Colonial and Revolutionary War
Ship Mail Letters

Sample of stampless letter

Excellent example of a stampless Colonial ship letter from England to Newport, Rhode Island, via Boston with their Bo Sh town marking & 2dwt:16gr rate for distance of 60-100 miles from Boston, Massachusetts to Newport.

Please visit my Biblio store to view my current offerings of Colonial ship letters and more items for sale:

Colonial and Revolutionary War ship letters

Other Revolutionary War postal history

A Brief History of Ship Mail Letters during Colonial Times and the Revolutionary War

In 1639, the first colonial postal service was created by resolution of the Massachusetts General Court on November 5th, for the handling of overseas letters at the house of Richard Fairbanks, in Boston. In order to account for postal mail arriving from overseas origins, the folded letter was marked in manuscript with the letters SH, to indicate ship letter, and the inland postal rate was written next to it, along with a manuscript 16 to indicate the charge for ship carriage. The rates were expressed as dwt (pennyweight) and gr (grains) of coined silver.

In early colonial times letters sent from England, and elsewhere were left by ship's captains at local coffee houses. If the letter was addressed beyond the port of arrival, friends could pay the postage and take the letters. If the ship captain took a letter to the local post office, he received a half penny for his troubles. The practice of leaving mail at coffee houses ended when post offices were established in the colonies. At the time the main ports of entry for ships were New York city, and Boston, Massachusetts, and Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Packet ships were dispatched between Falmouth, England and New York in 1755. and later to Charleston, South Carolina, in the 1760's. This change meant that much of the mail bound for New York and New England was sent on the Falmouth packet, for a 1 shilling packet rate, and eliminated the need for sending mail on private sailing ships to the smaller ports. The main difference in inland mail, and mail carried by ship is the difference in the rate. The 16 gr ship fee was added to the rate of a inland letter, where as a domestic letter would only be charged the rate for the distance from city to city. For example the rate from New York to Newport, Rhode Island in colonial currency would be 6 pence or 2 dwt for the distance of 60-100 miles between those two cities.

As most of the colonists were from Britain, Scotland or Ireland, many of these Colonial ship mail letters were to and from family members. Merchant letters made up a good portion of the mail between Europe and the Colonies, as many of our commodities were imported from England. At most ports, manuscript sh markings were replaced by handstamp ship markings, and town markings, and in June of 1792 the currency was converted to dollars and cents, thus ending the colonial, and Confederation period currency. For more information about mail during this time period and another ship letter example, please see the Revolutionary War ship letter page on this website.

My main area of concentration is from the 1740's to 1820, with emphasis on the war periods, and early ship letters to the United States. Please click on the links below to view my postal history offerings, or contact me directly at . Thanks very much for your interest.

Please visit my online Biblio store to view Revolutionary War, Colonial ship letters and other history items for sale, including soldier's letters and stampless folded letters, covering the mid 18th century to early 19th century periods in US history:

For sale on Biblio: Revolutionary War ship letters

Revolutionary War postal history on offer at Biblio

If you prefer to buy privately, please email me your want list, and I'll send scans of what is available for sale.

I am a life member of the APS, and a registered dealer member. American Philatelic Society

Thanks for visiting. —Brad Sheff


P.O. Box 246  |  Northfield, Vermont 05663  |  802-485-8239