By Joseph M. Adelman
Franklin Account Book, 1748-1752
Over the past ten years, archivists around the United States have been working to digitize materials in their collections to make them more accessible to researchers and the general public. Among the items of greatest interest to the H-Postal History community may be an account book from Benjamin Franklin’s service as the deputy postmaster of Philadelphia in the British imperial postal system. Covering the period from 1748 to 1752, near the end of his tenure as a local official, the book comprises a trove of information about postal operations in one of the leading commercial towns in British North America. The National Archives contains an extensive record of postal documents from the creation of the Continental Post Office in 1775 into the twentieth century, but records for the colonial era—even those that are associated with Franklin—are much rarer.
The account book is part of the Franklin collections at the American Philosophical Society in Philadelphia, an organization he founded in 1743. I’ve only just begun working with the book, but I can already say that it reveals a great deal about life in Philadelphia during the colonial era. The book, totaling 372 pages, gives a letter-by-letter account of mail received in the Philadelphia post office and a catalog of the weights of mail sent to other parts of the colonies as well as London. Though we know something about postage rates and utilization of the post, such a detailed record opens new opportunities to understand who used the British post office and how.
For example, among the men and women sending letters are members of the leading merchant families in Philadelphia, such as the Whartons, Mifflins, and Pembertons, as one would expect. But you can also find lesser-known Philadelphians (including one letter sent by a Richard Nixon). And thanks to the APS staff, one can also download a spreadsheet of the data for both payments and weights for the mail sent.
This information will allow postal historians, for example, to more precisely calculate the volume of mail that post riders carried. Many take at face value the complaints of postal officials such as surveyor Hugh Finlay that American colonists largely avoided the post when they could. We can’t see how much mail post riders carried illicitly (I’m tempted to say “on the side”), but we can look at the volume of mail across these years to think in positive terms about the role of the British postal system in political, commercial, and personal communications. We can also answer questions about the seasonality of mail service, examine the geography of postal usage, and consider the revenues the postal system generated in the period before Franklin was promoted to Deputy Postmaster General for North America and began moving the colonial system to profitability.
This one account book won’t resolve all of these issues. But making this sort of document more accessible allows postal historians a much greater opportunity to think about and examine the colonial American post office. The APS digital collections includes lots of other Franklin-related materials, and I would encourage you to click through to check out not only the account book but other post office documents.