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The Royal E. House Collection

Updated: Mar 28

Early in 2023, I purchased at auction a box full of covers. I don't know the exact number, but it was certainly more than a couple of hundred.


Among the covers I acquired were 24 that were sent to Royal E. House of Bridgeport, Connecticut between 1884 and 1889. The covers were sent from a variety of locations: from within Bridgeport itself, Albany, New Haven, New York, Philadelphia, Washington DC, Binghamton, New York, and Elizabeth, New Jersey. Twenty-three of the covers are franked with a brown 2-cent stamp that is #210 in the US Scott catalog. One cover is franked with a green 2-cent stamp that is #213 in the US Scott catalog. Those two stamps were the workhorses of first-class mail in the 1880s. The Post Office issued 4.3 billion of #210 and 3.6 billion of #213. Because of how common they are, both stamps are very affordable and are favorites among collectors of cancellations and plate varieties.


Mr. House (Figure 1) was a prominent electrical engineer and 19th century inventor. He is credited with inventing the "printing telegraph" in 1846, a couple of years after Samuel Morse introduced his telegraphic device. A printing telegraph was essentially two identical piano-looking devices connected by a wire (Figure 2). When a character was typed on the first machine, it would print on the second. By 1855, his invention connected Boston, New York and Washington, DC on the East Coast and extended west to Cleveland and Cincinnati. Samuel Morse sued Mr. House for patent infringement in 1849 but lost because the courts ruled that House's printing telegraph was substantially different from Morse's devices. Alas, House's device eventually went out of use because it was difficult to manufacture in bulk and also because of the consolidation of the telegraph business.


During the 1860s, Mr. House developed an electro-phonetic receiver for use in telegraphy, basically an early telephone. Alexander Graham Bell patented his telephone in 1876 and in 1885 sued House for patent infringement. A number of the covers in my possession were sent from law firms to Mr. House during that period and likely contained correspondence related to that lawsuit. House once again prevailed in court, but his device lost out to Bell's in the marketplace.


While I don't have the letters that were contained in those envelopes, the Hagley Museum & Library in Wilmington, Delaware has in its possession 29 letters concerning Bell's lawsuit against House. (See here: Collection: Royal Earl House papers | Hagley Museum and Library Archives.) That collection also includes letters from the Wallace Electric Telephone Manufacturing Co., which was manufacturing the House telephone during the 1880s.


One of the covers I have was sent by the Wallace Electric Telephone Manufacturing Co. to House on December 23, 1886 (Figure 3). What is interesting about this cover is the small cachet in the lower lefthand corner. It's a diagram of an old-fashioned telephone with the words "All Battery in Central Office." It turns out that in the early days, telephones were locally powered. In fact, one of the jobs of telephone company workers was to visit customers to make sure their phone batteries worked. Those were eventually replaced by telephones like those made by Wallace Electric that were powered by a central office battery, quite a leap forward in technology, I'm sure!


Two other House covers have interesting postal markings, which is why they are pictured below.


Figures 4 and 5 show a cover that was received in Bridgeport on or about January 13, 1889 (see receiving postmark in Figure 5). The interesting feature of this cover is the circular date stamp to the left of the stamp in Figure 4. It reads "Jan 13/Boston, Spig., & N.Y./R.P.O." "R.P.O." stands for "Railway Post Office," meaning this particular cover was cancelled on January 13, 1889, on a train operating on the Boston, Springfield, and New York Railroad. It was likely picked up in a mailbag while the train was moving and was processsed in a mail car like that shown in Figure 6.


The National Postal Museum (NPM) has some great information on RPOs that is well worth perusing. Here's a link to the website: Railway Mail Service | National Postal Museum (si.edu). This is the introduction to the topic provided by the NPM:


For more than a century, the core of America’s postal system was the Railway Mail Service. The system of train lines that crisscrossed the nation carried passengers and mail in and out of large cities and small towns. The Railway Mail Service went a step further in service than passenger trains, providing mail delivery and pick-up to small towns where trains did not even stop. The service relied on partnerships with America’s railway companies and the dedication and efforts of the service’s Railway Post Office clerks. From its beginnings in the midst of the Civil War to its slow decline after World War II and the service’s last run in 1977, the history of America’s Railway Mail Service is one that was central to America’s postal history.


The other cover I want to highlight is depicted in Figures 7 and 8. It was sent by George H. Pride (1858-1901), who is listed as an "electrician" in the 1889 New York City Directory. The postmark on the front (Figure 7) is blurry, but it is from Elizabeth, New Jersey, August 3, 1886. I know the year because that is clearly legible from the "New York Transit" postmark on the back of the cover (Figure 8). I'm sure transit postmarks are not uncommon, but this is the only one I have in my collection, which is why I included it in this article. It shows this letter moving through the postal system from Elizabeth, New Jersey to New York before arriving at its final destination in Bridgeport.


Mr. House lived for several years after receiving this batch of correspondence. He died in Bridgeport in 1895 at age 81. His career was lauded in a lengthy obituary that was published by The Electrical Engineer on March 6, 1895, which can be read here: Mar 6, 1895 : Obituary of Royal E. House (insulators.info).

Figure 1 - Royal E. House.

Figure 2 - House Printing Telegraph. Source: Smithsonian Institution.

Figure 3 - Letter to House from Wallace Electric Telephone Manufacturing Co.

Figure 4 - Letter to House Cancelled at a Railway Post Office (RPO).

Figure 5 - Back of cover shown in Figure 4.

Figure 6 - Rail Mail Car Circa 1885. Source: National Postal Museum.

Figure 7 - Letter to House from George H. Pride.

Figure 8 - Back of cover shown in Figure 7.

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