July/August 1997 | Volume 48, Issue 4
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.