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Sea Post Office on Steamships

The Sea Post Office on the Oceanic circa 1910.

The Sea Post Office on the Oceanic circa 1910. GGA Image ID # 1799721173


On many of the trans-Atlantic lines having mail contracts, a "marine post office" is in operation. There are sea post offices on nearly all of the express steamers belonging to lines having mail contracts. 

The post office proper is usually located on the steamer's main deck, while below it, say, two decks lower, is a large storage room. The post office is provided with the requisite sorting shelves, pigeon holes, packing and stamping tables, as well as bag stands, which serve to secure the bags for the reception of the sorted letters. 

Through a window in the door of the room, the officials communicate with passengers (when necessary). The registered mail is sorted in a specially screened off space.

The storage rooms are usually connected to the post office by electric elevators. If the mail is so bulky that the office rooms are not sufficient for its accommodation, part of the sealed mail sacks are stored in the hold of the ship. 

The post office clerks are accommodated in the first cabin and the subalterns in the second cabin. On one of the German lines, for example, the staff consists of two German and two United States post office clerks, and three German post office subaltern officials, furnished by the postal administration of the German Empire alone, because this class of officials is not known in the United States postal service, where the work done by the German subalterns is attended to by the post office clerks. 

In the direction towards America, the German post office clerk, and on the trip to Germany, the United States post office clerk, is the chief official of the sea post office on board and is responsible for the mails. The passengers are not admitted to the sea post office rooms. 

It is the principal business of the post office clerks on the trips to New York to sort the United States mail, particularly letters and postal cards, in such a manner that they are ready either for immediate delivery in New York City or for transfer by the next inland mail; on the trips to Germany, the mail for the German terminal post offices is to be dealt with so as to have a large portion of the German mails ready for disembarkation at Plymouth and Cherbourg, whence they are forwarded to the places of destination by the faster overland routes. 


The Modern Ocean Liner's Post Office. One of the Conveniences of Ocean Cruises Today.

The Modern Ocean Liner's Post Office. One of the Conveniences of Ocean Cruises Today. Mail for Passengers Is Brought on Board the Ship and Distributed Just as in an Ordinary Post Office. Leslie's Illustrated Weekly Newspaper (26 March 1914) p. 296. GGA Image ID # 179985154e


The post office clerks are, moreover, responsible for the methodical transfer and safe storage of the mails, for the emptying of the ship letterboxes and the handling of the correspondence deposited therein; they have to attend to ordinary and registered correspondence handed in at the post office window by the passengers and crew, to sell postage stamps, postal cards, etc., to the passengers and crew, to distribute correspondence arrived for the latter, and to watch over the safe delivery of the closed mails at the ports of call and the terminal port of the voyage. 

Furthermore, it is the business of the sea post office clerks to receive telegrams from the passengers and crew, during the trip from the last port of call to the German terminal port, to prepay them and forward them to the place of destination immediately after landing in the German port by a telegraph messenger provided by the post office of the said port. 

The sea post offices keep a stock of postage stamps, etc., of both the German and United States postal administrations for sale; for the payment of the postage, German postage stamps must be used when the articles are posted in German ports or on the trip from Germany to New York, and postage stamps of the United States must be used when the correspondence is posted in ports of the United States or during the trip from New York to Bremerhaven. 

During the stay of the steamer at ports of call, only such letters can be received as they are prepaid by postage stamps of the country in which the port of call is located. 

Since January 1, 1900, a new tariff is in force by which letters are carried between the United States and Germany, and the United States and England, for two cents per half ounce.

The ship letterboxes must be emptied at least once a day, and immediately before the arrival at each port touched on the line. 


A Passenger Mails a Letter at Sea, Dropping His Mail Into a Collection Box Onboard the Ship.

A Passenger Mails a Letter at Sea, Dropping His Mail Into a Collection Box Onboard the Ship. GGA Image ID # 17998443f2


All correspondence taken from the boxes is stamped with the date stamp, which is changed daily. During the stay of the steamer at ports of call, the ship letterboxes must be kept closed so as to avoid letters prepaid by other than the stamps admissible for the respective country being dropped into them. 

Upon the arrival of the steamer at Quarantine Station at Staten Island, the United States mail steamer is found in waiting to take the mail and convey it quickly to the harbor post office in New York when the mail carts carry it to the district post offices or to the railway stations. 

The time is surely near when all fast steamers plying between New York and foreign ports will be fitted with floating post offices in which European and United States post office clerks will affect the postal traffic between the three continents of Europe, America, and Asia for the benefit of trade and industry. 


A Busy Sea Post Office With Many Mail Sacks To Sort Before Arriving at the Voyage's Final Destination.

A Busy Sea Post Office With Many Mail Sacks To Sort Before Arriving at the Voyage's Final Destination. GGA Image ID # 1799892b33



Passengers who are desirous of sending letters to friends should have them ready and stamped at least half an hour before the pilot is dropped.

On vessels leaving New York, American stamps must be affixed: on vessels leaving England, English stamps must be used, and the same with other foreign countries.

During the voyage, letters may be posted in the special box provided for the purpose, and where there is a sea post office, they will be sorted en route.

Passengers wishing to send telegrams and cablegrams, or Marconi-grams, should apply at the purser's office. That official, or his clerk, usually issues a receipt for the amount of the charges paid.

Passengers should keep these receipts, as complaints about the loss of telegraphic messages cannot be remedied if no receipts can be produced in support of such claims.


On March 5, 1910, the night letter service was inaugurated. The under-lying thought in establishing this service was to give the public the benefit of the unemployed wires at night to quicken correspondence at low rates to take the place of letters by mail.

The rates charged are the standard day rates for ten-word messages. For the transmission of fifty words or less plus one-fifth the initial for each additional ten words or less.

To be entitled to this rate, the message must be written in plain English language and destined for points where the telegraph companies have offices.

Code messages will be charged for at standard day or night rates as the case may be, and night letters will not be accepted for other line points.

Night letters will be accepted and collected on call in any hour of the day or night for delivery at destination on the morning of the next ensuing business day by mail or messenger. They will be transmitted at the company's convenience during the night.

The special form, known as "Form 2289," should be used for writing the night letter. Night letters at the option of the telegraph company may be mailed to the destination of the addressee, and the company shall be deemed to have discharged its obligations in such cases with respect to delivery by mailing such night letters at the destination, postage prepaid.

Central will transmit to the next telegraph office so that a telegram may be accepted from a telephone subscriber at any time during the twenty-four hours.

It is possible that this may be modified in some manner when complete instructions are prepared, but this is about what the combined telegraph-telephone service will be.


The Allan Line Turbine Steamship RMS Virginian Alongside the Liverpool Landing Stage, Waiting to Receive the Numerous Bags of Letters Which, In the Course of a Few Days, Will Reach All Parts of Canada.

The Allan Line Turbine Steamship RMS Virginian Alongside the Liverpool Landing Stage, Waiting to Receive the Numerous Bags of Letters Which, In the Course of a Few Days, Will Reach All Parts of Canada. The Syren and Shipping, 25 September 1907. GGA Image ID # 17b8335777


Sending Letters Abroad

Be sure and give all of your friends instructions to forward their mail care of a banker or tourist company, or the American Express Co. from whom you purchased tickets, etc.

Great care is taken with mail, and it is forwarded according to instructions. Select an office of these companies in some large city, have all the mail sent there, and give this office-specific information about your movements.

The following advice is given by the American Express Co. relative to the forwarding of letters and telegrams, also the registered cable addresses. Duplicate lists will be found in their "Notes of Interest" which will be mailed by the company on request.

Cablegrams sent through them should be arranged for in advance. Travelers are naturally expected to patronize companies or bankers who perform services for them by giving them a share of their business either in the transmittal of funds or the purchase of steamship and railway tickets.

Letters in regard to mail or telegrams should be on sheets separate from communications on other subjects. Married ladies, to prevent delay in their letters and telegrams' forwarding, should state both their own and their husbands' given or Christian names when requesting the offices to transmit such matter.

Enquiries regarding reforwarded mail matter and telegrams will be promptly attended to at the Company's offices in Europe. However, patrons should bear in mind that the Company is not accountable for such matter after mailing.

The post office departments throughout Europe do not assume responsibility for the prompt transmission of mail matter and will not answer inquiries concerning the delivery of newspapers.

Patrons requesting Company's offices in Europe to open and reforward by wire their cablegrams and telegrams will be expected to deposit against charges. In the absence of such deposit, cablegrams and telegrams will be reforwarded by mail, unopened.

In going out of the harbor, letters may be given to the pilot for mailing when he leaves the vessel after taking her out.
Letters and telegrams for delivery to passengers on board ocean steamships should be addressed as follows:
"Mr _________________________
Passenger S. S. ____________________
New York City, N. Y.,"
"Boston," "Liverpool." or whatever the port may be, and the envelope should also show the name and address of the sender.


Sacks of Mail Being Brought Onboard a Royal Mail Ship circa 1910.

Sacks of Mail Being Brought Onboard a Royal Mail Ship circa 1910. GGA Image ID # 179999098c


A RECORD BREAKER. The Kaiser Wilhelm II of the North German Lloyd brings a Heavy European Mail.

On a recent trip from Bremen to New York, the express steamer Kaiser Wilhelm II of the North German Lloyd carried an extraordinarily heavy mail.

To meet this flood of mail, the postal officials on board were compelled to do some strong "swimming," to quote the phrase used by them.

In Bremerhaven alone, they had received 500 bags of mail. On their arrival in Southampton, they found no less than 12 mail cars, in fact, an entire train, filled with mail bags from England and the Continent on the pier ready to unload. Shortly after, two more cars arrived on late trains.

The taking on board of this enormous mass of mail, consisting of 1,920 bags, the most significant amount of mail ever taken on board a German steamer in an English Harbor, took 4 1/2 hours.

There were four German officials and subordinates in this service, two American officials, three English officials, and about fifty laborers and sailors.

The sorting of this mail on the pier, the loading of the same employing a hydraulic crane that took thirty to fifty bags wrapped in a net, lifted them in the air and then deposited them in the hold of the vessel. The long rows of carriers offered the most remarkable and impressive picture.

Several London correspondents were present, a representative of the "Daily Chronicle," who had come over specially to see them taking on board of this immense mail. At Cherbourg, in the afternoon, 420 more bags of mail were added to the large mass.

The 2,840 bags on board realized a weight of 85,000 kilograms, made up of 1,000 bags of mail holding about 320,000 letters. All Europe, from the Norwegian seaport towns, Bergen, Newcastle, and Kristiansand-Frederikshavn to the Ottoman mail-in Constantinople, was included in this immense accumulation. There were bags of mail from Buenos Aires, Cairo, and Alexandria as well.

On the trip to New York, the mail was sorted so that the mail bags could be transmitted to North and Central America, Venezuela, Columbia, Ecuador, Peru, northern Bolivia, West Indies, Japan, and Samoa.

There was destined for Chicago, Ill., 133 bags; San Francisco, Cal., 41; New Orleans, 18; Havana, 67; Mexico, D.F., 119; Guatemala (Land) 14; Lima (Peru), 13; and Tokyo, 15 bags.

On the New York return voyage, the steamer carried 2,005 bags of mail for Plymouth, Cherbourg, and Bremerhaven. This mail was also from many countries.

“A Record Breaker. The Kaiser Wilhelm II of the North German Lloyd Brings a Heavy European Mail,” in North German Lloyd Bulletin, New York and Bremen: Norddeutscher Lloyd, Vol. XXI, No. 4, December 1910, pp. 1-2.


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The GG Archives is the work and passion of two people, Paul Gjenvick, a professional archivist, and Evelyne Gjenvick, a curator. Paul earned a Masters of Archival Studies - a terminal degree from Clayton State University in Georgia, where he studied under renowned archivist Richard Pearce-Moses. Our research into the RMS Laconia and SS Bergensfjord, the ships that brought two members of the Gjønvik family from Norway to the United States in the early 20th century, has helped us design our site for other genealogists. The extent of original materials at the GG Archives can be very beneficial when researching your family's migration from Europe.