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The Six-and-a-Quarter Cent Rate

Per the Act of Congress passed April 9, 1816, a single-sheet letter traveling less than 30 miles would be rated at 6 cents.1

However, a small number of covers posted 1816 - 1845 show the manuscript rate of 6 ¼ cents. This unusual rate can be traced to two foreign coinages. The Spanish silver dollar was used in some parts of the US and the Republic of Texas through the mid-19th century and was equal to one US dollar. One real, also known as a ‘bit’, was 1/8th of a Spanish silver dollar, or 12 ½ cents US. Half of this denomination, the ‘medio real’, ‘½ bit’, or ‘picayune’, was valued at 6 ¼ cents. In British currency, 3 pence was also the equivalent of 6 ¼ US cents.2 Foreign coinage was legal tender in the US, per an act of 1793,3 and economic hardship, such as the Panic of 1837, increased the use of foreign coins, as US currency could be in short supply.4 Thus 6 ¼ covers represent a large number of US states, not just those with Spanish or British colonial borders. 

Throughout most of the 1816 - 1845 period the 6 ¼ manuscript rate appears. The earliest cover included in this census dates from 1824. It is possible that earlier covers exist but have not yet been identified, or that undated covers included here predate that item without our knowledge. 

Sending mail at this price was considered a ‘rate of convenience.’ The written postage matched a denomination that customers would have readily available. ½ bit Spanish coin slivers or British pence may be what the customer had in his or her pocket, rather than 6 cents US. We believe the postmaster wrote the rate of payment on the cover at the amount paid to simplify the exchange and ensure that his books balanced precisely. More interesting are the covers rated at 6 ¼ cents and sent due; the postmaster assumed that the recipient would be most likely to make the slight overpayment using foreign specie.5 It is unclear whether this assumption was based on the post master’s knowledge of the destination, or the sender’s recommendation regarding the recipient’s preference. 

In addition to mail marked 6 ¼ cents, there are numerous bank notes printed for 6 ¼ cents. In addition to the states represented by the bank notes cataloged in this census, Muscalus (1949) described bank notes from the following states in his personal collection: Connecticut, Washington D.C., Florida, Georgia, and Mississippi.6 Most of the bank notes at the 6 ¼ rate are strictly for current notes or unspecified “goods,” but a few provide insight into what this amount of money would buy at the time. An 1837 note from the Baltimore City Hotel promises to pay the bearer in “mint julaps” (number of drinks not specified), while an 1814 Philadelphia note for groceries specifies one chest of tea and one hogshead.7

The census revealed a surprising lack of relationship between bank notes and covers for 6 ¼ cents. Cities with post offices rating covers at 6 ¼ cents generally did not produce banknotes for the same amount, and bank notes from other cities had no relationship to the post office. Tallahassee FL stands out as the single exception. We have a 1831 cover originating in Tallahassee.8 An 1837 bank note from the Tallahassee Post Office is “payable in postage,” and signed by postmaster William Hilliard.9 Muscalus (1949) cites another 1839 bank note from his collection, “Good to the bearer for 6 ¼ CENTS at the POST OFFICE in Tallahassee, payable in postage or Current Bank Notes. Tallahassee, Flor. Dec. 13th, W. Hilliard.”10

Private express companies, primarily in the Northeast, officially rated mail at 6 ¼ cents,11 rather than doing so as-needed as a convenience, with hand stamps created to mark the rate on their own covers. Unlike the 6 ¼ manuscript covers that were traveling less than 30 miles, these private express covers were often traveling farther, for example, New York to Boston.

  1. April 9, 1816. An Act in addition to an act to regulate the Post-office establishment. United States Statutes at Large, Volume 3. Public Acts of the Fourteenth Congress, 1st Session, Chapter 43.
  2. American Stampless Cover Catalog, “The 6-¼¢ Rate”
  3. Crown, Frank. (2006) “The 6 ¼ Cent Rate.” Georgia Post Roads, 16.4. 25, 28.
  4. American Stampless Cover Catalog.
  5. Crown, 2006, 28.
  6. Muscalus, John Anthony, Ph.D.. (1949) “Paper Money of the 6 1/4 Cent and 12 1/2 Cent Denominations.” Pamphlet, reprinted from Numismatic Scrapbook Magazine.
  7. “MD1837 Hotel,” Scarce Postal Rate of 6 ¼ Cents, https://sixandaquartercensus.omeka.net/items/show/251 and “PA1814 Thompson,” Scarce Postal Rate of 6 ¼ Cents, https://sixandaquartercensus.omeka.net/items/show/250.
  8. “FL 1831 Aug 2 ,” Scarce Postal Rate of 6 ¼ Cents, https://sixandaquartercensus.omeka.net/items/show/247.
  9. American Stampless Cover Catalog.
  10. Muscalus, 1949, 5.
  11. American Stampless Cover Catalog. 

About the Census

This long overdue census has not been completed by any postal historian/organization to our knowledge. We felt a need to compile as complete a listing as possible, understanding that a response will occur to the census post publication which will add a few/many more to the census. We look forward to the additional responses. If you own or have documentation of a 6 ¼ cent cover not included in this census, please email the item information to bill@patriciaschultz.com.

It should be noted we expected a minimal number of covers (under 15) and were taken aback by the response by numerous postal historians that combed through their collections for these elusive rate covers. The collectors who submitted covers for the census are noted as Contributors in the census. We recommend sorting by Title as you browse items or collections to see items in their intended order.