Mails.Atlantic States, via Panama, 5th and 20th of every month.
San Diego and Salt Lake, 3d and 18th of every month.
Oregon and Washington Territories, taking mails also for the Northern Coast, 1st and 21st of every month.
San Jose, 8 A. M. every day.
Northern Mail via Sacramento, 4 P. M. every day, Sundays excepted.
Southern and Eastern Mail via Stockton, 4 P. M. every day, Sundays excepted.

Mails are kept open until ten minutes before the hour of departure, except for the Atlantic, in which case thirty minutes for closing the mails; though it would be better for the convenience of the Post Office, as well as for the safety of the correspondence, if letters were mailed during the night previous.

Ship Mails are despatched by every opportunity for the Sandwich Islands, Society Islands, Australia, and China. Postage on letters to all parts of the Pacific, by ship, to be prepaid.

DEAD LETTERS.—Letters technically termed "dead," are such as have been advertised, and have remained on hand three months; including letters refused; letters for foreign countries which cannot be forwarded without pre-payment of postage; letters not addressed, or so badly directed that their destinations cannot be ascertained; and letters addressed to places which are not Post Offices. All the dead letters are returned to San Francisco at the middle or end of each Post Office quarter, which is on the last day of March, June, September, and December. Refused and dropped letters are not advertised. Every dead letter, before its return to San Francisco, is stamped or postmarked on the sealed side, with the name of the office and the date of its return.

Source: Hutchings' California Magazine. January 1858.

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