Franklin's Philadelphia Post Office Ledgers: A Glimpse into Colonial Correspondence Networks

Examine the Evidence

A six-column post master's bill listing rates, unpaid letters, sums due, paid letters, sums paid, and free letters from Franklin's Philadelphia post office. It was signed by Franklin on June 13, 1745.

Primary Sources: A Peek into the Past

Historians use primary sources- documents created by people present when or where an event occurred- to analyze life in the past. Benjamin Franklin created many documents during his lifetime, including letters, writings, and account books, that serve as primary sources to events of the 18th century. These sources have helped scholars write about Franklin's career as a successful printer, his tenure as statesman, and his contributions to the fields of science and invention.

Franklin's Postal Account Books: An Untapped Resource

A well-documented but less frequently studied aspect of Franklin's life was his role as postal service administrator, first as Postmaster of Philadelphia (1737-1753), then as Deputy Postmaster General of British North America (1754-1774). His long experience in postal affairs made Franklin the perfect candidate for first Postmaster General of the United States, a position he occupied between 1775 and 1776. Franklin left behind many account books relating to his time as a postal official, many of which are held by the American Philosophical Society.

Like other contemporary primary sources such as tax rolls, census lists, property deeds, and vital records, these postal records can give us a lot of information about life and individuals in colonial British North America prior to the American Revolution. These documents reveal a wealth of information about trade patterns, information exchange, and accounting practices of the 18th century. However, these records can be difficult to use because they contain thousands of handwritten transactions. That's where the datasets come in!

Datasets: Primary Sources that Computers Can Read

Primary source documents can be analyzed in many different ways. Restructuring the information found in these documents into a computer-readable format- a dataset- makes it possible for researchers to interact with the material in numerous ways, including using digital methods like mapping and text analysis to reveal new insights. The American Philosophical Society has instituted an Open Data Initiative to create and share these datasets for anyone to evaluate, share, reuse, and remix as they wish under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 License.

We're curious to know what you find! Please contact us with any questions, feedback, or results using or analyzing the data at [email protected].

Documents & Datasets

Examine the primary sources below chronologically. Click to view the contents of the documents and download the datasets in the
American Philosophical Society's Digital Library.

How to read the ledgers

  • In the 18th century, these account books and ledgers were living documents, meaning that they were changed or annotated frequently and reflected an organization scheme that met Franklin's debt collection needs. This can be difficult to read in the present day. Click the diagram to examine the layout of a sample account book page.

    Note: Dwt./grs. are abbreviations for "featherweight/grains," which is a method of measuring weight. "Single," "Double," "Trebel," and "Pacquet" reflect the number of pieces of paper contained per postal item. All amounts of money due are calculated in shillings and pence, according to their contemporary value in Philadelphia.

  • An annotated page from Franklin's postal ledger. The page is annotated with column dividers to illustrate how to read the page. Columns include addressee or destination office, amount of unpaid letters, amounts due, and paid sums.
Image of 18th century ledger book with the title "Post Office Leidger No. 1" handwritten on cover.

Post Office Leidger No. 1: 1737-1742

This volume of less than 100 pages is an index of names under their initial letter and dated entries following each name showing charges and payments received. The unpaid accounts were 'Carry'd to New Ledger.'- Ledger No. 2.

A digitized image of an 18th century ledger book with various scribblings on the cover.

List of Letters in the Post Office: circa 1741

"List of Lettars in the Post Office," lists unclaimed letters which were, most probably, the dead letters found in any post office. This volume is ca. 50 pages.

Sheet of paper containing names and amounts due.

Post Office Accounts: 1741

This large, foliated sheet of paper is the earliest known example of Benjamin Franklin's three-column system of accounting for letters received into the post office, arranged by date and city of origination. Franklin refined this system in the "Post Office Book: 1748-1752" and made it official postal protocol in 1753.

Image of 18th century ledger book.

Post Office Ledger No. 2: 1742-1748

The balances due Franklin from unpaid postage in "Leidger No. 1" are entered here and many people owed Franklin money. Some of the accounts are marked "Paid" and some have a line drawn through them, possibly indicating "Paid." Such outstanding entries due Franklin were entered in "Ledger E." This Post Office Ledger, No. 2, is a large ledger of ca. 325 pages.

Image of 18th century ledger book.

Post Office Accounts: 1743

"Post Office Accounts drawn out Nov. 1743" [Philadelphia Post Office Record Book No. 3] is a small volume of ca. 50 pages. It contains a list of names with amounts due with notes as to letters delivered, paid, etc. The names are abstracted from Post Office Ledger, No. 2.

A digitized image of an 18th century ledger book with handwritten names on the cover.

Post-Office Accounts: 1744

A small volume of 32 pages dated 1744 April 18. Names are alphabetically arranged with corresponding figures indicating the weigths in pennyweight and grains. Some amounts, but not all, match entries in Ledger No. 2.

A digitized image of an 18th century ledger book wrapped in a vellum envelope.

Post Office Accounts: 1748

"Post Office Accounts" May 18, 1748, is the continuation of the above ledger [Philadelphia Post Office Record Book No. 3, B F85f6.11c]. It contains 68 unnumbered pages. Per the Franklin Papers (vol. II, p. 180-181), "the amounts owed by each [name-entry] correspond[s] to the subtotals entered in May 1748 in the ledger described above as No. 2 [B F85f6.11b, Philadelphia Post Office Ledger, No.2]."

A single sheet of paper containing names and amounts due.

Post Office Accounts: 1748-1749

This large sheet lists names and amounts due by date, similar to the entries in the earlier post office ledgers. The folds in the paper indicate that it may have originally been intended to imitate the narrow octavo form of 1741's List of Letters in the Post Office.

A digitized image of an 18th century ledger book.

Post Office Book: 1748-1752

This volume of 372 pages records receipt and dispatch of all mail in the Philadelphia Post Office between May 25, 1748 and July 23, 1752. Deliveries into the Post Office from out of town were listed, letter by letter, by the names of the addressees, weight and amount due, paid or free. Outgoing mail was simply listed by number of sheets and weight, not by individual letters.

A digitized image of an 18th century ledger book.

Post Office Book: 1757-1764

Franklin, in 1757, appointed his wife's nephew-in-law, William Dunlap, to succeed William Franklin as the Philadelphia postmaster. This volume of ca. 90 written pages lists the letters received at the post office and may well supply a fair picture of the colonial postal system with Philadelphia as a focal point.

A digitized image of an 18th century ledger book.

Post Office Book, Letters Sent: 1764-1767

A series of loose printed sheets, filled in manuscript, under the headings of: Date of the Bills sent; To what Office the Letters were sent; Number of unpaid Letters, Single, Double, Treble, Pacquet, Sums unpaid, Dwt., Gr.; Number of paid Letters; Free Letters, Single, Double, Treble, Pacquet.

A digitized image of an 18th century ledger book.

Post Office Book, Letters Received: 1767-1768

These printed forms were filled in in manuscript and list the letters received from other colonial post offices or from ships in the Philadelphia Post Office by Postmaster Thomas Foxcroft.

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