Author: Mark W. Swarthout
Published on: September 14, 2004

You’ve poured through the letters left by your ancestors, fading brown ink swirling across the paper in neat rows. You marvel at their handwriting and try to understand the ‘in jokes’ that are a part of the notes shared across the miles. News items bring the family to life and the love flows from the pages. You’ve gleaned everything you can from the words of the letters. Or have you?

Did you look at the stationary? The envelope? Did they have a preference to the type of paper they used? Have you looked at the postage stamp, and more importantly the cancellation?

Bits and pieces of the history are recorded in those stamps and cancellations. In addition to the possibility of some real value, particularly for very early ones, the envelope as a whole is worth more intact than the stamp by itself, so preserve them as a single unit.

I have an absolutely fabulous invitation that was addressed to my Great, great grandfather. An upstanding citizen of his community, he was selected to be a member of the jury to witness a public execution. I have the envelope it was mailed in, with a big corner ripped out of it. My grandfather did that to give the stamp to his only grandson for his collection when he was ten!

Where the stamps from a sheet or a coil? Sheet stamps will have perforations, those little ridges around all four edges. A coil stamp will have them on two opposite sides. Perhaps they came out of a booklet, having the perforations on one or two or even three of the sides. Your ancestor may have bought rolls of stamps for their letters, or used an early vending machine to purchase a booklet.

But it is the postmarks that can provide a great deal of information. Most of them will have a date, perhaps even a time registered on them. It may be a crude handmade stamp, or an automated machine.

What town was it mailed from? Does it match the town mentioned in the letter? How close are they? Where did your ancestor have to go to get mail? Was it delivered daily or did it require a special trip to the post office. Your local Postal History group could tell you a great deal about the local area, probably name the postmaster in office at the time the letter was delivered. And over a period of time, you can observe changes to the local area. Early letters would have postmarks from a town ten or fifteen miles away. When the new community was large enough, they could have opened their own post office, usually in a part of the local store. As the town grew, other post offices would be put into place. The history of the area can be found in these small circles of information.

Other big changes can help you relate to the history of the area. Territories becoming states, communities that suddenly find themselves in a different state due to a border dispute, or inaccurate survey being corrected. There are a number of post offices along the Ohio-Michigan border that suddenly found themselves members of a more southern state as a result of the Toledo War. (Ohio had to keep Toledo and Michigan got the Upper Peninsula!)

Don’t overlook these little gems in your search! As in Real Estate, location is important!

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Updated on 10/25/2005