This page last updated: 24 January 2008

::: UPU PERIOD - Letters Mailed Shipside or Aboard Ship :::

Back to UPU Period.


NZMPO 15Jan90 cds

Letters mailed late or handed to a ship's captain or purser at shipside or aboard ship provide interesting studies. Practices regulating this type of mail pre-date the UPU Period and some examples are illustrated in connection with the study of the Convention Period. "Loose Letters" were those placed in the hands of the ship's captain or purser on board while the ship was en route from one port to another. As a practical matter, a letter received at the dock would be commingled with letters received en route and since their appearance is indistinguishable from other loose letters, they are included in the term "loose letters". The ship's letter bag containing loose letters was turned in at the port of destination or a way port along with the locked official mail bags. "Late Letters" are those handed into the post office late. To give the clerks time to prepare the mail, a "closing time" was published so any letter turned in after the closing time was a late letter. For a few years, Honolulu assessed a late fee on letters turned into the post office after the published closing time. Honolulu did not have a clerk at the dock to accept late letters and ships were discouraged from accepting letters at the dock (a difficult practice to stop). In 1882, the Honolulu post office started assessing a fee on late letters but apparently stopped doing so in 1886. On steamers operated under contract with the New Zealand post office, a mail agent was on board and possessed special marking devices for the "New Zealand Marine Post Office" (the NZMPO) applied to letters mailed aboard ship. "Paquebot" markings came into use in 1894 (after informal discussion at the 1892 UPU Conference) and were applied to letters in the ship's letter bag once the bag was turned in at the destination post office. Late letters typically bear a postmark from Honolulu but letters in the other categories do not. San Francisco used one of several kinds of canceling devices on loose letters and paquebot letters.


Loose letters can be found throughout the UPU Period. They are distinguished by the absence of a Hawaiian postmark, late letter mark or San Francisco paquebot mark. Letters bearing postmarks of the NZMPO or one of the paquebot markings are sub-categories of loose letters. Excepting letters bearing NZMPO cancels, loose letters were delivered to the post office uncanceled and were canceled at the post office either in San Francisco, Vancouver or Honolulu.

Briggs FD loose

San Francisco canceled loose letters with one of several devices. This example was mailed aboard the steamer City of New York en route to San Francisco after leaving Honolulu on February 16, 1882 and was postmarked at San Francisco on February 25. The Hawaii 5 Scott No. 32 stamp is canceled with a negative "FD" applied at San Francisco to loose letters. Briggs wrote two books about his visit to Hawaii and apparently made many friends there because the surviving correspondence with him is extensive. After leaving Honolulu, he traveled in the West before returning home to Boston so letters addressed to him in San Francisco date from the time of his travels. In addition to the negative "FD" marking on this cover, two other FD markings are known from San Francisco. All three "FD" markings are attributed to 1882.

FD serifed
FD non-serifed
FD neg

serifed "F"

non-serifed "F"

negative "FD"

Briggs cork loose
This cover franked with the 5 ultramarine Scott No. 32, canceled with a cork cancel attributed to the San Francisco post office and postmarked on the back with a San Francisco postmark dated October 2 (determined to be 1886 by the sailing table and also because by this time Briggs was settled back in Boston). The cover was carried to San Francisco on the steamer Alameda.

Vancouver loose front

Postmarked and canceled October 12, 1895, at Vancouver, British Columbia, this cover was mailed aboard the steamer Miowera en route to Vancouver after departing Honolulu on October 2. The Miowera was one of two steamers operated at that time by the Canadian Australian Steamship Company between Vancouver and Sydney via Honolulu and Brisbane. This service began in May, 1893, completing a link in the "All-Red Route" whereby an Englishman could travel around the world always setting foot on British soil or Colonial soil and traveling only on British ships or rail.


A late letter bag was kept open until two hours before sailing. An April, 1882 newspaper article in the Pacific Commercial Advertiser, Honolulu's leading newspaper, noted the large amount of late mail brought to the post office after the mail was closed for a particular sailing and advocated imposing an additional charge for accepting it at shipside up to the time of sailing. Exactly when this practice began is uncertain but a December, 1883, newspaper note mentions the practice and states an additional five cents was charged and it is mentioned again by PMG Whitney in an 1885 newspaper note.

Hono 2Jul82

Front and back of a letter postmarked July 2, 1882 with Honolulu postmark type 235.12 on the front and the Late Letter Mail mark on the back. If the additional five cent late fee was charged at that time, it was paid by cash.

Hono 16Mar86

Postmarked at Honolulu on March 16, 1886, with the later style of Late Letter Mail mark serving the dual purpose of postmark and late letter mark. A one cent stamp is missing from its location at the left side of the printed frank so the rate, including the five cents late fee, was ten cents. Sometime around 1886, the practice of using a distinctive mark for late letters was abandoned and late letters were postmarked with the ordinary Honolulu postmark and their distinct identity was lost.


A mail agent was stationed aboard steamers running under contract with the New Zealand government. They were given marking devices designating the New Zealand Marine Post Office (the NZMPO). Several distinct markings are associated with Hawaiian mail. Click here for a study of NZMPO and Paquebot Marks. Pacific Mail Steamship Company operated under contract with New Zealand from 1875 to 1885 to run the route between Auckland and San Francisco via Honolulu. An 1881 example of NZMPO mail is shown in the Convention Period. In November, 1885, the Oceanic Steamship Company contracted with New Zealand for the route from Auckland to San Francisco via Honolulu and continued on the route until February, 1901. In December, 1897, the New Zealand Steamship Company took the route from Auckland to Vancouver via Honolulu, when the Canadian Australian Steamship Company went into liquidation, and operated the contract until April, 1899.

NZMPO 6Jan85 cover

This example shows a NZMPO postmark dated January 6, 1885. The practice was to set the date when the steamer left its port of origin, in this case it was the steamer Australia of the Pacific Mail Steamship Company leaving Auckland, New Zealand. The date remained fixed until the steamer reached the terminus, in this case San Francisco. This cover was mailed aboard Australia en route from Honolulu to San Francisco, departing Honolulu January 18.

NZMPO 15Jan90 cover

Postmarked by the NZMPO on January 15, 1890 and at Honolulu on January 22, this cover was mailed aboard the steamer Alameda en route from San Francisco. When a vessel left San Francisco (or Vancouver, British Columbia in the later years when New Zealand contract ships were running to that port), the date was fixed on the departure from that port plus one day in order to coincide with the New Zealand date. New Zealand, being West of the International Date Line, was one calendar day ahead of the North American coast.

NZMPO 15Dec93 cover

Postmarked December 15, 1893 with a Honolulu postmark of December 22 on the back, this cover was mailed aboard the steamer Alameda en route from San Francisco to Honolulu.

NZMPO 21Apr98 cover

Dated April 21, 1898 on board the steamer Alameda inbound from San Francisco and franked with a 5 United States postal envelope.


Most familiar among letters mailed aboard ship are those marked Paquebot, Paquobot, Packet Boat or Loose Letter. These markings were the last to come on the scene. Use of paquebot markings first occurred in 1894 to help identify letters mailed aboard ship. Hawaii had no paquebot marking of any kind until 1902. Paquebot markings appearing on Hawaiian mail were applied at San Francisco, Auckland, Brisbane or aboard ship. Click here for a study of NZMPO and Paquebot Marks.

Paquebot markings provided formality to the loose letter practices adopted earlier. Typically, postage was required in stamps of the last port of call and the rate charged was also according to the rate applicable to mail from the last port of call. Under UPU rules formalized in 1897, member countries receiving paquebot letters were required to process and forward them to their destination for no additional postage.

Paquebot Covers

SF Paq 5May94 cover

This example is the earliest date I have recorded for use of a San Francisco paquebot marking. It is dated May 5, 1894 on the back. Note the circular cork cancel often seen on ship's mail inbound to San Francisco. This PAQUEBOT marking is Hosking type 990 (see Bibliography below), considered "very rare" by his estimate (he does not say how many strikes separate "very rare" from "rare").

SF Paq 15May94 cover

Datelined May 15, 1894, this UX9 postal card was marked PAQUEBOT, Hosking type 990, and received a San Francisco double circled oval also typically seen on loose letters arriving at San Francisco. We see here an example of inexcusable damage done by writing prices and other information on the face of covers or cards. Is it too much to expect dealers and collectors to use glassines or plastic pouchettes and place their price and identification information somewhere other than on the face of the card or cover itself? Permanent damage has been done to this significant piece of postal history. Even when erased, the markings leave their permanent indents. [Soap-box diatribes are sometimes good for the soul.]

Paquebot Laysan Is. cover
                      Paquebot Laysan Is. cover - back

Front and back of a UX9a postal card to which a scene showing the Layson Island guano field is pasted on the back. It is marked with the misspelled PAQUOBOT marking, Hosking type 991. This card was postmarked in New York on May 8, 1898 and at Harzburg, Germany on May 15. The San Francisco postmark date missed the card but the lines of the machine cancel are visible in the lower left quarter on the back.

SF Paq 21Sep98 cover

This cover is dated September 21, 1898 on the back and marked with Hosking type 992 and the typical San Francisco double lined oval. It got away with a 1 underpayment.

SF Paq 31Sep98 cover

This U.S. government penalty card is dated September 30, 1898 (a few weeks after Hawaii was annexed to the United States) and is marked with Hosking type 992 and the San Francisco double lined oval.


Inb Paq 17May98

Postmarked at Honolulu on the back on May 17, 1898 and mailed on board the steamer Gaelic en route from San Francisco to China via Honolulu. Honolulu had no paquebot marking until 1902.

Inb Paq 16Feb99 cover

This cover was mailed aboard the steamer Australian inbound toward Hawaii and was postmarked at Honolulu on February 16, 1899, paid with the 5 United States Trans-Mississippi Issue. From Honolulu, it was sent back to Coronado via San Francisco in the return trip of the Australian and was postmarked at San Francisco on February 28. Under UPU rules adopted in 1897, member countries were obligated to send Paquebot mail forward without additional charge so there was no Hawaiian postage to pay for the trip back to California.


  • McNaught, K.J., "New Zealand Marine Post Office Markings On Hawaiian Stamps", The American Philatelist, Vol.84, No.9 [836], p.793-795, Sept., 1970; reprinted at Mitchell's Hawaiian Philatelist, Vol.3, No.2, p.16-20, 1980. The key piece for the New Zealand Marine P.O.

  • Hosking, Roger, M.A., Paquebot Cancellations Of The World, published by author, Surrey, England, 1977. The standard reference work on Paquebot Cancels.

  • Drechsel, Edwin, "Paquebot Marks of Honolulu", The Philatelist, Vol.35, No. 11 [534], p.341-342, Aug., 1969. This study is of paquebot markings of Honolulu from 1902-1968.

  • Drechsel, Edwin, The Paquebot Marks of Asia and of Japan's Sea Posts, London, 1984. This booklet focuses on all the Asian ports. The introduction is a useful history on Paquebot marks.

  • Lawson, Will, Pacific Steamers, 1927, reprinted, Brown, Son & Ferguson, Glasgow, 1975. Pacific transportation routes and shipping lines; essential to the Pacific mail routes.

  • Tate, E. Mowbray, Transpacific Steam, Rosemont Publishing and Printing Corporation, 1986. A more modern book and along with Pacific Steamers is an important resource on Pacific mail lines.

Back to UPU Period.

Copyright © 1999 - 2008 POST OFFICE IN PARADISE. All rights reserved.