Faithful readers will recall that three years ago my friend Alex Feller surprised me with a vintage envelope. Postmarked May/June 1901 and sent from Baisogala, Russia to Homestead, the envelope captured the moment in time in the immigration story of Homestead’s largest Jewish family when 21 year-old Morris Friedlander and his 17 year-old brother were separated from the rest of their immediate family, who did not immigrate until summer 1905. Since the moment I first saw the envelope, I have wondered how it made its way from Western Pennsylvania to an ephemera dealer in Athens, Greece?
The plot thickens: Alex found another Friedlander envelope, this time from a dealer in London!
Let’s start by reveling in this improbable turn of events: there are two!!!!!
Each went on quite a journey after Morris died in 1943 in Western Pennsylvania. The original, Athens-based seller said he purchased the envelope 20 years ago from a store in New York. The latest, London-based seller recalled that he purchased the envelope 15 years ago from a retail stamp stop in New York that “might have purchased it from [a particular Russian Jewish dealer] when he first disposed of his stock.”
A story begins to form in my mind: After Morris’ death, his letters made their way into the hands of someone — a niece or nephew? — who sold them about sixty years later, probably to the Russian Jewish dealer in New York. This dealer would have discarded the pages of the letters, keeping only the “covers” (collector-speak for old, used envelopes) coveted by collectors looking for valuable stamps or rare postmarks.
The original Friedlander envelope, pictured above, is more useful for my research. I’m glad it turned up first. Mailed in May 1901, it places Morris at a specific address with his cousin. Although there is no return address, the town named in the postmark, Baisogala, matches the shtetl where Morris’ parents and siblings still lived.
The latest envelope, mailed six months earlier in November 1900, holds its secrets more tightly. Morris’s address is a P.O. box, leaving his residence unclear. There are many Russian postmarks, but they read “Pochtovyi Vagon 45” (postal wagon 45) and “Doplatit” (to pay).
That “45” in the Russian postmark is an important clue: it refers to the postal route that connected Minsk to the port city of Libau, stopping at Baisogala (marked with a star in the map above). Baisogala had its own post office, so its postmark appears on the May 1901 envelope. For this reason, I believe that this sender was a Baisogala resident who hand-delivered this letter to the local post office.
As for the November 1900 envelope, it could have come from anywhere in the large, heavily Jewish territory proximate to the Minsk-Libau line, though my mind goes first to Grinkishok, another shtetl associated with Morris’ extended family, which was 7 miles southeast of Baisogala. This remembrance from Krozh, a shtetl 40 miles west of Baisogala, provides insight into how this envelope likely began its journey to the U.S.:
Being distant from any railways or highways, Krozh did not have a post office. Those who connected the inhabitants of Krozh with the outside world were “Avigder the Postman” and “Zalmen the Postman,” as they were known in the shtetl. Once or twice a week they would ride to the nearest post office a few verst away, taking with them letters to be sent out and bringing incoming mail upon returning. Their “tariff” for each letter was three kopeks, and they also sold stamps. 1
At the train station the letter was loaded onto a dedicated car known as a “traveling post office,” on which all the usual sorting and stamping tasks were performed as the letter traveled to the port city of Libau. The English-language postmarks confirm when the letters arrived in New York before making their way to Homestead.
On the other side of the ocean, it was an exciting time for the postal service in Homestead. Before 1900, mail was not delivered to Homesteaders’ homes or businesses. Instead, it was held at the post office for pick-up. The newspaper published weekly lists of people who forgot to pick up their letters (see example at right).
Starting in April 1899, the local businessmen believed the town finally met the requirements for free home/business delivery — $8,000 in post-office receipts or a population of over 10,000. It took them another year to prove it. Free delivery — thrice daily! — began July 16, 1900. The newspaper instructed, “Write at once to your friends giving them your full address, with street and number.” 2 The November 1900 letter to Morris, even though it had been mailed four months after the change, still used his post office box. By the May 1901 letter, however, his family had adapted (although the way they wrote the address — “Homestead No 519 Pa avenue Eighth” — suggests they didn’t entirely understand the new instructions).
The upgraded delivery, as captured by the change in Morris’ address, points to the rapid growth in Homestead at that time. The Homestead that Morris first saw in 1898 was at the end of a long slump. Starting in 1899, the expansion of the steel mill and the arrival of Mesta Machine and other new industries led to a jump in population, which led, in turn, to increased demand for the kinds of stores and services the town’s Jewish immigrants provided. The economic turn-around meant that Morris could find steady work in his cousins’ stores — Benjamin Friedlander’s clothing store and Louis Jacobson’s grocery — and save enough to buy tickets for his family’s voyage to the U.S.
If two such envelopes made their way from the original dealer to Athens and London, then surely there must be more lurking in the vast stocks of the world’s ephemera dealers?! From what I have gathered, these dealers often buy and sell their wares to each other in bulk, unaware of the particular contents. If there are more Friedlander envelopes out there, their owners likely do not know it. But I will be patient!
- 1881 Post Map of the Russian Empire
- Krozh — A Shtetl in Lithuania
- Lithuania in Imperial Russia: Railway Post
- Lithuanian Philately: Baisogala
- Pinkas Hakehillot Lita: Baisogala
- Pinkas Hakehillot Lita: Grinkiskis
- Travelling Post Offices of Russia