by Jerry Palazolo, Member MSCS
After an absence of two hundred and fifteen years the earliest known surviving letter written at Fort Pickering (now the site of Memphis) has returned to the city. This early postal artifact dated June 8, 1805, contains the original full length letter written by James Swearingen who had recently been appointed commander of the fort. As there was no post office yet established anywhere in Western Tennessee the letter was transported by a courier to the Chickasaw Nation post office located 100 miles inland near the present day town of Houlka, Mississippi. There at
the Chickasaw Agency it entered the U.S. mail. It was sent collect 25¢ to his friend Frederick Bates who was then postmaster of Detroit in what was then the newly established Indiana Territory.
The letter reads in part, “I am here alone in a dreary wilderness, savage country. The situation of the garrison is pleasant and that is all that can be said. I have been here since the 1st of March last without an officer and I know not or whether there will be any but myself. You cannot expect news from me in this country ...you will write to me frequently…”
"Sir, May I Borrow a Postage Stamp?” is something you might have heard back in the 1900s when people carried postage stamps in their pocket. Companies would use “stamp protectors” to advertise their products. Inside the stamp protector there was usually a calendar, advertising, and glassine pages which were used to keep the stamps from sticking together.
This stamp protector contains a calendar and is designed to look like an envelope that went through the mail. The sender is listed as HIRSCHHORN, MACK & CO., NEW YORK. The return address is an illustration of a 1900s gentleman labeled TOM MOORE with the word CIGAR below the illustration.
The red “printed” stamp reads TWO GREAT CIGARS above an illustration of the same gentleman as in the return address. TRY THEM is below the illustration.
On the back of the envelope is an imprinted red seal that reads H-M & CO’s HENRY GEORGE above an illustration of a different gentleman than the front. Below the seal is 5¢ CIGAR. Across the bottom of the envelope, in small print, is “The Whitehead & Hoag Co., Newark, NJ.”
Found inside a glassine page of this stamp protector was a 5¢ blue U.S. stamp. The stamp is from the regular issue of a 1902-1903 printing. The blue stamp is unusual because it was not a commonly used stamp.
According to the Universal Postal Union (UPU), a blue stamp on a letter in 1900s meant the letter was going to a foreign destination. Normally, you would find a green stamp for postcards and red stamps for envelopes going to a destination in the United States. The UPU designated these colors so employees who could not read would be able to sort mail by destinations.