When a vessel left the quay no shout rang out more loudly than "Write soon!" Letters could not be expected in less than 6 mo.; then the correspondent wrote with greatest care, for he knew that every expression would be weight about the home fireside & the future of scores of lives might depend upon the tone of his letter. He wrote thoughtfully, moreover, because the high cost of postage discouraged frequent letters.
The transportation of letters across the sea was a private commercial affair, engaged in by as many concerns as there happened to be ships. A correspondent in the U.S. sent his letters by U.S. mail to some shipping house on the coast, enclosing a sum to cover the ocean expense & the inland postage abroad. The captain was the agent. The price of this informal service, as advertised, varied from 25¢ to 50¢ a letter. If the sending of letters cost the equivalent of a day's wages, it is not surprising that letters were written only when necessary & that they spoke with authority.
A persistent belief existed that letters were tampered with, that no communication derogatory to the country was allowed to leave. To guard against interference, ingenious devices were adopted. Before departure it would be agreed that the emigrant's letters should be written on a certain kind of stationary, or bear a device pricked by pins in the corner. Occasionally a code would be adopted in words which did not mean exactly what they said. Thus a departing Irishman arranged that, if he advised his brother not to follow him without their dear grandmother, then, in view of the fact that the venerable dame had been dead 30 years, the advice should be interpreted as an adverse report.
The arrival of a letter was a community affair. Neighbors assembled, the schoolmaster was pressed into service, and the letter was read. Often copies were made & sent to other communities. The missives were overwhelmingly encouraging, partly because the emigrants usually postponed writing until they had surmounted the initial difficulties.
Letters contained not only information & advice, but also tangible evidence of the more abundant life, a bank note, an order on a commercial house, a prepaid passage.
- Marcus Hansen, The Atlantic Mig., p. 152-54 (Wab.)