by Fred Gregory
Office of The Polynesian,
Hawaii’s government owned newspaper, from an 1853
sketch by Paul Emmert; in 1850, Hawaii’s first Post
Office opened in a room at The Polynesian
Until the latter part of 1850, handling mail was strictly
a private affair in Hawaii. There wasnt much privacy,
however letters received from abroad often were
spread across the counting table of one or another mercantile
house in Honolulu and people sorted through the stack
looking for their letters. Sending letters was another
matter. Everyone had to make their own arrangements
to put letters aboard a ship ready to sail for some
port with a post office where letters could be deposited
into the international mail stream. Marine Intelligence
columns of the local weekly newspaper gave usually reliable
information about impending ship sailings and announced
destinations. These columns were useful to those living
in Honolulu, but not so helpful if you lived on Kauai
and got your paper after the ship sailed from Honolulu.
Pressure to create an official postal system increased
during 1850 in order to secure safer and more certain
arrangements for getting and sending letters. In those
days, all shipping was by sail. Steamships of a sort
had been present in the Pacific for several decades,
but those small steamers kept pretty close to the coasts
and did not venture to Hawaii. Larger steamers capable
of the Honolulu to San Francisco trip began to make
rare appearances later in the 1850s.
By 1850, almost all Hawaiian mail sent anywhere abroad
went to San Francisco. From San Francisco, letters for
the Eastern States, Europe, Africa or Asia were carried
by one of the semi-monthly steamers to Panama City,
hauled across the Panama Isthmus by mule, canoe and
river boat to Aspinwall and then taken up to New York
by steam ship. The Honolulu to San Francisco part of
the trip took about a month and another month was required
to reach New York. If the boat from Honolulu missed
the steamer sailing from San Francisco, a letter might
take nearly three months. Still, two or three months
was a vast improvement over the six months or more needed
for a ship to reach New England rounding Cape Horn
before the San Francisco/ Panama/New York steamship
service was inaugurated in March, 1849.
In September, 1850, the government began offering
an official mail service but no full blown post
office yet. The first step toward a postal system was
merely a letter bag at the office of The Polynesian,
a local newspaper owned, operated and edited by the
Government Printing Office, a branch of the Interior
Department. People could deposit letters in The Polynesian
letter bag and an employee of the GPO would get it aboard
a ship bound for San Francisco.
Finally, on December 21, 1850, the Honolulu Post Office
was created by royal decree. At first, one might not
have noticed much difference. The Post Of- fice occupied
a room in the office of The Polynesian and the GPO employee
most visibly associated with The Polynesian letter bag,
Henry Whitney, was named Postmaster of Honolulu. Although
opening a post office might suggest a business-
as-usual atmosphere pervaded in Honolulu, but
in truth the French warship La Serieuse lay menacingly
in Honolulu Harbor, threatening to attack and take possession
of Hawaii unless harsh treaty terms were accepted.
An envelope postmarked
December 21, 1850, the first day of operation for
the Honolulu Post Office.
Only one envelope actually postmarked on the first
day of the Post Office is known to have survived the
century and a half since then.
This letter was postmarked with a straightline postmark
dated Dec. 21, 1850. The same mark was used for The
Polynesian letter bag, the only difference being a change
of ink color from blue to black when the Post Office
started operation. The opening of the Post Office preceded,
by about ten months, the introduction of postage stamps
in Hawaii so the amount of postage was reflected in
rate marks applied by various postal clerks and postage
was paid in cash. Stamp collectors call this envelope
a stampless cover. Also, the Figure 2 cover
is an example of a collect cover
requiring the recipient to pay postage upon delivery.
In 1850, many people considered prepaid letters to be
disrespectful implying the recipient was too
poor to afford the postage so collect mail was
common. A red 42 in pencil shows the amount
of United States postage required to carry the letter
from San Francisco to Pennsylvania, where 42¢ was
collected upon delivery. No rate mark on this cover
shows it, but the Honolulu Postmaster collected 10¢
for Hawaiian postage when the letter was deposited in
Honolulu. In those days a good annual salary was about
$450, so sending a letter costing 52¢ was close
to a luxury.
Once deposited with the Honolulu Post Office, the
obligation fell on the Post Office to place it aboard
a vessel with a reliable captain who would deposit it
with the San Francisco Post Office as soon as his ship
arrived. This letter was put aboard the Hawaiian brig
Chameleon, which left Honolulu December 21, 1850, and
arrived at San Francisco on January 22, 1851. San Francisco
applied its red postmark, dated January 23, seen only
faintly now, and put the letter aboard the Panama steamer
Panama on February 1, bound for New York, where it arrived
around March 1. The letter traveled on to Harrisburg,
Pennsylvania, but the intended recipient, Wm. DeWitt
Alexander, had returned to Yale College. His relatives
in Harrisburg paid the 42¢ postage from San Francisco
plus they prepaid the 5¢ forwarding fee charged
to carry the letter to New Haven, Connecticut, as shown
by the scrawled Fwd 5 and a blue handstamped
PAID. Young DeWitt, probably got the letter about mid-March.
William Patterson Alexander, a missionary who arrived
at Honolulu with his wife on May 17, 1832, addressed
this envelope. Apart from being known as an eloquent
preacher who also possessed a quick wit, he helped the
government with land surveying. William DeWitt Alexander
was their first child, born in 1833. As was a custom
with many missionary families, the children were sent
to New England for education at a fairly young age.
DeWitt graduated from Yale College in 1855, returned
to Hawaii in 1857 and joined the faculty of Punahou
School as a professor of Greek. Later, he became president
of Punahou but after seven years, he left academia to
head the Government Survey. He was a distinguished geographer
and historian, married a Baldwin daughter and served
in the privy council under Kalakaua and Liliuokalani.
Wm. DeWitt Alexander died in 1913.
Fred Gregory has been collecting Hawaiian pre-Territorial
stamps and correspondence for about thirty years.
You can learn more about the subject at his web-site,
Post Office in Paradise, at www.hawaiianstamps.com.
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