A Sticky Start: The History of U.S. Postage Stamps

  • Apr 15, 2024

 

The unassuming postage stamp, a tiny adhesive square gracing our envelopes, boasts a rich history intertwined with American innovation and commemoration. But where did these ubiquitous pieces of art come from? Their journey began with a frustration all too familiar to those who have ever received a hefty "COD" (cash on delivery) mail notice.

Before stamps, sending mail was an uncertain affair. The recipient, not the sender, was often responsible for postage fees. This led to a chaotic system rife with delays and arguments. Imagine the postman arriving with a letter, and you, the receiver, having to decide on the spot whether the news inside was worth the hefty price tag!

Enter Sir Rowland Hill, a visionary Englishman who, in the 1830s, was determined to streamline the postal system. He proposed a radical idea: a prepaid stamp affixed to the mail itself, paid for by the sender. This seemingly simple concept revolutionized mail delivery. In 1840, the world's first postage stamp, the now-iconic Penny Black featuring a silhouette of Queen Victoria, was born in England.

News of the Penny Black's success spread across the Atlantic, and the United States was quick to follow suit. Inspired by the efficiency and convenience it offered, the U.S. Congress authorized the creation of the first American postage stamps in 1847. These historic stamps, issued on July 1st, didn't boast royalty, but rather two of America's most revered founding fathers: Benjamin Franklin and George Washington.

These early American stamps were simple in design, featuring the chosen portrait and basic denomination information. Interestingly, they lacked the perforations we're accustomed to today. Instead, stamp collectors and everyday users alike had to meticulously separate them from their sheets using scissors! Despite their basic design, these pre-gummed stamps were a revelation. No longer would mail carriers have to collect fees on delivery, and senders could be confident their message would reach its destination without financial surprises for the recipient.

The success of these first stamps paved the way for a rich tradition of U.S. postage stamp design. Over the years, these miniature canvases have transformed into chronicles of American history and culture. The galloping image of a Pony Express rider on an 1860s stamp commemorates the short-lived but vital mail delivery service [National Postal Museum, 1847: America's First Stamps]. Technological advancements are also celebrated, with the awe-inspiring lunar landing finding its place on a stamp issued in 1971.

From the important milestones that shaped the nation to the everyday heroes and hobbies that define its spirit, U.S. postage stamps offer a captivating glimpse into the American story.


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