One Hundred And
Fifty Years Ago

July 2017

A Sticky Situation

On July 1 stamps went on sale for
the first time in America’s post offices.
They came in two denominations: five
cents for letters traveling three hundred miles or less and ten cents for
those going farther. The five-cent
stamp was brown and had a picture
of Benjamin Franklin, father of the
American postal service. The ten-cent
stamp was black
and had a picture
of George Washington. They had
adhesive on the
back and had to
be cut from sheets
with scissors or a knife; perforations would not be introduced until 1857.

The British post
office had been
the first to introduce stamps, in 1840.
Over the next few years Brazil and
some Swiss cantons followed its lead.
In the United States, a private mail
service in New York had used stamps
in the early 184Os, and some postmasters around the country had on their
own initiative printed “provisional”
—stickers denoting prepaid postage,
to be used in place of a laborious handwritten notation. As postal business grew, Congress decided to formalize the practice.

The issuance of stamps was a milestone in the transformation of the Post
Office into a mass-market operation.
Before the 184Os, rates as high as twenty-five cents—several hours’ wages for
many workers—had made postage a
major investment instead of a casual
expense. The fee was usually paid by
the recipient; why lay out so much
money to send a letter with no guarantee that it would arrive? This practice cost the Post Office money, because many deliveries were refused.
(Some letter writers got around the
high rates by writing coded messages
on the outside of their mail, which recipients could decipher at a glance before handing it back unopened.) Individuals set up bootleg mail services
to undercut the official rate. Then in
1845 Congress lowered its prices and
business boomed. Prepayment became
more popular, convenience now justifying the investment. In 1851 the
rate fell to three
cents for distances
of less than three
thousand miles if
prepaid, five cents if collect. Starting in 1855, prepayment was mandatory.

Through the
Civil War, stamps
continued to portray statesmen, except for a one-cent
eagle in 1851. Jefferson was added to
the roster in 1856, and in 1860 stamp
buyers could choose between a young
and old Washington, like Elvis 130
years later. In 1863 a two-cent Andrew
Jackson was offered; Lincoln stamps
went on sale in the fall of 1865. The
first thematic stamps were issued in
1869, with such subjects as a post horse
and rider, a locomotive, the steamship Adriatic , the landing of Columbus, and the signing of the Declaration of Independence. By that time
stamp albums were already on sale to collectors, and the new world of commemoratives and first-day covers was not far behind.