The Post Office Department issued its first postage stamps on July 1, 1847. Previously, letters were taken to a Post Office, where the postmaster would note the postage in the upper right corner. The postage rate was based on the number of sheets in the letter and the distance it would travel. Postage could be paid in advance by the writer, collected from the addressee on delivery, or paid partially in advance and partially upon delivery.
In 1837, Great Britain’s Sir Rowland Hill proposed a uniform rate of postage for mail going anywhere in the British Isles and prepayment by using envelopes with preprinted postage or adhesive labels. On May 6, 1840, the stamp that became known as the Penny Black, covering the one-penny charge for half-ounce letters sent anywhere in the British Isles, became available in postal facilities.
Alexander M. Greig’s City Despatch Post, a private New York City carrier, issued the first adhesive stamps in the United States on February 1, 1842. The Post Office Department bought Greig’s business and continued use of adhesive stamps to prepay postage.
After U.S. postage rates were standardized in 1845, New York City Postmaster Robert H. Morris, among others, provided special stamps or markings to indicate prepayment of postage. These now are known as Postmasters’ Provisionals.
On March 3, 1847, Congress authorized United States postage stamps. The first general issue postage stamps went on sale in New York City, July 1, 1847. One, priced at five cents, depicted Benjamin Franklin. The other, a ten-cent stamp, pictured George Washington. Clerks used scissors to cut the stamps from pregummed, nonperforated sheets. Only Franklin and Washington appeared on stamps until 1856, when a five-cent stamp honoring Thomas Jefferson was issued. A two-cent Andrew Jackson stamp was added in 1863. George Washington has appeared on more U.S. postage stamps than any other person.
Until government-issued stamps became obligatory January 1, 1856, other payment methods remained legal.
The first printed stamped envelopes were issued July 1, 1853. They have always been produced by private contractors and sold at the cost of postage plus the cost of manufacture. With the exception of manila newspaper wrappers used from 1919 to 1934, watermarks have been mandatory for stamped-envelope paper since 1853. The watermarks usually changed with every four-year printing contract to help identify the envelope and paper manufacturers.
Austria issued the first postal card in 1869. The United States followed in May 1873. Postal cards, known today as stamped cards, are produced by the government and carry preprinted postage, unlike privately produced postcards, which do not bear postage. The 1873 Annual Report of the Postmaster General (on pages XXVI-XXVII) noted:
As predicted, they have been favorably received. They have supplied a public want, and have made a new and remunerative business for the Department.
Postal cards were sold at face value until January 10, 1999, when a charge for the cost of manufacture was added.
In 1893, the first U.S. commemorative stamps, honoring that year’s World Columbian Exposition in Chicago, were issued. The subject — Columbus’s voyages to the New World — and size of the stamps were innovative. Standard-sized stamps were too small for engraved reproductions of paintings that portrayed events connected to Columbus’s voyages. The stamps were 7/8 inches high by 1-11/32 inches wide, nearly double the size of previous stamps.
Over the years, commemorative stamps have been produced in many sizes and shapes, with the first triangular postage stamp issued in 1997 and the first round stamp in 2000.
The first stamp honoring an American woman was the eight-cent Martha Washington stamp of 1902. The first to honor a Hispanic American was the one-dollar Admiral David Farragut stamp in 1903. Native Americans were portrayed in a general way on several earlier stamps, but the first to feature a specific individual was 1907’s five-cent stamp honoring Pocahontas. In 1940, a ten-cent stamp commemorating Booker T. Washington became the first to honor an African American.
Other firsts include the 1993 29-cent stamp featuring Elvis Presley. The public was invited to vote for the “younger” or the “older” Elvis for the stamp’s design. Youth triumphed, and this has become the best-selling U.S. commemorative stamp to date.
Stamp booklets were first issued April 16, 1900. They contained 12, 24, or 48 two-cent stamps. Parafinned paper was placed between sheets of stamps to keep them from sticking together. The books, which carried a one-cent premium until 1963, had light cardboard covers printed with information about postage rates. Stamp booklets remain a staple and are enjoying a resurgence in popularity because of their availability at a wide range of non-postal retail outlets.
The first coil (roll) stamps were issued on February 18, 1908, in response to business requests. Coils were also used in stamp vending equipment. The Department hoped to place vending machines in Post Office lobbies to provide round-the-clock service without extra workhours. Machines were also planned for hotels, train stations, newsstands, and stores. Twenty-five different vending machines were tested, with six chosen for tests in the Baltimore, Minneapolis, New York, Washington, D.C., and Indianapolis Post Offices. Both coil stamps and imperforate sheets were produced for vending machines, with the latter receiving a variety of distinctive perforations and separations.