With the future of the American postal system in doubt, I thought I’d take a look at how it all began in New Jersey and here in Delaware Township.
I have written about our post offices before in “The Bridge,” Delaware Township’s newsletter,1 but my interest was reawakened when I realized that the Sergeantsville Post Office has been in existence for 185 years, something worth celebrating. Also, I recently acquired a book on the postal history of Hunterdon County, compiled by Jim Walker and available through the County’s Cultural and Heritage Commission.2 It reminded me that there is a lot more history in our post offices than we realize.
Before the Revolution, the best way to send a letter was to give it to someone who was going in the direction you wanted the letter to go, or to hire a special messenger. Letters exchanged between Nathaniel Saxton in Flemington and his father Charles living in Shamokin, PA in 1809, were sent by friends who were traveling between those two places. This was not always successful; sometimes those friends forgot to bring the letters or even lost them. But at least they knew who the intended recipient was, whether the handwriting was legible or not.
Addresses were written on the back of the letter. Envelopes were not used in the 18th century; in the 19th century, they were handmade until the 1840s. Letter writers of the 18th century would restrict their letter to one side of the paper, then fold it in such a way as to leave space for some sealing wax on one side, and the address on the other. Addresses were amazingly non-specific. A person’s name was usually followed with a general place, like their township, or even a neighboring township. Sometimes the writer would add the name of someone well-known who lived nearby. This system relied on good local knowledge for success. An impersonal postal system could never operate that way.
Postal systems needed post offices. The earliest post offices were at Burlington and Perth Amboy with a postal route running between them. The Trenton post office was established in the 1730’s. In 1769, a stage route on the Old York Road began carrying letters unofficially. All through the 18th century, residents of Hunterdon had to travel to Trenton, New Brunswick and even Philadelphia to get their mail. No wonder people relied on their traveling friends.
After the Revolution, the county’s population and prosperity increased, as did the number of post offices. By the early 1800s, there were seven post offices within the limits of present day Hunterdon County. They were:
Coryell’s Ferry 1802, Gershom Lambert postmaster
Flemington 1795, James Gregg postmaster
New Germantown 1795, Fredrick Bartles postmaster
New Hampton 1801, Joseph Wilson postmaster
Pittstown 1795, Benjamin Guild postmaster
Ringoes 1802, Nathan Price, postmaster
Van Syckle’s (Bethlehem Township) 1809, Elijah Vansyckle postmaster
After the War of 1812 had ended, there was a new wave of post offices.
Alexandria 1818, Lewis M. Prevost Jr. postmaster
Amwell 1814 (Lambertville, replacing Coryell’s Ferry), Capt. John Lambert postmaster
Bloomsbury (“Bloomsburg”) 1816, Henry Jones postmaster
Hunt’s Mills in Clinton, 1816, Ralph Hunt postmaster
Lebanon 1815, William Johnson postmaster
Milford 1817, William Housel postmaster
Perryville 1816, Charles Carhart postmaster
Prallsville 1817, William L. Prall postmaster
White House 1816, George W. Farley postmaster
By 1827, there were 26 post offices in Hunterdon County, including Sergeantsville’s, which was established that year. Henry H. Fisher Esq. got the appointment of postmaster for Jonas Thatcher, while the village of Skunktown was renamed Sergeantsville, after a local prominent family. The Thatchers were in fact just as prominent in the town, but since the new postmaster was a Thatcher, it was probably seen as a fair trade-off. Jonas Thatcher operated the post office in his store across the road from the tavern (now the township hall).
Postal rates were paid at the destination by the recipients rather than the senders. The cost was high, which discouraged people from picking up their mail. By 1825, postal rates were 6¢ for distances up to 30 miles, 10¢ for 30-80 miles, 12-½¢ for 80-150 miles, 18-¾¢ for 150-400 miles and anything over 400 miles was 25¢. Double and triple letters, which I presume to mean two or three pages, cost two or three times as much as single letters. Notices of unclaimed letters were posted in local newspapers listing the names of people who hadn’t picked up their mail. The Trenton Post Office listed many Hunterdon names well into the 19th century. The problem of unclaimed (and unpaid for) mail continued until 1847, when postage stamps began to be issued, requiring the letter senders to pay for the postage rather than the recipients.
The Postal Act of 1835 (the last year of Andrew Jackson’s administration), assigned the appointment of fourth class postmasters to the Postmaster General. This sounds reasonable, but it made it easier for political appointments to be made—that despicable ‘spoils system’ so roundly condemned by Jackson himself. For the next few decades, it is safe to assume that the appointment of postmasters was primarily political, a subject I hope to write about soon.
New stores and new post offices opened in Delaware Township villages from the 1820’s through 1850’s. It was logical for the local storekeeper to also serve as postmaster. The storekeeper was more a merchant than a clerk. He bought, sold and bartered with the local farmers, and arranged for transport of goods both in and out of the county. In small towns and villages, the local store carried almost every conceivable sort of goods. One of the new stores was established in Croton in 1845 by John S. Hockenbury, who was also postmaster. Locktown’s store was in operation by 1852, and its post office was established in 1856, making the name of “Locktown” official. Other post offices in local stores were at Headquarters, Sand Brook and Rosemont.
At mid-century, railroad stations became another useful location for a post office. In 1853, as a consequence of a railway station being opened at Centre Bridge, which was renamed Stockton, the Prallsville post office closed and reopened in the new station with the new name. A post office was established at Bowne Station in 1856 with William Barber postmaster; it was called “Oakdale” but locally known as Barber’s Station. The other train station with a post office was at Raven Rock, or “Bool’s Island,” where the post office was set up in 1853 and run by Mahlon H. Huffman.
In 1863, Congress authorized “free-carrier” mail service direct to the addressee, but only in urban areas. In Hunterdon, mail was carried to post offices by local carriers. The routes they traveled were called “star routes.” A “star route” never involved delivery of mail to residents. It was only for transporting mail between post offices. Even so, some star routes became road names, such as Old Croton Road, which used to be called Star Route A. In 1888, there was Star Mail Service between Sergeantsville and Kingwood. Augustus Gilbaugh, who lived near Sand Brook, carried mail by star route from Stockton to Flemington. He would travel by horse to Stockton, take on his mail and drop it off at Rosemont, Sergeantsville, Sand Brook and Flemington. Then he returned by the same route back to Stockton.
From the Kay & Smith book, I learned that in 1890, President Benjamin Harrison established by executive order the U. S. Board on Geographic Names. In their report, published in 1892, they also issued orders for future nomenclature. Those rules tell us something about how people were spelling in the 19th century. Here are some of the new rules for addresses:
— as far as possible, avoid the possessive form of names
— drop the h in burgh
— shorten borough to boro
— Centre should be spelled Center
— end the use of hyphens between names, like New-Jersey
— end the use of “C. H.” after the name of a county seat (C.H. meaning Court House)
— drop the words City or Town after the name of either
— end the use of diacritics or accents on letters
The strangest and silliest rule of all was that two-word names should be combined into one word, such as Raven Rock being changed to Ravenrock, which it was for several years.
Rural Free Delivery
RFD or Rural Free Delivery was established by Congressional action in 1896. In Hunterdon, the first routes ran from Flemington and Stockton. These were the largest post offices in the area. In 1900, the salary for ‘carriers of rural free delivery service’ was raised from $400 to $500 a year.
Rural free delivery made many local post offices obsolete. Dilts Corner was the first to close in 1905. In 1906, post offices in Rosemont and Locktown were discontinued (although Rosemont’s was later revived). The Croton post office closed in 1935 and the Raven Rock post office in 1936. It was observed at the time that closing the post offices took villages off the map. It certainly slowed things down in those places. In 1910, no one was listed in the census as a postmaster in Delaware Township. Only Farley S. Servis 35, was listed as “Mail Carrier, free delivery.”
Some local post offices did survive these changes, like the one at Sand Brook, which remained until it was changed to a star route post office in 1959. It continued there until 1970 when the store was closed. Today there are only two post offices in operation in Delaware Township, at Sergeantsville and Rosemont.
My next post will list all the post offices that operated in Delaware Township, along with their postmasters.
5/4/2012: Fixed a typo; Raven Rock closed in 1936, not 1836. Thank you Lynn.
- I have forgotten exactly when the article was published (it was about 15 years ago). Archives for The Bridge can be found on the Township’s website, but they only go back to 2009. The Bridge has been published since at 1992 or earlier. ↩
- Some of the names in Mr. Walker’s book are misspelled; probably by the sources that Mr. Walker relied on. However, Walker’s book is particularly valuable for the postal covers he has included, along with other images related to the postal service. Another book I have relied on over the years is New Jersey Postal History: The Post Offices and First Postmasters, 1776-1976 by John L. Kay and Chester M. Smith, Jr., published in 1977. Also, Hubert G. Schmidt’s Rural Hunterdon. ↩