California Penny Post Fakes

The California "Ocean" Penny Post

The California Penny Post (primary site here), organized by Henry L. Goodwin commenced operations in California on June 25, 1855. The earliest newspaper advertisements appeared that same day in the Daily Placer Times and Transcript (San Francisco) and the Sacramento Daily Union. The latest advertisement that I find was in the October 4, 1855 issue of Prices Current & Shipping List. It is probable that the company continued for some time after the above advertisement but they were certainly out of business by mid 1856.

One branch of their service was styled the "Ocean Penny Postage" and will be dealt with in this segment. The California Penny Post advertisements in June 1855 that I have available make no mention of the Ocean mail operation. The first advertisement that does, using the same address as the California Penny Post Company, is from the Daily Alta California of July 14, 1855, shown below. 

July 14, 1855 Ocean Penny Postage advertisement

The advertisement delineates two different types of ocean mail service that would be performed. For a fee of five cents, letters would be turned over to special messenger and carried, via Nicaragua, to New York City and placed in the US mails there. The Uncle Sam was a steamer on Vanderbilt's Nicaragua Line which connected, after a crossing at Nicaragua, with Vanderbilt's Independent Line steamer Northern Light which operated between Nicaragua and New York City. The method of prepayment of the five cent fee is not specified in this advertisement.

The second mode of service mentioned was that for a fee of two cents, "in our two-cent envelopes," letters would be delivered into the San Francisco post office to be carried by the regular mail steamer Golden Age which operated via Panama rather than via Nicaragua (the service often provided by San Francisco Letter Bag Operators such as Noisy Carriers) . It is further noted that all letters must have the postage prepaid by Government stamps. I do not record any Penny Post two cent envelope used on ocean mail. This may reflect a lack of survival, or possibly that such service was not implemented.

I have found additional advertisements for the Ocean Penny Postage between July 14 and October 4, 1855 when the advertisements cease. None of the advertisements subsequent to the one shown above mention any service to the San Francisco post office, or the two cent envelopes. Typical advertisements from the Prices Current And Shipping List are shown below. The advertisement at left is from the July 31, 1855 issue and the one at right is from the August 17, 1855 issue. The following advertisements make no mention of a special messenger and I presume that bags of mail were delivered to the steamers to be handled appropriately by Vanderbilt's pursers.


July 31, 1855 and August 17, 1855 advertisements in the Prices Current And Shipping List

The latest advertisement that I find is from the October 4, 1855 issue of the same newspaper and is shown below. Although not specified in the advertisement, the steamer that was to depart on October 5, 1855 was the Star of the West.

October 4, 1855 advertisement in the Prices Current And Shipping List

All of the known covers handled on the Ocean route by the California Penny Post that I consider to be genuine are shown below and in image census here (there is one known genuine use of the 5c adhesive on a cover sent outside the mails from Sacramento to San Francisco). I should note that all mail that was actually carried via Nicaragua should show evidence of having entered the post office at New York City. Three examples bear the five cent adhesive stamp of the Penny Post that has additional text "From the Post Office Care of the Penny Post." This indicates that letter was from the New York post office having been carried to that point by the Penny Post Company. A fourth example bears a pre-printed envelope.

I record two covers handled by the Penny Post on June 30, 1855. I believe that the first cover shown is a genuine usage and that the envelope with "Via Nicaragua" printed at top was prepared by the Company. This cover was received too late to make the sailing of the Cortes to Nicaragua which departed on June 30, 1855. This fact is evidenced by the "too late for Nicaragua" endorsement. It was carried by regular mail steamer Sonora, via Panama, which departed later the same day. 

June 30, 1855 from San Francisco to Patchogue, Long Island, New York

A second cover bearing the same adhesive is shown below. This example is a genuine use and shows the proper markings for a cover that was actually carried via Nicaragua on the sailing the above cover missed. The pencil notation at bottom left fits with the departure of the Cortes on June 30, 1855. After a crossing of Nicaragua, the cover was carried by The Star of the North from Nicaragua to New York City where it arrived and entered the mails on July 25, 1855.

June 30, 1855 from San Francisco

The third cover, shown below, is an envelope with the same the "Via Nicaragua" imprint as the first cover and also has the same placement of the Penny Post adhesive. It was carried on the Vanderbilt steamer Uncle Sam that departed San Francisco on August 18, 1855. After carriage across Nicaragua, it was carried by the steamer Northern Light which arrived New York on September 8, 1855.

August 18, 1855 from San Francisco to Massachusetts

An additional cover carried on the same trip as the above cover is shown below. The 10 cent stamp is missing.

August 18, 1855 from San Francisco

The final cover, shown below from illustration in the Knapp sale catalog, is the only example I have found of an imprinted envelope used by the Penny Post Company on their ocean mail service. The caption of "Ocean Penny Postage" matches their advertisements as does the "Paid 5" rate. Unfortunately, I can not date this cover and have no record of its appearance since the Knapp sale. It is missing a 10 cent stamp at top left which would have correctly made up the 15 cent rate to Canada. Although not present in any catalogs, this frank should be listed. Consistent with usage via Nicaragua, the cover entered the mails in New York City for transmission to Canada.

Ocean Penny Postage Paid 5 franked envelope to Canada 

In conclusion, I should mention that contemporary advertisements of competitors to the Penny Post Company in their ocean mail operation were: the Pacific Express Company, Freemans Express and Hawes Express. These companies listed rates for similar service, via Nicaragua, at 12 1/2 cents per letter before the September 4, 1855 advertisements, and all but Hawes, thereafter at 10 cents. 

Richard Frajola (Aug 2005, update April 2014)