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Stamps — What an Idea!

New commemoratives look like our first stamps, which were slow to catch on in 1847

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As America's first federal stamps, the pair became Scott 1 and Scott 2 in the universally accepted Scott stamp identification system. Today the Scott system lists more than 3,000 American stamps, of which Franklin (with at least 113) and Washington (with at least 276) are still the most frequently used subjects.

Despite the advantages of prepayment, some Americans clung to their old stampless ways. In 1855 Congress finally passed a law making the use of stamps compulsory. It was not until 1863, though, that regular free home delivery began. This was during the Civil War, and an apocryphal story links the introduction of home delivery to a compassionate postmaster in Cleveland. The sight of war widows receiving death notices and swooning in the post office stirred him to lobby for home delivery. "There is no real evidence to support this," postal historian Meg Ausman points out, "but it makes a good story." Prepayment and home delivery in turn encouraged the use of mailboxes, which made long waits at the post office unnecessary. According to Richard John, mailboxes especially helped women. From Colonial times, small, local post offices had been male bastions and gathering places, shunned by respectable women.

Letters, once the province of the tutored upper class, were easily available to the general public. In the history of the free exchange of ideas, this quiet revolution is perhaps equaled only by the telephone and the current boom of the Internet. Stamps and low rates also opened up opportunities to reach vast untapped audiences with advertisements and handbills. Junk mail blossomed.

Stamp collecting set in, and the term "philatelist" was coined; derived from the Greek, it means a "lover of something untaxed." "Philatelist" soon buried the more accurate and ominous-sounding term "timbromaniac" (literally "stamp lunatic"). The editors of Linn's Stamp News estimate that today 150,000 Americans collect stamps seriously, while at least 6 million pursue philately more casually. There are a lot of stamps to collect. Countries freed from the colonial yoke announce their independence to the world through stamps. Stamps are used as platforms to honor noble causes and historic events as well as worthy people. For many small countries, the sale of stamps remains an important source of revenue.

Philatelists lament the arrival of e-mail, television, faxes, express mail and other stampless communication shortcuts, and the new appellation "snail mail" is certainly not a good omen. Nevertheless, the recently issued commemorative Franklin and Washington stamps sold 12,174,540 copies between them just in the 11 days during which the Postal Service made them available.

By John Ross

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