This Month in History - July

July 20, 2017

U.S. postage stamps went on sale for the first time:

 

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.[16] The first stamp issue of the U.S. was offered for sale on July 1, 1847, in New York City, 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 U.S.), and a 10-cent value in black with George Washington. Like all U.S. stamps until 1857, they were imperforate.
 

The 5-cent stamp paid for a letter weighing less than 1/2 ounce and traveling up to 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 that wore down the steel plates used to print the stamp. 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 use of stamps was optional: letters could still be sent requiring payment of postage on delivery. Indeed, the post office did not issue any 2-cent value for prepaying drop letters in 1847, and these continued to be handled as they had been. Nevertheless, many Americans took up using stamps; 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 $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 percent 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 thirty years), necessitating a new issue of stamps. Moreover, the common rate now applied to letters carried up to 3000 miles. This rate, however, only applied to prepaid mail: a letter sent without a stamp still cost the recipient five cents—clear evidence that Congress envisioned making stamp use mandatory in the future (it did so in 1855). The 1-cent drop-letter rate was also restored, and Post Office plans did not at first include a stamp for it; later, however, an essay for a 6-cent Franklin double-weight stamp was converted into a drop-letter value. Along with this 1¢ stamp, the post office initially issued only two additional denominations in the series of 1851: 3¢ and 12¢, the three stamps going on sale that July and August. Since the 1847 stamps no longer conformed to any postal rate, they were declared invalid after short period during which the public could exchange old stamps for new ones. Ironically, however, within a few years the Post Office found that stamps in the old denominations were needed after all, and so, added a 10¢ value to the series in 1855, followed by a 5¢ stamp the following year. The full series 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 1¢ stamp achieved notoriety, at least among philatelists, because production problems (the stamp design was too tall for the space provided) led to a welter of plate modifications done in piecemeal fashion, and there are no fewer than seven major varieties, ranging in price from $100 to $200,000 (the latter for the only stamp of the 200 images on the first plate that displays the design's top and bottom ornamentation complete). Sharp-eyed collectors periodically find the rare types going unrecognized.

 

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