By Joe Darby
(Note to readers: This is the first of a series of articles on stamps and coins and how these little works of art can teach us history, interesting anecdotes and show us how, over the last 175 years, nations wanted the public to perceive their governments and cultures. In addition to serving a practical function, stamps and coins are often used to put forth ideas and propaganda. The Natchitoches Parish Journal encourages readers to post their comments on all stories on the website but I’d also like to invite you to email me directly with any questions or comments you have on stamps and coins at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
Okay. It’s the year 1845 and you live in Natchitoches. You want to write a letter to your sister down in Pointe Coupee Parish telling her that old grandpa has died unexpectedly and that cousin Sue is expecting a baby in the spring.
You can’t telephone, email or text your sister but you can certainly write her a letter. What you can’t do, though, is go down to the post office, buy a stamp and send the letter on to sister. Because in the U.S., as in almost all of the rest of the world, postage stamps don’t exist in 1845.
The Post Department will do its best to see your letter is delivered to sister in Pointe Coupee. And here’s how that pre-stamp process will work. You’ll write your letter, then fold it over and write Sister’s address on the outside, sealing the “envelope” with wax.
The Natchitoches postmaster will write on the envelope the postage rate for sending the letter to Pointe Coupee and whether the postage has been paid. In those days, many letter writers didn’t pay the postage, but relied on the recipient paying the postage when they picked it up from their local post office (There was no home delivery then, either.)
The postage rate wasn’t even. Today, whether you mail your utility bill across town or send a letter to a friend in California, the rate is the same. In the early 19th century, a complicated formula of envelope weight and distance to be mailed determined the postage due.
So, two years after you informed sister of the family news, in 1847, the U.S. government took steps to remedy these problems. If followed the example of Great Britain, which had created the postage stamp in 1840, and revolutionized the mailing of letters in this country.
Two stamps, a 5-cent stamp showing Benjamin Franklin, and a 10-cent stamp picturing George Washington, were minted. Those two men, to this day, are depicted on more U.S. stamps than any other person.
You can see an example of the Franklin stamp illustrated here. Having one of these is the goal of any serious U.S. collector.
For many years, U.S. stamps depicted only serious illustrations of our great statesmen, but that’s changed over the years. We’ll have lots more to say about that in future articles, but the way the subjects have changed is illustrated by the latest stamps showing pets, including snakes, gerbils and hermit crabs. What would Washington and Franklin have thought of seeing reptiles and crustaceans on stamps boggles my mind.
As mentioned, Great Britain was the first nation to have an adhesive postage stamp and that was the famous “Penny Black,” also shown here. Britain came up with the idea because they faced the same problems of different rates and a need for consistency that the U.S. did.
The 175th anniversary of the 1840 Penny Black was celebrated last year and many nations issued commemorate stamps to mark that historical moment. One humorous side story about the Penny Black. Some conservative Brits were reluctant to use the new stamps because it means they had to lick the queen’s backside in order to place the stamp on the envelope!
By the way, since Britain was the first to have a postage stamp, it is the only nation in the world not required by the Universal Postal Union to have the country name on a stamp, as long as it has a representation of the current monarch.
Some collectors specialize in collecting “Number ones,” that is, the first stamp issued by any given nation. All stamps are classified by what are called Scott numbers, numbers assigned to all new stamps as they are issued. So whether you live in Canada or Argentina, for example, if someone refers to U.S. Scott 327, the collector will know that’s the 1904 U.S. stamp commemorating the Louisiana Purchase.
I’d like to quickly show you a few other Number Ones of different nations. Costa Rica issued a nice little stamp in 1863, showing its mountainous scenery and its fellow Central American country Honduras chose to show its national coat of arms in 1865.
Former colonies were proud to indicate their independence, as the African nation Ghana showed a map and its leader, Kwame Nkruma, in 1957 and Mali, a former French colony, showed a map and the national flag in 1959.
A number of new nations were created in the wake of World War I, including Czechoslovakia, which on its first stamp in 1918 showed a historic church.
I’d like to show you many more, but space precludes. However, we can share other interesting facts about stamps and coins in coming weeks.