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A Tobacco Order from 1850

Updated: Oct 14, 2022

Lynchburg, Virginia, about 180 miles southwest of Washington, DC, was a very wealthy town prior to the Civil War. One significant source of that wealth was tobacco. According to the Encyclopedia Virginia, Lynchburg was "a leading center for the manufacture and sale of plug, or chewing, tobacco."(i) Tobacco was a labor-intensive crop to grow and harvest, and Lynchburg depended on more than 2,600 enslaved African Americans to provide that labor. This letter represents a small part of that history.

This folded letter was posted on June 20, 1850, from New York City and is franked with a 10-cent stamp depicting George Washington. In the Scott US Specialized Catalog, that is #2. Ten-cents was the postage rate for a letter traveling more than 300 miles in 1850.

This letter is included in the US Philatelic Classics Society's census of 1847 covers; it has ID number 8432. It also has a 1981 Philatelic Foundation certificate (number 99805) opining that it is a genuine usage of US Scott #2.

The letter was sent by the merchant firm of Cunningham & Osbourne located in lower Manhattan at 105 Water Street. Based on the 1850-51 New York City directory, the principals of this firm were James B. Cunningham, John Cunningham, and Charles F. Osbourne.

I can’t find much information on these three individuals. The Cunningham’s were likely related, but I don’t know how. James Cunningham is listed as a merchant as late as 1875 in the New York City directory, but beyond that, I have no idea when or where James and John were born or died. Charles was a junior partner in the firm. I know he was born in Virginia in 1828, but the trail runs cold after that.

The letter was addressed to Richard Perkins Jr., who in the 1850 census is listed as a “merct of tobacconist.” Not surprisingly given his trade, Perkins owned eight slaves per the “1850 US Federal Census – Slave Schedules.” These individuals are unnamed in the census; just that seven were male and one was female, and their ages ranged from 12 to 40.

I don’t know if a transaction occurred between Perkins and Cunningham & Osbourne. The Lynchburg Virginian reported individual tobacco sales, but they stopped that practice around the time this letter was sent. I did find one transaction for a hogshead of tobacco between Perkins and a Thomas King in mid-July 1850, but that was it.

Perkins did not have a long life. He was born in 1819 and died in 1852, two years after he received this letter. He is buried in the Perkins Family Cemetery with his parents and nine of his siblings, the last of which died in 1903. The Lynchburg Virginian lamented his passing in the July 22, 1852, issue:

Died, Monday morning, the 19th inst., at the residence of his father, Capt. Richard Perkins, RICHARD PERKINS, Jr., in the 33rd year of his age. A brief and severe affliction has suddenly laid in the tomb one who was loved and gave promise, by a life of integrity and perseverance, to fill up the riper years of manhood with the fruits of those generous qualities, which were conspicuous in the career allotted him in this life.

Aged parents, brothers and sisters, friends and neighbors will sigh in the deepest contrition of heart, because one for whom they may well weep has passed away.

Not only in the paths of industry, fidelity and attachments of family and social life, was the deceased a bright example, but he was in the community a wise and prudent citizen. He was esteemed and confided in by being called to important duties of high trust which he discharged faithfully and conscientiously.

The letter from Cunningham & Osbourne to Richard Perkins, Jr. reads:

New York 20 June 1850

Richard Perkins Jr. Esq.

Dear Sir,

A mutual friend informs us you would probably send us a

portion of your manufactured tobacco, if we solicit it.

Influenced by this advice we respectfully

state, should it be your pleasure to ship to us, your

interest will have our best care & all will be done for

your brands our market permits. We now do some

business in this staple & desire to add to our

present assortment and are prepared to furnish

promptly all proper facilities.

Large sales of manufactured tobacco have

been made the past few days at fair prices & we anticipate

a regular demand during the season, especially for common

& medium qualities the stock of which grades are now

comparatively moderate.

Leaf tobacco in demand from ? 5 ? /2

? and stems ? 2 ? 2/2.

We remain Dear Sir

Most respectfully yours

Cunningham & Osbourne

105 Water St.

This cover was purchased for $950.00 from Marc Bedrin in February 2022.

Figure 1 - Front

Figure 2 - Back

Figure 3 - Letter

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