Postage stamps and postal history of the United States

This is a survey of the postage stamps and postal history of the United States of America (USA).

Early postal history

In the American colonies, informal independently run postal routes began in Boston as early as 1639, with Boston to New York City service starting in 1672.

Officially sanctioned mail service began in 1692 when King William III granted a delivery "patent" to an English nobleman, which came with exclusive rights to set up and run a postal service. Routes were set up between New York, Philadelphia, Boston and Portsmouth by the following year. Riders made the runs individually, rather than by relay. A single sheet letter cost 9 pence between New York and Boston.

By 1707 the Crown bought the patent back and began its own operation by an act of Parliament in 1711. Benjamin Franklin was named the postmaster of Philadelphia in 1737, and later was appointed by King George III in 1753 as Co-Deputy Postmaster General for America along with William Hunter.

Postage rates were high and looked upon as another form of taxation by the colonists. The British Stamp Act for America of 1765 placed a formal tax on official documents of all kinds, sparking the American Revolution. The tax was repealed a year later. Very few were ever actually used in the thirteen colonies, but saw service in Canada and the British Caribbean islands. []


The introduction of postage stamps in the UK in May 1840 was received with great interest in the United States (and around the world). A private carrier, Alexander M. Greig of New York City, established a "City Despatch Post" on February 1, 1842 which covered New York City as far north as 23rd St. He issued stamps, bearing a portrait of Washington, printed from line engraved plates. []

A few months after founding the City Despatch Post, Greig sold it to the U.S. Government and the post became known as the "United States City Despatch Post." The government began operation of this local post on August 16, 1842 under an Act of Congress of some years earlier which had authorized such local delivery.

The Act of Congress of March 3, 1845, (effective July 1, 1845), established uniform (and reduced) postal rates throughout the nation, with a uniform rate of five cents for distances under 300 miles (500 km). However, Congress did not authorize the production of stamps until 1847, so postmasters made provisional issues. These included both prepaid envelopes and stamps, mostly of crude design, the New York Postmaster's Provisional being the only one of quality comparable to later stamps. The provisionals of Baltimore were notable for the reproduced signature of the city's postmaster—James Buchanan, later President of the United States. All of the provisionals are rare, and several command prices above US$100,000. These cities issued provisionals in 1845 and 1846:

* Alexandria, Virginia ("ALEXANDRIA POST OFFICE" in circle)
* Annapolis, Maryland (eagle in circle)
* Baltimore, Maryland (James Buchanan signature)
* Boscawen, New Hampshire ("PAID / 5 / CENTS")
* Brattleboro, Vermont (shaded box with postmaster initials inside)
* Lockport, New York ("LOCKPORT N.Y." in oval)
* Millbury, Massachusetts (woodcut of George Washington)
* New Haven, Connecticut ("POST OFFICE" in box, P.M. signature)
* New York, New York ("POST OFFICE" over Washington portrait)
* Providence, Rhode Island ("POST OFFICE / PROV. R.I." in shaded box)
* St. Louis, Missouri St. Louis Bears (Missouri coat of arms)

First stamps

Congress finally provided for the issuance of stamps by passing an act on March 3, 1847, and the Postmaster-General immediately let a contract to the New York City engraving firm of Rawdon, Wright, Hatch, and Edson. The first stamp issue of the U.S. was offered for sale on July 1, 1847, in NYC, with Boston receiving stamps the following day and other cities thereafter. They consisted of an engraved 5-cent red brown stamp depicting Benjamin Franklin (the first postmaster of the US), and a 10-cent value in black with George Washington. As for all U.S. stamps until 1857, they were imperforate.

The 5 cent stamp paid for a letter weighing less than 1 oz and travelling less than 300 miles, the 10 cent stamp for deliveries to locations greater than 300 miles, or, twice the weight deliverable for the 5 cent stamp. Each stamp was hand engraved in what is believed to be steel, and laid out in sheets of 200 stamps. The 5 cent stamp is often found today with very poor impressions because the type of ink used contained small pieces of quartz, and wore down the steel plates to which the stamp was printed. On the other hand, most 10 cent stamps are of strong impressions. A fresh and brilliantly printed 5 cent stamp is prized by collectors.

The stamps were an immediate success; about 3,700,000 of the 5¢ and about 865,000 of the 10¢ were sold, and enough of those have survived to ensure a ready supply for collectors, although the demand is such that a very fine 5¢ sells for around US$500 as of 2003, and the 10¢ in very fine condition sells for around $1,400 in used form. Unused stamps are much scarcer, fetching around $6,000 and $28,000 respectively, if in very fine condition. One can pay as little as 5 to 10% of these figures if the stamps are in poor condition.

The post office had become so efficient by 1851 that Congress was able to reduce the common rate to three cents (which remained unchanged for over a century), necessitating a new issue of stamps. Values included a 1¢ profile of Franklin in blue, a 3¢ profile of Washington in red brown, a 5¢ portrait of Thomas Jefferson, and portraits of Washington for 10¢ green and 12¢ black values. The 1c stamp achieved notoriety, at least among philatelists, because production problems led to substantial plate modifications, and there are no less than seven major varieties, ranging in price from $100 to $200,000, and sharp-eyed collectors periodically find the rare types going unrecognized.

1857 saw the introduction of perforation, and in 1860 24¢, 30¢, and 90¢ values (with still more images of Washington and Franklin) were issued for the first time.

Civil war

The outbreak of the American Civil War threw the postal system into turmoil. On April 13, 1861 (the day after the firing on Fort Sumter) John H. Reagan, postmaster-general of the Confederate States of America, ordered local postmasters to return their US stamps to Washington DC (although it is unlikely that many did so), while in May the Union decided to withdraw and invalidate all existing US stamps, and to issue new stamps. Confederate post offices were left without legitimate stamps for several months, and while many reverted to the old system of cash payment at the post office, over one hundred post offices across the South came up with their own provisional issues. Many of these are quite rare, with only single examples surviving of some types. Eventually the Confederate government issued its own stamps; see stamps and postal history of the Confederate States.

In the North, the new stamp designs became available in August, and old stamps were accepted in exchange until the end of the year. The whole process was very confusing to the public, and there are number of covers from 1862 and later with 1857 stamps and bearing the marking "OLD STAMPS NOT RECOGNIZED".

The 1861 stamps had in common the letters "U S" in their design. The original issue included 1¢, 3¢, 5¢, 10¢, 12¢, 24¢, 30¢, and 90¢ stamps. Several are superficially similar to their earlier counterparts, differing primarily in the design of the frame.

A 2¢ stamp in black featuring Andrew Jackson was issued in 1863 and is now known to collectors as the "Black Jack". A black 15¢ stamp depicting the recently-assassinated Abraham Lincoln was issued in 1866, and is generally considered part of the same series. Although it was not officially described as such, and the 15¢ value was chosen to cover newly-established fee for registered letters, many philatelists consider this to be the first memorial stamp ever issued.

The war greatly increased the amount of mail in the North; ultimately about 1,750,000,000 copies of the 3¢ stamp were printed, and a great many have survived to the present day, typically selling for 2-3 dollars apiece. Most are rose-colored; pink versions are much rarer and quite expensive, especially the "pigeon blood pink" which goes for $3,000 and up.


During the 1860s, the postal authorities became concerned about postage stamp reuse. Although there is little evidence that this actually occurred much, many post offices had never received any cancelling devices. Instead, they improvised a canceling process by scribbling on the stamp with an ink pen ("pen cancellation"), or whittling designs in pieces of cork, sometimes very creatively ("fancy cancels"), to mark the stamps. However, since poor-quality ink could be washed from the stamp, this method would only have been moderately successful. A number of inventors patented various ideas to attempt to solve the problem.

The Post Office eventually adopted the grill, a device consisting of a pattern of tiny pyramidal bumps that would emboss the stamp, breaking up the fibers so that the ink would soak in more deeply, and thus be harder to clean off. While the patent survives (No. 70,147), much of the actual process of grilling was not well-documented, and there has been considerable research trying to recreate what happened and when. Study of the stamps shows that there were ten types in use, distinguished by size and shape (philatelists have labelled them with letters A-I and Z), and that the practice started some time in 1867 and was abandoned around 1871. A number of grilled stamps are among the great rarities of US philately; the United States 1¢ Z grill is the rarest of all US stamps, with only two known to exist. (See grilled stamp for more details.)


In 1868 the Post Office contracted with the National Bank Note Company to produce new stamps with a variety of designs. These came out in 1869, and were notable for the variety of their subjects; the 2¢ depicted a Pony Express rider, the 3¢ a locomotive, the 12¢ the steamship "Adriatic", the 15¢ the landing of Christopher Columbus, and the 24¢ the signing of the Declaration of Independence.

Other innovations included the first use of two-color printing on U.S. stamps, and as a consequence the first invert errors. Although popular with collectors today, the unconventional stamps were the targets of much scorn when they came out, and were superseded by a new issue just a year later.

Bank Notes

The stamps of the 1870s and 1880s are collectively known as the "Bank Notes" because they were produced by the Continental Bank Note Company, the National Bank Note Company, then the American Bank Note Company. After the 1869 fiasco, the new Postmaster-General decided to base a series of stamps on the "heads, in profile, of distinguished deceased Americans" using "marble busts of acknowledged excellence" as models. The various subjects included both presidents and other notables, such as Henry Clay and Oliver Hazard Perry. National first printed these, then in 1873 Continental received the contract—and the plates that National used. Continental added secret marks to the plates of the lower values, distinguishing them from the previous issues. The American Bank Note Company acquired Continental in 1879, and took over the contract printing similar designs on softer papers and with some color changes.

Columbian Issue

The World Columbian Exposition of 1893 commemorated the 400th anniversary of the landing of Christopher Columbus in the Americas. The Post Office got in on the act, issuing a series of 16 stamps depicting Columbus and episodes in his career, ranging in value from 1¢ to $5 (a princely sum in those days). They are often considered the first commemorative stamps issued by any country. The stamps were interesting and attractive, designed to appeal to both collectors and the general public. They were quite successful (a great contrast to the pictorials of 1869), with lines spilling out of the nation's post offices to buy the stamps. They are prized by collectors today with the $5.00 denomination, for example, selling for between $1,500 to $12,500.00 or more depending upon the condition of the stamp being sold.

Bureau issues

Also during 1893, the Bureau of Engraving and Printing competed for the stamp printing contract, and won it on the first try. The stamps of the 1894 series were generally similar to those of 1890, but with triangles in the upper corners. In 1895 counterfeits of the 2¢ value were discovered, which prompted the BEP to begin issuing stamps printed on watermarked paper for the first time in US history; a practice that would be abandoned in 1917.

Turn of the century

In 1898, the Trans-Mississippi Exposition opened in Omaha, Nebraska, and the Post Office was ready with the Trans-Mississippi Issue. Originally to be bi-colored, the needs of the Spanish-American War consumed too much of the BEP's ability, and the stamps came out in single colors. They were received favorably, though with less excitement than the Columbians; but like the Columbians, they are today prized by collectors, and many consider that the $1 "Western Cattle in Storm" " is the most attractive of all U.S. stamps.

Another high spot in stamp design came with the definitive series of 1902, although some of the philatelic press criticized the florid designs.

The Washington-Franklin era

1908 saw the beginning of the long-running Washington-Franklin series of stamps. Although there were just two basic designs, a profile of Washington and one of Franklin, the Post Office was going through a period of experimentation. The result was several variations on the design, a half-dozen different perforations, three kinds of watermarking, three printing methods, and large numbers of values, all adding to several hundred distinct types identified by collectors. Some are quite rare, but many are extremely common; this was the era of the postcard craze, and almost every antique shop in the U.S. will have some postcards with green 1¢ or 2¢ stamps from this series.

This era started to see the regular issue of individual commemorative stamps instead of the large sets of the 1890s, at a rate of about one or two stamps each year.

The 1920s and 1930s

The stamps of the 1920s were dominated by the Series of 1922, the first new design of stamps to appear in a generation. The lower values depicted various Presidents, with the 5c particularly intended as a memorial of the recently-deceased Theodore Roosevelt, while the higher values included an "American Indian" (Hollow Horn Bear), the Statue of Liberty, Golden Gate ("sans" bridge, which had yet to be built), Niagara Falls, a buffalo, the Lincoln Memorial and so forth. Stamp printing was switching from a flat plate press to a rotary press while these stamps were in use, and most come in two perforations as a result; 11 for flat plate, and 11x10.5 for rotary.

The 1920s saw a number of 150th anniversaries connected with the American Revolutionary War, and a number of stamps were issued in connection with those. These included the first US souvenir sheet, for the Battle of White Plains sesquicentenary, and the first overprint, reading "MOLLY / PITCHER", the heroine of the Battle of Monmouth.

In 1929, theft problems in the Midwest led to the Kansas-Nebraska overprints on the regular stamps.

The German zeppelins were of much interest during this period, and in 1930 the Department issued special stamps to be used on the Pan-American flight of Graf Zeppelin.

Although the stamps are today highly prized by collectors as masterpieces of the engraver's art, in 1930 the recent stock market crash meant that few were able to afford these stamps (the $4.55 value for the set represented a week's food allowance for a family of four). Less than 10% of the 1,000,000 of each denomination issued were sold and the remainders were incinerated (the stamps were only available for sale to the public from April 19, 1930 to June 30, 1930). It is estimated that less than 8 percent of the stamps produced survive today and they remain the smallest U.S. issue of the 20th century (only 229,260 of these stamps were ever purchased, and only 61,296 of the $2.60 stamp were sold).

In 1933, Franklin D. Roosevelt became President. He was notable not only as an avid collector in his own right (with a collection estimated at around 1 million stamps), but also for taking an interest in the stamp issues of the Department; many designs of the 1930s were inspired or altered according to his advice.


The famous Presidential Issue, known as "Prexies" for short, came out in 1938. The series featured all 29 U.S. presidents through Calvin Coolidge, as small busts printed on solid-color designs through 50¢, then black on white with colored lettering for $1, $2, and $5 values. Additional stamps depicted Franklin (1/2¢), Martha Washington (1 1/2¢), and the White House (4 1/2¢). Many of the values were just included so that all presidents were on a stamp and did not necessarily correspond to a postal rate, and one of the (difficult) games for Prexie collectors is to find a cover with, for instance, a single 16¢ stamp that pays a combination of rate and fees valid during the Prexies' period of usage. Many such covers remain to be discovered; some sellers on eBay have been surprised to discover an ordinary-seeming cover bid up to several hundred dollars because it was one of the sought-after solo usages.

Post-World War II

The post-World War II stamp program followed a consistent pattern for many years; a steady stream of commemoratives issued as single stamps priced at the first-class letter rate. Beginning in 1948, the Congress of the United States began to push the Post Office for stamps proposed by constituents, leading to a relative flood of obscure stamps that was not well-regulated until the formation of the Citizens' Stamp Advisory Committee (CSAC) in 1957.

The Liberty issue of 1954, deep in the Cold War, took a much more political slant than previous issues. The common first-class stamp was a 3¢ Statue of Liberty in purple, and included the inscription "In God We Trust", the first explicit religious reference on a U.S. stamp. The other stamps included liberty-related subjects and themes, such as Patrick Henry, although other subjects, such as Benjamin Harrison, are harder to explain.

The 3¢ rate for first-class had been unchanged since 1933, but by 1958 there were no more efficiency gains to keep the lid on prices, and the rate went to 4¢, beginning a steady series of rate increases that reached 42¢ as of May 12, 2008.

The Prominent Americans series superseded the "Liberties" in the 1960s, and were themselves replaced by the Americana series in the 1970s.

In 1971 the Post Office was reorganized, becoming the United States Postal Service (USPS). However, it is still heavily regulated, with, for instance, the CSAC continuing to decide which commemorative stamps to issue.

Modern U.S. stamps

The first self-adhesive stamp was a Christmas issue of 1974. It was not considered successful, and the surviving stamps, though not rare, are all gradually becoming discolored due to the adhesive used. Self-adhesives were not issued again until 1989, gradually becoming so popular that as of 2004, only a handful of types are offered with the traditional gum (now affectionately called "manual stamps" by postal employees.)

The Great Americans series and the Transportation coils began appearing in 1980 and 1981, respectively. The transportation coils were used steadily for some 20 years, while Great Americans still appear regularly as of 2004.

The increasing use of email and other technologies during the 1990s led to a decline in the amount of first-class mail, while bulk mail increased. A large variety of commemorative stamps continue to appear, but more and more of them just go to collectors, while the stamps of the average person's daily mail are nondenominated types issued specifically for businesses.

On April 12, 2007, the Forever stamp went on sale for 41 cents, and will be good for mailing one-ounce First-Class letters anytime in the future — regardless of price changes. The price of such letters is currently 42 cents (as of May 12th, 2008).


* 1639 - First American Post Office set up in Boston
* 1672 - New York City mail service to Boston, Massachusetts
* 1674 - Mail service in Connecticut
* 1683 - William Penn begins weekly service to Pennsylvania and Maryland villages and towns
* 1693 - service between colonies began in Virginia
* 1775 - First postmaster general appointed: Benjamin Franklin
* 1785 - First trans-Atlantic air-borne mail delivery by hot-air balloon (?) from America to Benjamin Franklin in France
* 1799 - U.S. Congress passes law authorizing death penalty for mail robbery
* 1813 - First mail carried by steamboat
* 1832 - First official railroad mail service
* 1857 - perforated stamps introduced
* 1860 - Pony Express started
* 1893 - First commemorative event stamps: World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago
* 1913 - Parcel delivery began
* 1918 - First airmail stamps used
* 1920 - Transcontinental mail between New York and San Francisco
* 1958 - Well-known artists begin designing stamps
* 1963 - ZIP Codes introduced


* Scott catalog
* Lester G. Brookman, "The Nineteenth Century Postage Stamps of the United States" (Lindquist, 1947)
* Max Johl, "The United States Postage Stamps of the Twentieth Century" (Lindquist, 1937)

ee also

* Airmails of the United States
* Artists of stamps of the United States
* History of United States postage rates
* List of people on stamps of the United States
* Postage stamps and postal history of the Confederate States

External links

* [ USPS Official web site]
* [ 1847USA Homepage]
* [ Postal Rate Chart]
* [ Chart of value of Undenominated Stamps]
* [ Smithsonian National Postal Museum]


* Stanley Gibbons Ltd: various catalogues
* [ Encyclopaedia of Postal History]
* Stuart Rossiter & John Flower: "The Stamp Atlas"

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