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"My Beloved Departed Companion": A Widower's Lament from 1837

Updated: Apr 24

Stamp collecting is such a great hobby. Each stamp is a piece of art with a fascinating story to tell.

 

I started collecting U.S. stamps, and I’m working on completing A Stamp for Every Country Album. Did you know that since the first adhesive postage stamp was issued by Great Britain in 1840, almost 800 countries have issued stamps valid for carrying mail?

 

One day I was looking through that every-country album and I thought, “I’ll complete this album someday.” In a flash, two thoughts passed through my mind. First, I was thrilled at the idea of having a stamp from all those countries, some that existed for only a year or two. Second, I was filled with dread. Were my stamp collecting days over?!

 

Far from it. Stamp collecting has so many dimensions that it is impossible to exhaust them all in a lifetime.

 

One of the areas that I find especially enjoyable is collecting envelopes, or covers in the vernacular of philately. The variety is almost endless. Some of the more popular collecting areas include:

 

  • First day covers (FDC) that celebrate a stamp’s issuance. FDCs usually have illustrations, called cachets, which relate to the stamp.

  • Patriotic covers intended to bolster morale during times of strife like the Civil War or World War II.

  • Advertising or illustrated covers. We would call these “junk mail” today, but between the late 19th and mid-20th centuries, advertising covers were art forms.

 

If you enjoy playing detective and solving mysteries, then you’ll want to consider “postal history.” This is the study of how a cover moved through the mail system. If you want, you can also research a cover’s social history, delving into the backgrounds of the people who sent and received the cover. If you’re lucky, you might even acquire an old envelope with its original enclosure.

 

Like stamp collecting in general, you can collect and categorize covers however you like. That’s the great thing about stamp collecting. With the exception of exhibiting, there aren’t any rules. You chart your own course.

 

That said, I’m someone who likes structure, so I organize my covers by historic period. For example, in U.S. stamps, there is the “Classic Period,” which is usually defined as the time between 1847 and 1893. In 1847, the U.S. Post Office issued its first adhesive postage stamp, and all the stamps issued during that timeframe were designed, engraved and printed by private firms.

 

But did you know there was a period preceding the classic period called the “stampless era”? The forerunner to today’s U.S. Postal Service was founded in 1775, and it ensured the delivery of mail throughout the 13 colonies well before anyone thought about printing and issuing postage stamps. This era lasted until 1855 when the use of postage stamps on mail became mandatory.

 

During most of the stampless era, people would write their letters on a sheet of paper, fold it into a rectangle, seal it with wax, and take it to a post office. Sometimes the sender would pay the postage, but often it was the person receiving the letter who had to pay. There also was no such thing as home delivery. In larger cities, you would check the “List of Letters” or “Mail to be Claimed” column in your local newspaper, and if you saw your name, you would head down to the city post office to claim your item.

 

Beginning in 1792, postage rates were set by an act of the U.S. Congress. Rates were complex, varying by the number of pages – and after 1827 by weight – and distance traveled.

 

Postage rates were also very expensive. Consider the folded letter shown in Figure 1. This item was mailed in March 1833 by an Army surgeon serving at Fort Winnebago, about 120 miles southwest of Green Bay, Wisconsin, to New York City. It arrived there about a month later. Since this letter was traveling more than 400 miles, it was subject to the highest rate, which was 25-cents, or “two bits” as it was then called. That would be equivalent to paying $10 to send this letter today. In fact, you could mail that letter today for 68-cents, and it would arrive in a matter of days instead of a month.

 

Figure 1 – A stampless folded letter mailed from Fort Winnebago to New York City. The letter is postmarked March 22, 1833, and arrived in New York about a month later. The letter was addressed to Rev. Absalom Peters, the head of a missionary society. It was sent by an Army surgeon named Dr. Richard Satterlee in which he requests help securing a minister for the fort. For the complete story on this stampless folded letter, read my article here: https://www.mypostalhistory.com/post/a-request-for-a-minister-at-fort-winnebago-1833.

 

The concept of a “bit” is important when trying to understand postage rates during the stampless era because in addition to a rate of 25-cents there were also 12-1/2 cent and 18-1/2 cent rates for letters traveling 81 to 150 miles and 151 to 400 miles, respectively. It gets even stranger because in 1825, the 18-1/2 cent rate was changed to 18-3/4 cents.

 

These fractional postage rates resulted from the use of the Spanish silver dollar as a currency in the American colonies and even in the early U.S. The Spanish dollar equaled eight “reals” and sometimes the dollar coin was cut into eight pieces. Each piece was called a “bit” and equaled 12-1/2 cents. Since the Spanish silver dollar and reals or bits were so common, it made sense that postage rates would be set in those terms.

 

Folded stampless letters are fascinating to collect because in addition to their postal history, they are ideal for the social historian because the contents and the cover are one and the same.

 

Many folded letters from this period are business related, which makes perfect sense especially when you consider the cost of mailing a letter. That Army surgeon’s letter, for example, was a request for a clergyman to serve at Fort Winnebago. Every now and again, however, you will come across a stampless letter with a very poignant, personal story. The folded letter in Exhibits 2 and 3 is one example.

 

Figure 2 - Front of stampless letter.


Figure 3 – Unfolded letter showing wax seal.

 

As you can see from the front, the letter was sent from Boston, Massachusetts to Augusta, Maine. The circular Boston postmark is clear, and from the date of the letter, we know it was postmarked on July 31, 1837. We also know the sender paid the postage because of the “PAID” handstamp just to the left of the red scribble. That scribble is the amount of postage paid, which was 18-3/4 cents. That was the rate for this single sheet of paper weighing about a quarter ounce. The back of the folded letter shows that it was sealed with wax.

 

We don’t know when this letter arrived in Augusta, but it likely traveled by horse and/or coach and probably took a week or more to travel the 160-plus miles from Boston to Augusta. There were some railroads in New England at this time, but that mode of transportation was in its infancy in the mid-1830s, and the lines that existed covered very short distances.

 

That’s the postal history of this item. Now let’s delve into its social history based on what we know about the letter writer and recipient. This is where deduction and detective work come into play.

 

We know from the front of the letter that it was sent to “Miss Susan Fisher” who lived in Augusta, Maine. Jumping to the end (see the bottom of Figure 3), we see that that the salutation is, “Yours, E F Carter.”

 

Carter starts the letter by profusely apologizing for taking so long to write given Miss Fisher’s “favors, kindnesses [and] civilities both to me and to my beloved departed companion. To Sarah who loved you kindly and tenderly and to the end.”

 

Carter continues, “A few hours before her pure spirit took its flight, she bore you on her prayers to the throne of grace, grateful to Him that ordereth all things for the many kindnesses she had received at your home and for the many joyous moments she had spent in your society.” He said Sarah told him to tell Miss Fisher and her other friends that “they have been and I trust are my best dearest friends that ever in the agonies of death. My prayers can testify of my affection [for] them. There were none on Earth save her own sister so dear to her as her friends in Augusta.”

 

Carter then writes a bit about Sarah’s last moments. He says “her mind was remarkably clear. … All was clear – all was right and glorious beyond the grave. Unusually so. Said a clergyman one Sabbath addressing his congregation, ‘I never felt that I was so near Heaven as when I was at her bedside.’”

 

The letter continues, “A few days before her death Amelia was brought in to see her. She took her into her bed, kissed her, bid her goodbye forever and calmly said with a tearless eye and an unruffled brow, ‘She is an interesting little creature’.”

As the end neared, Carter said Sarah’s “mind did not appear to be the least impaired. She did not suffer intensely from pain till about 48 hours before her death. She gradually wore out. … She had a desire to die alone. … I think she was gratified for at the time of her death I was at another part of the room. … I turned to her and she was sweetly breathing her life away. … She had not a struggle but an involuntary motion of one of her limbs. … She now rests at Mt. Auburn at least her body. Her soul I am confident rests in a far more glorious above.”

 

In the rest of the letter, Carter talks of his financial struggles since Sarah’s passing. He went into debt to pay for her care, and he was unable to work for four months. He seems confident that he will be able to pay off his bills since he expects some teaching opportunities to come his way.

 

After wiping the tears from my eyes, I then set about trying to bring E.F. Carter, Sarah, Amelia and Miss Fisher to life. Here’s what I knew and deduced from the letter:

 

  • The writer was someone by the name of E.F. Carter who lived in Boston in 1837 and was a teacher.

  • His late wife’s name was Sarah, and she was buried at Mt. Auburn Cemetery, which was dedicated in 1831 and is considered the first garden or rural cemetery in the U.S.

  • The couple had a daughter named Amelia.

  • There also was a connection to Maine given that the recipient, Miss Fisher, lived in Augusta and that “Bridgton” is mentioned in the letter, which is a town in Maine.

 

I then went to my two go-to online resources: Ancestry.com and Newspapers.com. Both are subscription services but are worth the cost for anyone interested in social history. Another fine online resource is findagrave.com.

 

I started with a search on Ancestry.com for “Carter” in Boston with the first initial “E” but with no success. I then went to Newspapers.com and searched for any mention of Carter in Boston newspapers between 1836 and 1837. One lead came in the Boston Post of January 2, 1836 (Figure 4), where an “Emerson Carter” was listed as having unclaimed mail at the post office.


Figure 4 – Excerpt from the Boston Post of January 2, 1836, showing the “List of Letters” column in which Emerson Carter’s name was found. The list took up an entire page in the 4-page edition.

 

I then searched for “Emerson Carter” on Ancestry.com and came across a record for Emerson Faulkner Carter. As I perused his background, I quickly realized that I had identified the principles mentioned in the letter.

 

Emerson was born in Waterford, Maine in 1810. In 1832, in Bridgton, Maine, he married Sarah Tipley. The couple had one child: a daughter named Amelia born in Augusta in 1835. Sadly, Sarah, who was born in North Bridgton in 1810, died from “consumption” or tuberculosis at age 26 on December 2, 1836, in Boston and was buried in Mt. Auburn Cemetery. Her death occurred about eight months before Emerson penned his letter to Miss Fisher, which explains his profuse apology for taking so long to write.

 

Emerson was indeed a teacher (that was his occupation listed in the U.S. Censuses of 1860 and 1870) and a prominent one at that. In a well-documented genealogy titled, History of the Hamlin Family with Genealogies of the Early Settlers of the Name in America 1639-1894, it states that “Professor Emerson Faulkner Carter…was educated in the common school and Bridgton Academy; taught school, Boston, Mass.; Kinderhook Academy, N.Y.; Principal of Young Ladies Seminary, Albany, N.Y., 1845; Associate Principal Temple Grove Seminary, Saratoga Springs, N.Y.; established Carter’s Commercial College, Pittsfield, Mass.”

 

The motto of Carter’s Commercial College (Figure 5) was “Teach Boys and Men What They Will Need to Practice in Every Day Life.” It was a business school of sorts, instructing “men and boys” in bookkeeping, grammar, and penmanship. Emerson founded the school in 1864 and ran it until his death in 1879. It continued in operation under the leadership of one Benjamin Chickering until his death in 1889.

 

Figure 5 – An ad for Carter’s Commercial College, The Pittsfield Sun, November 2, 1866.

 

In April 1838, about 15 months after Sarah’s passing, Emerson married Paulina Kimball in Portland, Maine. Paulina and he had two children: a son Charles (1841-1864) and a daughter Elizabeth (1856-1924). Charles fought in the Civil War and died at his father’s home in the summer of 1864 from wounds he incurred a few months earlier at a battle in Louisiana. Amelia, the daughter he had with Sarah, passed away at age 72 in 1907. She never married.  

 

Upon his passing in September 1879, The Berkshire County Eagle published a lengthy obituary on Emerson:

 

Mr. Emerson F. Carter, the well-known principal of Carter’s Commercial College, died at his residence on East Housatonic Street, on Saturday afternoon, aged 69 [he actually was 68]. Mr. Carter was born at Waterford, Maine, in 1810, and his early life was spent in that place. After teaching for several years in his native state he removed to Boston, where, for a time, he was a submaster in the Eliot grammar school. About 40 years ago he went to New York state and taught successfully in Albany and other cities and towns, and finally established a school for young ladies at Saratoga, which won a fine reputation and was prosperous. He remained there until 1863, when he sold his interest in the school and came to this town, establishing soon after his commercial college, at which institution a great many young men received practical instructions in book-keeping, penmanship and business methods generally. In these departments he was a very competent instructor and his school, for years, was largely attended. In connection with this enterprise he taught penmanship at Maplewood Institute, Miss Salisbury’s school and in the high and first grammar schools, and was also a teacher in the evening schools. It was in attempting to do so much that he broke his health, and though he gave up a number of these engagements it was then too late. He never recovered from the effects of his overdoing, though he has (sic) continued to receive a few pupils even so late as the present summer. Latterly his mind failed as his physical weakness increased and for some months he has been but a wreck of his former self. He was a member of the Baptist church, had been superintendent of the Sunday school, and by all who knew him he was greatly respected. Mr. Carter leaves a wife and two daughters. His son, Capt. Charles Carter, was wounded at New Orleans, and died in consequences his injuries immediately on arriving here.

 

Figure 6 – Emerson Carter’s tombstone at the Pittsfield Cemetery.

 

What of the letter’s recipient and Sarah’s dear friend, Miss Susan Fisher? I found a likely candidate in the U.S. Census of 1870, which lists a Susan Fisher, milliner, who was born circa 1800. The Augusta city directories from that timeframe list a “Miss Susan Fisher” who was a worsted goods dealer. She ran occasional ads in the local newspapers, including a “going out of business” sale in 1876 (Figure 7). Her obituary in the March 5, 1879, Kennebec Journal reads:

 

Miss Susan Fisher, for many years well known by our people as a milliner and fancy goods dealer, died last Thursday night, at Litchfield, where she was visiting relatives and friends. Her age was 82 years. She was a long a resident of Augusta, and a most respected lady.

 

Figure 7 - Miss Susan Fisher’s “Going Out of Business” Ad, Kennebec Journal, April 7, 1876.

 

I found nothing else online about Miss Susan Fisher. I might be able to learn more about her if I visited the local historical society in Augusta, but that is no guarantee. Although Ancestry.com and Newspapers.com are rich online resources and local historical societies can be immensely helpful, there are many people from the 19th and even 20th centuries for which there is scant information available. That seems to be especially true for unmarried people who left no family to carry on their legacy.

 

Some stampless covers are incredibly expensive such as those with rare postmarks, unusually high postage rates for heavy letters, or covers with advertising. But many can be had for a few dollars. This letter, for example, was one of 60 covers that I purchased for around $200, which means I paid about $3.25 for this cover. Quite a bargain for the story it tells.

 

I don’t specialize in stampless letters. I probably have 20, but each is special in some way. Overall, I would describe my collection of covers as eclectic. Most of my covers date from 1950 or earlier, but that is the only common feature. I collect covers from the Classic Period, including advertising covers and covers that traveled across the Atlantic by steamship with all sorts of interesting transit markings. I have Civil War patriotic covers, some with their original enclosures. Air mail covers from the 1910s through the 1930s fascinate me. Bottom line, I collect whatever catches my fancy. I look for covers that might have interesting stories to tell whether that be from a postal history perspective, a social history viewpoint, or both. For me, the fun is finding a cover that checks off both boxes. And, of course, with covers, I never run out of things to collect.

 

Regardless of whether you pay a few dollars or a king’s ransom for a stampless letter or cover, treat it with respect and care. Treat every cover that comes into your possession as part of our collective history as a nation, whether it was written by someone famous or a simple teacher lamenting the passing of his young wife. As collectors, we are curators of historical artifacts. It is incumbent upon us to note only celebrate what we have in our collections but to safeguard those items for future collectors and historians.

 




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