Stamps,— What an Idea!

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

When the United States Post Office issued the first federal stamps 150 years ago, the public response was distinctly, well, lukewarm. No brass bands played. No first day covers were issued. Hardly anybody bothered to use the stamps, though they bore the images of Ben Franklin and George Washington. Up north in Portland, Maine, postmaster N. L. Woodbury didn't even know that the federal government had issued official stamps. He dashed off a note to U.S. Postmaster General Cave Johnson--mailing it without a stamp as was then the custom--to ask whether to honor these "apparently genuine" stamps.

Judging by a daguerreotype of Cave Johnson, who carries a prominent brow that protects bulging, intense eyes, the Postmaster General wouldn't have seen the humor in this missive. His department had been operating under a deficit, and Johnson had sold Congress on the idea that stamps would increase postal revenues by increasing the convenience and reliability of mailing private letters. Congress was impressed, all right, but the public proved a harder sell. During the first five years after federal stamps were introduced, less than 2 percent of America's mail made use of them.

A smile might have flickered across Johnson's dour visage if anyone had told him that stamps would become a major source of revenue. In 1993, some 517 million Elvis Presley stamps were sold; many popular single stamps bring the United States Postal Service revenues that over time rival the earnings of a Hollywood blockbuster. It was thus in celebration of a true Postal Service pot of gold that, on the 150th anniversary of America's first federal stamps, the Smithsonian's National Postal Museum assembled a small exhibit about them--and a pair of just-issued commemorative look-alikes.

Back in 1847, the idea of a stamp seemed radical enough to put some Americans' backs up. Until then the federal postal system had operated without stamps. Mail usually traveled postage due. To claim a letter, the addressee, rather than the addressor, paid its postage. This C.O.D. system, paying for goods only upon delivery, made sense in the uncertain early years of the Republic. Stamps promised to flip this tradition on its head by shifting responsibility for paying postage from the recipient to the letter writer. Early reluctance to use stamps actually hinged on something more subtle but no less important. A stamped or prepaid letter was sometimes seen as a way to insult the recipient. According to Joe Geraci, a specialist at the National Postal Museum, prepaying a letter suggested that the recipient was too poor to pay for it himself.

Given the cost involved, this was not as bizarre as it now seems. Says Michael Laurence, editor of Linn's Stamp News, "paying for a letter was like receiving a collect call from China." A single-sheet letter from New York City to Buffalo cost 25 cents, a prohibitive price in a time when a good day's wage for a laborer was rarely more than one dollar. Add a couple of enclosures to the missive and the cost jumped to 75 cents. In 1845 a congressman calculated that a letter sent from the East or South to the Northwest cost the equivalent of a bushel of wheat--or a day's labor. Historian Richard R. John points out that in 1831 the exasperated political theorist Francis Lieber implored letter writers to consider whether their epistle was "worth the postage." Meg Ausman, the historian of the U.S. Postal Service, says that in the 1830s one disgruntled individual harassed an enemy by sending him letters stuffed with blank pages.

Excessive costs probably kept some Americans from communicating through the mails. Many people who did receive mail simply refused to pay, rejecting the letter outright, which meant big headaches for the Post Office in mountains of dead letters. These had to be returned to the sender at government expense; the Post Office wound up paying for two deliveries with nothing in return.

Some historians credit one Rowland Hill, a British reformer and educator, with the idea of sticking a stamp on a letter before sending it. It seems to have struck him one day as he watched a housemaid receive a letter. She carefully scanned the envelope, deciphered a coded message from her lover, then refused to accept the mail. Postage was too expensive, Hill realized, and paid for by the wrong person. Prepaid stamps were the answer to both problems.

His pioneering efforts in England, aided by the winds of reform that blew across Europe in the 1840s, led to the overhaul of the British postal system, to a reduction of postal rates and to the introduction of its first national postage stamps, the Penny Black and the Two Pence Blue, in 1840. Brazil followed in 1843. Copying the British, the United States reformed its rate structure in 1845. Before that, distance and weight had determined the cost of a letter via a complex and byzantine price system under which each piece of mail was individually accounted for and marked with debits and credits.

The new reforms guaranteed a uniform rate structure at last. Half-ounce letters would now cost 5 cents when traveling under 300 miles, 10 cents for more. Then on July 1, 1847, the first federal "adhesive" stamps were issued.

The choice of subjects to put on the first stamps seems straightforward. For the 5-cent issue a natural was Ben Franklin, the nation's first Postmaster General and a man notorious for saving money. It was fitting, too, that on the 10-cent stamp George Washington, first President and "father of his country," should outvalue Franklin two to one.

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.

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