Canadian Postal Museum
Canadian Museum of Civilization
Canada’s modern postal system was founded on decades of institutional experience that occurred prior to Confederation in 1867. An even longer tradition of exchanging letters goes as far back as the era of New France (early 1700s).
The early 19th century was a key period in Canada’s postal history. Colonists demanded and were given the opportunity to take charge of their postal affairs. This change was both a cause and an effect of the larger process of Canadian independence. It was all a part of the process of growing up and leaving the British behind.
Population Growth in British North America
The settlement of British North America did not begin in the early 19th century but it grew considerably during that period. The population of the three maritime colonies of Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island rose from 80,000 in 1800 to over 500,000 by the middle of the 19th century. Lower Canada’s population doubled in number between 1825 (480,000) and 1851 (890,000). The population of Upper Canada increased by a factor of six, from 158,000 to 952,000.
Settlements expanded beyond their borders, up the Saint John Valley, north and inland from Lake Ontario and Lake Erie, toward the eastern townships south and east of Montréal. The population of the countryside became more dense. Ports became towns, towns became cities. All sectors in the economy expanded, i.e. wheat production, coal mining, forestry, fishing, etc. The spread of settlements and the growth of the cities were significant, but the growing complexity of society was an even more important change. The need to communicate was on the rise.
Tying the Colonies Together
In the early 19th century, the spoken word was a powerful tool of communication. Oral reports of events travelled the grapevine whose centre was usually the market place or the tavern. Rumours of sinful goings-on were tossed about like hot potatoes at the church steps. In the close-knit community of a rural parish, whether Protestant or Catholic, no one could live beyond the pale of rumour. Yet, the written word was becoming more and more important in the daily life and culture of the colonies.
Books were the source of new ideas. Increasingly, books became available to the public and private libraries of British North America. Newspapers were another source of the written word. Although the majority of the population in some areas could not read, public opinions freely expressed in print echoed throughout all levels of society. Dynasties of newspaper publishing interests emerged.
Before newspapers became widely available, letter writing was the main method of communication in Canadian society. Individuals played an important role in the process of letter writing and letter exchanges, a process that developed into the postal system. In this system, letter writers were either message carriers, message shapers or both.
The Message Carriers
The primary way of getting private mail from one place to another was to entrust it to a traveller who was willing to carry it as a favour, hence the old-fashioned expression of mail “by favour.” Mail was carried by fur-trade voyageurs travelling in the Upper Country. Mail was put aboard ships sailing for Europe on the person of an official or colonist going to do business there. Merchants exchanged letters, credit notes and inventory orders with suppliers across the Atlantic via agents in New York. Their agents in New York ensured that the outgoing mail was put aboard ships for Britain and they also made sure that the incoming mail was sent on up to Canada or to the Maritime colonies. Within the colonies, bishops and priests handed their letters over to couriers. Sometimes, their correspondence was sent to the address of a middleman handling mail for them rather than to a post office.
Thus, the early postal system was an informal network of letter writers and their delivery agents all linked to each other from one port to the next or along trade and transport routes. This was not new to the Canadian colonies. The system probably dates from the 14th century when Italian merchants first devised a decentralized system of commercial control and information distribution. It became the basis of business information processing throughout the world economy for the next five centuries.
The Message Shapers
The habit of sending letters via another person was only one aspect of a larger tradition in sending and making letters. Letter writers fashioned their own writing quills out of goose feathers. There was no delete button, as with a modern computer, to remove unwanted words. Mistakes had to be scratched off the page with a sharp-edged eraser.
Once the letter was written, it was hand folded-envelopes were not used then-and sealed. Sealing wax, usually red (black was for funerals), was melted by candle flame onto the line of the fold. Then a personal imprint was stamped on the wax. During every step of the process the letter writer had a hand in the process. When the letter arrived at its destination it was passed from hand to hand and sometimes read out loud to the family. On occasion, notes were jotted on the outside of the cover as the letter headed to the next recipient. A letter was a living thing, a precious thing. Was it too precious for Her Majesty's Mails? The short answer is: not entirely.