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Ben Franklin

Post Office

"B. Free Franklin" was his postmark

But a statement in the Pemberton family papers, quoted by Watson, gives names and dates. It declares that in 1683 William Penn granted to Henry Waldy, of Tekonay, the right to hold a weekly post between Philadelphia and Wilmington. The Colonial Records do not mention this commission, but in that year a law was passed at Philadelphia making every justice of the peace, sheriff and constable responsible for the speedy forwarding of such letters, "directed to or from the Governor," as should come to hand. It is possible that this service was soon after extended to the dispatch of private letters.

In February, 1692 (New Style), definite progress was marked, when a grant from William and Mary empowered Thomas Neale "to erect, settle and establish within the chief parts of their majesties' colonies and plantations in America, an office or offices for the receiving and dispatching letters and pacquets, and to receive, send and deliver the same under such rates and sums of money as the planters shall agree to give, and to hold and enjoy the same for the term of twenty-one years."

Two months later Neale appointed, to manage the general Post Office, Andrew Hamilton, of New Jersey, who lost little time in presenting his credentials to Benjamin Fletcher, Governor of New York. The result was the establishment, by the legislative body of that colony in November of the same year, of a general letter office in the city of New York. The next year (1693) Penn, having been temporarily removed through royal disfavor, Fletcher was made Governor of Pennsylvania, and in the spring his administration enacted a law ordering the erection by Andrew Hamilton of a post office in Philadelphia.

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This law must have taken effect almost immediately, for in 1732 Andrew Bradford, postmaster of Philadelphia, complains that nothing practical has been done to develop the post south of this city in spite of the fact that the service has been established for thirty-eight years.

A trial of four years convinced Hamilton that he could not afford to run the post at the existing rates. His appeal to the Council of Pennsylvania resulted in the passage (1697) of a law for the better support of the post, which provided, among other things, "That there be from henceforth one general letter office erected and established within the town of Philadelphia." It must not, however, be assumed from this that Philadelphia was to have a post office building. With the postmaster general collecting his allowance out of the receipts of the office and complaining of the inadequacy of that source it is quite unlikely that any money was available for building, and we must look far into the future for the first instance of a home being specially prepared for the local Post Office. "Presumably," says Dr. Oberholtzer, speaking of this period, "Philadelphia had a Post Office, though where it was situated may not be known. The earlier arrangements for the shipment and receipt of letters and parcels probably did not include a house devoted to this use."

In Scharf and Westcott's "History of Philadelphia" there is a list, compiled from many sources, yet incomplete, of the names of the postmasters of Philadelphia. From this it appears that Henry Flower filled the position in 1698, Captain John Hamilton in 1707, and Henry Flower again in 1722. It is reasonable to suppose that each of these gentlemen received and distributed the mail at his own home, whose exact location, could it be determined in each case, would establish the position of the Post Office building of that day.

In 1728, Andrew Bradford became postmaster. He was the son of William Bradford, the printer, and had established a printery and bindery of his own at his house in Second Street — "at his paternal sign of the Bible" — where he published his newspaper, the "American Weekly Mercury," and kept, besides, a large store. One of his advertisements reads:

"choice parcels of stationery lately imported from London, Dutch quills, blank books, royal, medium, demy and post paper, good slates, choice ink powders and japanned ink, sealing-wax and wafers, including crown and half-crown wafers for offices, folio letter cases, very good paper, as royal demy, superfine large post, foolscap, gilt paper for letters, fine glass ink fonts, very fine inkstands of various sort, and most kinds of stationery ware."

The printing office was the Post Office as well, according to the "Mercury's" issue of April 4, 1728, which announced that "the Post Office will be kept at the house of Andrew Bradford."

The postmaster seems to have combined the two with profit to himself, much to the discomfiture of his rival, Benjamin Franklin, publisher of "The Pennsylvania Gazette," who found it impracticable to have his own newspapers delivered by post as long as Bradford held office. But in 1737 the tables were turned when Bradford, whose returns had been unsatisfactory, was removed by the Postmaster General, Colonel William Spotswood, who thereupon appointed Franklin to the office. "I accepted it readily," says Franklin in his "Autobiography," "and found it of great advantage; for, tho' the salary was small, it facilitated, the correspondence that improved my newspaper...My old competitor's newspaper declined proportionately, and I was satisfy'd without retaliating his refusal, while postmaster, to permit my papers being carried by the riders."

Thus the office of "The Pennsylvania Gazette" became the Post Office. It would be specially interesting to fix the position of this building, but as the houses were not numbered then, nor for fifty years after, the vague address, "New Printing-Office near the Market' is almost all that we have to guide us. Says Joseph Jackson, in his "History of Market Street":

"It would appear that Franklin continued to call his shop 'the new printing office,' and that the work 'new' had more than a temporary meaning. If this be the case, then Franklin continued to print in the same shop during his career, and if this surmise be correct the effort to locate the New Printing Office seems hopeless."

Nevertheless, the Post Office, during the period from 1745 to 1752, seems to have been enough of a landmark to have been referred to in directing strangers. A canvass of "The Pennsylvania Gazette" reveals that following interesting facts which might be regarded as clues to the location of this important public building:

October 3, 1745. Pewter, brass, etc., "just imported from London, and be sold very cheap by Wholesale or Retail, three Doors below the Post-Office, in Market-street." by Thomas Biles.

April 17, 1746. "Timothy Matlack is removed and settled in Philadelphia, against the Jersey-Market, a little above the Post-office, in Market-street, at the sign of the two Sugar-Loaves, marked T M in gold letters."

September 10, 1747. "Elias Buddinot, silversmith, is removed from the house next door to the Post-office, in Market-street."

May 12, 1748. "Jonathan Mifflin is removed to a house in Market-street, nearly opposite the Post Office." (At about this time, Peter Turner was opposite the Post-office.)

June 14, 1750. Brick messuage and lot on north side of High street in Philadelphia, "adjoining to the Post-office," and now in tenure of John Linn, to be sold. (Owner's name not given.)

January 14, 1752. "The Post Office ... is removed up Market-street, a little above the Prison, on the opposite Side of the Way; But the Printing-Office (Franklin and Hall) continues near the Jersey Market."

Although the Act of 1697, for the support of the post, had prescribed penalties for the setting up of private posts, it is probable that the prohibition extended only to the paralleling of official routes. Private posts were looked upon as an inherent right, and they continued to flourish, here and there, for a long time. In 1742 one was established by the Moravian community of Bethlehem between that town and Philadelphia, the stopping-place in Philadelphia being Benezet's. The private delivery of mail from abroad is thus described by Peter Kalm, the Swedish botanist, who visited Philadelphia in 1748:

"As soon as we were come to the town, and had cast anchor, many of the inhabitants came on board, to enquire for Letters. They took all those which they could carry, either for themselves or for their friends. Those which remained, the captain ordered to be carried on shore, and to be brought into a coffee-house, where everybody could make enquiry for them, and by this means he was rid of the trouble of delivering them himself."

As the London Coffee-House did not exist, as a public house, until 1754, it can not have been the "coffee-house" referred to by Professor Kalm. At the time of his arrival here, however, there were, according to Watson, at least two coffee-houses in Philadelphia — one the stand kept for years by the James family, at the northwest corner of Front and Walnut streets; the other, the Widow Roberts' house, on the west side of Front street, below Blackhorse alley (between Market and Chestnut).

A new regime began in 1753, when, to fill a vacancy caused by death, Benjamin Franklin and Colonel William Hunter, of Virginia, were appointed Postmasters General of the Colonies. New regulations — the work of Franklin — were put into effect, delivery by carriers was introduced, and the practice of advertising unclaimed letters was begun. Franklin's son, William, was made Comptroller (which was probably the equivalent of postmaster) at Philadelphia, which was the postal center of the surrounding counties.

"The Post-Office

Is now remov'd to a House in Third street, next but one above Church-Alley. . . .

"William Franklin, Deputy Post-Master."

[Pennsylvania Gazette, July 5, 1753.]

There being, of course, no delivery in the country districts, mail intended for those parts lay in the Philadelphia Post Office until called for. The following announcements, quoted from "The Pennsylvania Gazette" of 1755, are interesting as showing some of the improvements made in the service during the Franklin regime:

"General Post Office.

"Philadelphia, Feb. 11, 1755.

"It having been found very inconvenient to persons concerned in trade, that the mail from Philadelphia to New England sets out once a fortnight during the winter season: This is to give notice, that the New England mail will henceforth go once a week the year round, whereby correspondence may be carried on and answers obtained to letters between Philad. and Boston in three weeks, which used in the winter, to require six weeks. By command of the D. Postmaster General.

"William Franklin, Comptroller."

"General Post Office.

"Philadelphia, Mar. 25, 1755.

"This is to give notice that for the future the Posts will go twice a week between Philad. and New York, and for that purpose will set out from both those places precisely at ten o'clock in the morning on every Monday and Thursday and will come in on every Wednesday and Saturday noon throughout the year. By order of the Post Master General.

"William Franklin, Comptroller."

Peter Franklin, brother to the Postmaster General, was Postmaster of Philadelphia (or, as he was called, "Deputy Postmaster"), in 1757.

These were the troublous days of the "Old French War." The censoring of communications was not, at that time, so strict as it has since become; but that it was not unknown, is suggested by this extract from the Proceedings of the Provincial Council of Pennsylvania:

"The Governor communicated to Lord Loudoun Sir Charles Hardie's letter relating to intelligence, entered in the minutes of Council of the Twenty-Fourth Day of November last, and acquainted his Lordship that the Post office of America is executed jointly by Mr. Franklin and Mr. Hunter of Virginia. It extends from Georgia to New Hampshire, and they have each Three Hundred Pounds Sterling P Annum, payable out of their own office.

"Besides the Salary, they have the Disposal of the Deputy Postmasters, Twelve in Number, said to be one with another above One Hundred Pounds Sterl. Each P Annm.

"Mr. Franklin has in particular the great Advantage of circulating his Papers free, and receiving Intelligence, which he may make the best or worst Use of in the present Situation of Affairs.

"Sir Charles Hardie wrote to the late Governor Morris and myself to prevent the Publication of Improper Intelligence in Newspapers, which it is impracticable for me to do, unless your Lordship lays your commands upon the Postmaster, to be extremely cautious in that particular.

"March 21, 1757."

In 1759, according to Scharf and Westcott, Josiah F. Davenport was Deputy Postmaster at Philadelphia. But Peter Franklin, at the time of his death, in 1766, held the office. He (Franklin) was succeeded by John Foxcroft,* a relative of Benjamin Franklin's wife. Foxcroft's house, which now became the Post Office building, was on the south side of Market street, about four doors east of Fourth street. One of the last official acts of Foxcroft was the establishment of a weekly post between Philadelphia and Baltimore. On August 5, 1774, there appeared in "The Pennsylvania Gazette" the following advertisement:

"Whereas there is a new Post established by John Foxcroft, Esq.; Deputy Post-Master General in America, from Philadelphia to Baltimore, once a week; he sets out from Philadelphia every Saturday, gets to Baltimore every Monday, returns from Baltimore every Tuesday, and arrives at Philadelphia on the Thursday morning following. And as the subscribed has undertaken to ride he takes this method of acquainting the public that he will, for whoever pleases to employ him, take down horses, or bring them up, to any part of the road, and carry parcels likewise. Any gentlemen who are pleased to favor him with their commands, depend on the greatest punctuality and dispatch, by their numble servant to command.

"John Perkins."

William Bradford, who seems to have succeeded Foxcroft in 1774, must have been the very last to hold the office here under the Crown.

In the same year (1774), came the dismissal of Postmaster General Franklin, whose efficient work for a score of years had transformed the Colonial post from a losing investment into a source of revenue for the Royal government. Matters of more concern than posts had now strained almost to the snapping point the relations between the colonies and the mother country. A year later (1775) the break came — the Revolution was on. In July the Second Continental Congress, assembled at Philadelphia, reached in its momentous work the appointment of a postmaster general, and the choice fell unanimously upon the chairman of the Committee on Posts — Benjamin Franklin. The office was to be in Philadelphia. Franklin appointed as his deputy his son-in-law, Richard Bache. But the times waited for no man. With the passage of another year, Franklin had become Commissioner to France, and Bache had been promoted to the Postmaster-Generalship. This was the end of Franklin's practical services in postal affairs. Henceforth the urgent need of this statesmanship was to be the bar to his further participation in merely executive labors. It is idle to write of any phase of our postal system without speaking of his great work in its upbuilding. Indeed, it may almost be said that he founded a postal dynasty, for even after his death relatives continued to administer the affairs of the local Post Office.

In the meantime, in 1775, William Goddard, publisher of "The Pennsylvania Chronicle," had attempted to found a private post on a subscription basis; and, in spite of the cold water thrown on his scheme by conservative Philadelphia, had established a route between Philadelphia and New York. He called it the "Constitutional Post," and chose for his Post Office the London Coffee House, a quaint building, then nearly 75 years old, on the southwest corner of Front and Market streets. It had first come into use as a Coffee House in 1754, and had steadily become the recognized meeting-place of merchants, as well as the center of much of the political life of the city — hence its choice for this purpose was quite natural.

Goddard's experiment, however, proved a failure. The colonies had thrown aside old things, and were not yet ready to take up the new. The lately established regular post, under which Peter Baynton, in 1776, became postmaster of Philadelphia, was no doubt equal to the task of attending to what mail there was, for in war times letters must have been few. Lawless characters abounded, to the imminent peril of the mails. A resolution of the Continental Congress, passed June 19, 1782, gives some idea of the responsibilities attaching to the office of Postmaster General — in which Ebenezer Hazard had now succeeded Richard Bache:

"On the report of the Committee to whom was referred a letter of the 17th from E. Hazard, Post Master General, informing that the southern post was robbed of his mail on Sunday, the 16th, within five miles of Harford, in the State of Maryland.

Resolved, that the executives of the States of New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware and Maryland, be and they are hereby requested to pursue the most likely measures of offering proper rewards, at the expense United States & otherwise, for recovering the mail and bringing the robbers to due punishment.

"Chas. Thomson, Secy."

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