As an historical western author, I write books that take place in the mid to latter 1800’s; consequently, I spend a lot of time researching everyday life back then. Many of my blogs have been written about differences between common items of today and those our ancestors used in the 1800’s. Often while going about my day, my curiosity arises about things I take for granted in comparison to what they were like in the 19th century.
Hence, my subject for today’s blog … the postage stamp … something we all are using less in the 21st century thanks to our cell phones, texts, fax, email, skype, social media & online bill paying.
In the 19th century, as our nation expanded, so did the need to expand and modernize the postal service. Increased immigration from Europe as well as increased expansion westward across the American frontier prompted the United States to update the way in which written communication was delivered.
Initially, U. S. postage rates were set by Congress as part of the Postal Service Act signed into law by President George Washington in 1792. The postal rate varied according to distance zones, which was the distance a letter was carried from the post office where it started to its final destination. There were double and triple rates as a letter’s size increased.
The U.S. issued its first postage stamps in 1847. Before that time, the rates, dates and origin of the letter were written by hand or sometimes in combination with a hand stamp device. Postage could be paid in advance by the sender, collected from the addressee on delivery, or paid partially in advance and partially upon delivery.
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. George Washington has appeared on more U.S. postage stamps than any other president.
The first U.S. commemorative stamps were issued in 1893, honoring that year’s World Columbian Exposition in Chicago. The subject of Columbus’s voyages to the New World and the size of the stamps were innovative, almost double the size of the previous stamps in order to properly show reproductions of paintings of Columbus’s voyages.
Important to note historically, the first stamp honoring an American woman was the eight-cent Martha Washington stamp of 1902.
Native Americans were depicted on several earlier stamps, but the first to feature a specific person was Pocahontas on the 1907’s five-cent stamp.
The first to honor an African American was in 1940 commemorating Booker T. Washington.
Not of historical importance, but I would like to add my favorite commemorative stamp, the 29-cent stamp featuring Elvis Presley, issued in 1993 on what would have been Elvis’s 58th birthday. The public was invited to vote for the “younger or the older” Elvis for the stamp’s design. No surprise, the youthful Elvis stamp won and it has become the best-selling U.S. commemorative stamp to date.
With advent of all the faster and easier ways of correspondence and communication, the postal system has come to be referred to as “snail mail.” Another Internet slang term, “Papernet” has also been used for postal mail.
The handwritten note or card goes back to what often is referred to as “simpler times.” However, it is still used by many of us wanting to take the time and effort to express our heartfelt thoughts, sympathy, congratulations or gratitude to someone. After writing the recipient’s address on the envelope, then sticking a specially selected postage stamp on the top right-hand corner and slipping the card in the mail box, we hope the delivery of our snail mail will be the next best thing to showing up in person.
Throughout the decades, the stamp program has been designed to reflect many different aspects of American culture and includes stamps honoring individuals, history, culture, sports, science and technology. The vast majority of proposals submitted, suggesting many meritorious and meaningful subjects, do not result in U.S. postage stamps.