Found in Our Collection: Antique Mail Sorting Table

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In 2017 the curator’s committee of the Portsmouth Historical Society had to pack up and store every item in our museum because the building was getting a necessary painting. Most things were put back in place last year, but it took until now for us to find what was stored in our permanent storage shed at the back of our property. Coming out of the shed was a treasure – an antique mail sorting table.

Mail Sorting “Table”

Where did it come from originally? Who used it? How old was it? A newspaper clipping from 1930 provided some of the answers.  The article is about an antiques exhibit for the benefit of St. Paul’s Church that was held at the home of Miss Hicks.  Among the featured items was a sorting table used by Miss Hick’s grandfather, Oliver D. Greene, who was Portsmouth postmaster from 1822 to 1845.  His son, Oliver E. Greene, was postmaster from 1845 to 1851.  Then Oliver D.’s widow, Phebe, later became postmistress from 1851 to 1854.    Like most items and homes in Portsmouth, this “mail sorting table” was used by many generations.  The sorting table was taken out to the stagecoach which brought in the mail.  The mail was put on the sorter and then the postmaster (or postmistress) would sort the mail for delivery.  Miss Hicks said the sorting table was used in the old Greene house and then moved to an historic home at the foot of Quaker Hill that had once been Lay’s Tavern.

When we look at the mail sorting table more closely, we find some labels penciled into the wood.  The labels are items such as “marriage certificates,” “town meeting warrants” and “treasurer’s reports.”  What are these labels doing on a mail sorting table?  The answer is that the table was passed down in the Greene family to grandson George B Hicks – Portsmouth Town Clerk from 1909 to 1933.

The mail sorting table is now on display in an appropriate place.  It is located near the “last mail wagon” in our Old Town Hall on the Portsmouth Historical Society grounds.

Touring Around Early Portsmouth with Edward West: Union St. and Wapping Road

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Edward West’s article “The Lands of Portsmouth” provides a quick tour around early Portsmouth’s landowners. Heading from the West Path across to the East Path, he mentions a bridge to cross the stream. It was built in 1713 and called the New Bridge. It seems that the west part of Union Street did not cut across to the West side until that bridge was built. Old postcards show a bridge just to the east of Julia Ward Howe’s home and across from Thurston’s tree farm. To the north of the bridge was Wading River Swamp and north of that Round Swamp. Thomas Cornell had more land in this area and it was called Circuit Farm. On the south side of Union were the grants of William James, Hugh Parsons and Thomas Lawton’s “Hunting Swamp Farm.”

At the corner of Union and East Path was the Southermost School. It was across the street from where it is now at the Portsmouth Historical Society grounds. One story West tells concerns the widow Sarah Strange. She took up residence at the schoolhouse when her husband died. At a town meeting in 1746 she was ordered out so that the school might be improved and used as a schoolhouse once again. We know from other records that the widow of the first schoolmaster moved in when her husband died as well.

West now takes us down “the Newport Path” through Brayman’s Lane (laid out in 1713) to Wapping Road. Wapping was laid out as early as 1661 and ran between many of the larger farm grants. Descriptions of Wapping include the “Great Rock” which today is still located on Wapping near the Middletown line. The land grants belonged to Bartholomew West, Samuel Hutchinson and John Sanford. On the west side was the “Long Swamp Farm” of Thomas Lawton. On the east side was the farm of Thomas Burton and old records mention his ferry which probably went to Fogland. Turning east you could go to Sandy Point Farm that was first given to William Aspinwall and after he left, to Edward Hutchinson.