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Warren County Local History by Dallas Bogan

Postal Systems And The Postage Stamp

Dallas Bogan on 10 August 2004
original article by Dallas Bogan
Return to Index to see a list of other articles by Dallas Bogan

The United States postal system has progressed by leaps and bounds from the time of its conception. It has excelled mightily from the time when flimsy canoes were used up and down the Ohio, and from a time when the hearty post-riders risked their lives for something they believed in, essentially, the mail service.
The first overseas mail received from the European countries into the United States was handled at Fairbanks Tavern in Boston in 1639.
Benjamin Franklin initiated the first comprehensive mail system in the colonies in 1753. His structure included a faster mail service within the Colonies and to the mother country. Through his devotion, he was appointed the first Postmaster of the U.S. in 1775.
In 1829 the Postmaster General became a member of the governmental Cabinet. From the beginning a postal deficit was generated annually primarily because of the heavy mail delivery burden due to the ever-expanding population.
By the first of the 20th century, the overbearing expenditure produced significant results. Improvements abounded with greater quality and range of services.
In 1863, during the Civil War, a "standard" rate of postage, regardless of distance, was adopted. At this time the U.S. mail was divided into three classes, with a fourth being added in 1879.
The public, most commonly uses first class, or letter mail. Second class mail consists of newspapers and magazines; third class contains other printed content and merchandise weighing less than one pound; and fourth class consists of either merchandise or printed content that weighs one pound or more.
Reasoning for these classes allows the post office to take into consideration the handling costs of different items that have different weights and distances transported.
Also in 1863 a free delivery service was adopted which covered 49 cities and employed 440 letter carriers. The rural free delivery (RFD) method was instituted in 1896 and town delivery in 1912.
At present, mail carriers are the predominant delivery person, while about one-tenth of the mail handled is through post office boxes, and much less through windows or counters.
Registered mail was created in 1855, while the postal money order was initiated in 1864. Other postal office services and times in which they were created were international money orders, 1867; special delivery, 1885; parcel post and collect on delivery (COD), along with insurance services, 1913; and certified mail, 1955.
Express mail was introduced in 1977, which led to the guaranteed delivery of overnight mail. (Italy was the first to incorporate a permanent aerial mail service, the route being from her western coast to the island of Corsica. The United States followed this lead on May 15, 1918, the service covering the three cities of Philadelphia, New York and Washington.)
A postal savings program was introduced in 1911, accumulating more than 4,000,000 accounts by 1947. It was terminated in 1966 because of the public's drastic decline in the service.
In 1862 a "traveling post office system" was set up which allowed the railway to dominate the mail system well into the 20th century. A gradual reduction in passenger service in the 1930s gave birth to a highway post office branch in 1941. Both services went into extinction in the 1950s and 1960s.
An Act, signed into law August 12, 1970, transferred the Post Office Department into a government owned corporation, called the United States Postal Service. Under this law Congress's power was abolished to fix postal tariffs and to control employees salaries, and, furthermore, its political power over the system was abolished.
The postal system no longer receives a subsidy from Congress, although they do make up the cost of certain low cost mailers such as nonprofit organizations or small publishers.
The post office department played an active role in the settlement of the United States. The stagecoach, steamboat, canals, railroads, and the short-lived pony express, all contributed to the development of the new country.

Postage Stamps

Although the United States postal system has been in business for well over two hundred years an Englishman, Sir Rowland Hill, in 1840, initiated the penny (two cents in the U.S.) postage system; this method was subsequently incorporated throughout the world. He proposed a uniform rate of one penny for each letter weighing not more than one-half ounce, regardless of distance.
Hill was born in England, the son of an English schoolteacher. He set out to solve the problems of teaching, and for about 15 years he conducted schools highlighting student democracy, self-discipline and forceful teaching. His personal interests included printing, astronomy, mathematics and transportation.
His approach to postal improvement matured between 1835 and 1837. His beliefs were based on the notion that proceeds stemming from taxes should increase with the growth of the population and national wealth.
Hill suggested that a lower fee on letters should be adopted since higher taxes reduced the volume of mail and thus reduced the revenue. Along these lines he suggested that all mail should be prepaid.
For practical purposes, Hill suggested that an adhesive postage be used on all letters. His idea was adopted Feb. 13, 1837, and launched in 1840, despite bureaucratic opposition.
Its design closely paralleled the postage stamp of today. It contained a portrait of Queen Victoria and the words "Postage and One Penny." It was printed in black ink and generally canceled with red ink. The next year the same design was printed in red ink and canceled with black ink.
The first year after the introduction of cheap postage the number of paid letters delivered in the United Kingdom more than doubled, with the increase continuing for decades.
The United States moved very cautiously in adopting England's new postal reform. In the 1840s this country was so wide- spread geographically that letter postal rates set at a penny seemed ridiculous.
Seven years elapsed before our government approved the use of postage stamps. In 1847 permission was given for the application of two denominations, the five and ten-cent stamp. Postage could be, accordingly, paid in money or stamps, and letters could be mailed without prepayment of postage.
The first two stamps issued were for four years, but they were never used extensively by the general public, less than four million of the 5 cent and less than one million of the 10-cent stamps were printed.
The year 1851 found the first one-cent and three cent stamps being issued. Prepaid stamps were required in 1855, and the overall use of stamps was mandated the next year.
Letter rate postage of three cents in the U.S. was established in 1851. This was one cent higher than the English one-penny rate, the higher rate being rationalized by the greater area of our country.
In 1881 letter postage was reduced to two cents, remaining at this rate until World War I, when it was raised back to three cents.
Stamped envelopes were first introduced in the U.S. in 1853. Basic reasoning for this procedure was that a stamped envelope once used couldn't be used a second time.
Sir Rowland Hill's penny postage was exceptionally cheap, and the post card even cheaper, a halfpenny. The first post card in the world was issued at Vienna on October 1, 1869. England issued their first post cards in 1870, the United States in 1873. The first picture post card originated in 1870 during the Franco-German War.
The United States issued, in 1892, its first double post card, or two cards folded, on one of which a message could be written and the reply on the other, each bearing the postage of one cent.
The postage stamp is a work of art. A possibility of different artists, one for the main feature, one for the lettering, and one for the surroundings, all in miniature, requires a highly artistic skill on the little bits of paper called the postage stamp.

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This page created 10 August 2004 and last updated 28 September, 2008
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