Letter conveyance was an uncertain procedure in the early days of maritime history. Extending well into our Colonial Days and beyond, emigrants, sailors and merchants often relied on acquaintances or ship’s captains for postal requirements. Captains were often the mail carrier of the day. A table at a local coffee house on the wharf often had dozens of letters waiting to be called for. For a fee the ship’s captain would personally carry your letter at sea and then deliver it in port to the closest post office. The Great Lakes of the early 19th century was no exception. Port was the only place you received mail, that is until 1874 when the vessel company of J.W. Westcott of Detroit was founded. The Westcott Company began as a vessel reporting company telling companies, and their families of sailors, where ships and loved ones were.
In 1895 the United States Postal Service began a marine post office in Detroit. J.W. Westcott Company provided the boat and Great Lakes mail service changed forever. “Mail by the pail” was born. The mailboat would come alongside the freighter, a mail bucket was lowered and mail was exchanged in either direction. In its first year of business the mailboat took in 46,994 pieces. In year two this increased by 400% to more than 175,850 pieces of mail. Nearly 19,000 vessels were visited by the Westcott mail boat in 1896. The little boat became even more unique in mail history when it was provided with its own zip code-48222 (no other boat has been assigned a postal zip code). The black and white Westcott mailboat (fleet) is still in service today. First-class mail delivery may be down, but package delivery and even an occasional pizza fill the gap.
One may see a ‘mail by the pail’ artifact at the Fairport Harbor Lighthouse and Marine Museum during public hours-visit fairportharborlighthouse.org
* sources – NY Times 8/20/2016, 18th & 19th Century Ship Mail by Brad Sheff, M. O’Gara-FHHS