Paquebot mail begins at sea, postmarked on land

May 2, 2021, 7 PM

By Rick Miller

At the Vienna conference in 1891, the Universal Postal Union established special handling regulations for mail posted on the high seas aboard ocean-going vessels. The rules were further clarified a the Washington, D.C. conference of the UPU in 1896.

Such mail might originate with passengers or crew, or it might be picked up at a port of call lacking postal facilities for onward transportation to the next port having postal facilities.

Mail posted at sea is generally held by the ship's purser or postal officer, if it has one, until the next port with postal facilities is reached.

When the ship reaches the next port, the purser or postal officer delivers all mail received during the voyage to the post office serving the port. The mail is then marked "Paquebot" or the equivalent and is postmarked by the post office and entered into the mailstream for delivery.

The cover could have received a handstamp aboard ship, but that handstamp is not a postal marking.

Covers and cards mailed at sea are generally referred to as "paquebot" covers. "Paquebot" is French for "packet boat," and postal administrations use paquebot handstamps to mark mail received from a seagoing vessel that has no on-board post office.

Originally packet boats were small vessels employed by a government to carry dispatches, mail, passengers and cargo on relatively short voyages on fixed sailing days. Over time, however, paquebot mail came to mean any mail received at sea.

Other paquebot markings that have been used include "Loose Ship Letters" or "Ship Mail" (Australia), "Posted at Sea" (various countries), "New York Ship" (New York City), "Schiffsbrief" (Germany and Austria), "Pacchibot" (Italy), "Paketboot" (Netherlands and colonies), "Paquete" (Portugal and colonies) and "Paquetboat" (United States).

The paquebot marking is often a straightline or boxed handstamp applied somewhere on the cover. Sometimes it is incorporated into a postmark or canceling device. Even handwritten paquebot markings are acceptable, as long as they are written in ink.

On the cover shown in Figure 1, the paquebot marking is above and to the left of the address and below the postage stamps.

Under UPU regulations, letters and cards posted at sea should be franked with postage stamps of the country under which the vessel is flagged. Such a franking must be in accordance with that country's postal rates and fees. If the vessel is in port when the postcard or letter is turned in, it is required to be franked with the stamps of the country in whose waters the vessel is located.

Although it is not so stated in the regulation, in practice stamps valid in the vessel's last port of call are usually accepted under the same terms and conditions.

Also, British stamps and stamps of British colonies were generally accepted interchangeably aboard all British and British colonial ships.

The cover shown in Figure 1 is franked with three St. Vincent 1¢ orange Queen Elizabeth II stamps (Scott 186). The letter, addressed to London, England, entered the mailstream in St. Lucia, as attested by the "G.P.O. Castries," St. Lucia postmark dated Jan. 14, 1959.

The vessel aboard which this letter was posted is Dutch. The St. Vincent stamps might indicate that the ship's last port of call was St. Vincent, or they might have been accepted on the principle of the interchangeability of British colonial stamps.

Mail posted aboard ship often receives a ship's handstamp somewhere on the face of the envelope. Ship's handstamps are usually boxed or straightline markings, and they can be dated or undated.

They are not postmarks, but they reflect the date and the vessel on which the letter was turned in to the purser or postal officer.

The ship's handstamp struck at the lower left on the Figure 1 cover provides quite a bit of information. Other ship's handstamps are more spare in the information that they provide: often only the name of the vessel. The handstamp reads "K.N.S.M. M.S. Pygmalion 12 JAN 1959."

Comparing the date of the ship's handstamp and the Castries postmark shows that the letter was posted aboard ship two days before its arrival at Castries.

"K.N.S.M." in the cancel stands for Koninklijke Nederlandsche Stoomboot Mij. (Royal Netherlands Steamship Company). The "M/S" indicates the ship's classification as a motor ship. Pygmalion is the name of the ship.

In addition to "M/S" for motor ship, other types of vessel designations used in ship's handstamps are "M/V" for motor vessel, "S/S" for steamship, "S/T" for steam tanker or steam turbine, "M/T" for motor tanker, "M/F" for motor ferry, "S/V" for sailing vessel and "TES" for turbo electric ship.

The KNSM M/S Pygmalion was in service from 1938 to 1965, so this 1959 cover was posted during the ship's 21st year of service.

The Figure 1 cover is perhaps atypical. Its postage stamps are canceled and tied to the cover by two strikes of the straightline "m/s Pygmalion" handstamp.

Stamps on paquebot mail are normally canceled by the receiving post office rather than aboard ship, but many are canceled on ship.

Not all paquebot covers are as straightforward and understandable as the Figure 1 cover. Paquebot covers often present a mystery or two. Enhanced enjoyment comes from seeking to solve the mysteries.

The cover shown in Figure 2, addressed to Philadelphia, Pa., bears a 1¢ green Washington Irving stamp (United States Scott 318). The stamp is tied by a boxed ship's handstamp dated Feb. 13, 1940, from the same KNSM M/S Pygmalion as the cover shown in Figure 1.

Is this a paquebot cover? Probably not, because it bears no evidence of having been delivered through the mail. There is no paquebot handstamp and no postmark from a receiving post office. The surface letter rate in the United States in 1940 was 3¢, and the cover isn't marked for postage due.

In all probability, this cover received the ship's handstamp as a favor and never passed through the mails. It must have been privately delivered to the addressee, if it was delivered at all.

The address-side of a picture postcard is shown in Figure 3. The postcard is franked with a Fijian 1½-penny rose-carmine Outrigger Canoe King George VI stamp (Scott 119) tied by a Honolulu, Hawaii, March 15, 1939, machine cancel. The card is addressed to Paicines, Calif.

Beneath the stamp is a smudged paquebot handstamp in violet ink. Written in the message area of the postcard in the same hand as the message is "S.S. Monterey," printed by the sender. In this case, there's no ship handstamp.

A bit of online searching quickly reveals that the SS Monterey was an American-built passenger liner that departed San Francisco, Calif., June 3, 1932, on its maiden voyage, calling at Los Angeles, Calif.; Honolulu; Auckland, New Zealand; Pago Pago, American Samoa; Suva, Fiji; Sydney, Australia; and Melbourne, Australia.

Because the stamp franking the postcard is from Fiji, the Monterey's last port of call before Honolulu on this cruise must have been in Fiji, if all the rules were in play.

The picture side of the card shows Fijian children climbing coconut palms, buttressing the conclusion that Fiji was the previous port of call.

The cover shown in Figure 4 bears additional types of markings found on paquebot covers. A two-line handstamp at the upper left reads, "Posted on the high seas R.M.S. 'Caronia.' " Below this is a typed endorsement reading "Late Ship Mail Received in Swedish Waters."

RMS Caronia was a Cunard passenger ship in operation from 1949 to 1967. "RMS" stands for "Royal Mail Steamship." Any company that had a contract for carrying mail with the British Royal Mail was entitled to prefix the names of its vessels with "RMS."

The "Late Ship Mail" endorsement indicates that this cover was dispatched to the ship after the regular mail delivery, possibly brought aboard from a small boat after the ship was already underway "in Swedish Waters."

The cover is addressed to a steamship agent in Tacoma, Wash. The two 5-ore orange King Gustav V stamps (Sweden Scott 391) are canceled by two strikes of an Edinburgh, Scotland, paquebot postmark dated July 22, 1952, showing that the ship was en route from Sweden to Scotland when the letter was received on board.

In addition to collecting paquebot covers, paquebot markings can also be collected on off-cover stamps or stamps on piece.

A pair of Martinique 10-centime red Navigation and Commerce stamps (Scott 39) tied on piece by a New York, N.Y., "N.Y.P.O. Paquebot" postmark dated Oct. 24, 1906, is shown in Figure 5. While off-cover stamps and stamps on piece cannot tell the full story as a complete cover often does, they can often be acquired inexpensively from old collections or from dealers' 5¢ boxes.

Collectors interested in paquebot and other maritime markings will want to join the Maritime Postmark Society. The society's journal Seaposter is published six times a year. Annual membership dues are $10 for the United States and Canada. Write to Fred McGary, Box 4101, Middletown, NJ 07748.