He Says Happy Birthday to the Nation’s First Postage Stamp

By Joe Darby

Yesterday, July 1, marked an anniversary of an event of great importance to the development and culture of the United States.

Yet, almost no one took notice of that anniversary and that’s the way it’s sort of always been. Lots of important occurrences get overlooked.

In any case, on July 1, 1847, the United States issued its first adhesive postage stamp, the kind that we have been using for the last 174 years, in which we stick a stamp on our mail to get it going where it should.

This first US stamp showed a picture of Benjamin Franklin and cost 5 cents, which was a pretty darned good bit of money in 1847. Probably the equivalent of a couple of dollars today. Prior to its issuance, the postal system was rather inefficient and confusing. There was a complicated formula for how much it cost to mail a letter, depending on the weight and distance, with all different sorts of permutations.

Also, in most cases, when a person sent a letter, the sender didn’t pay the postage. That would be the responsibility of the receiver, who often declined to pay, meaning the intended communication failed to take place.

The cost of the new Franklin stamp was still based on weight and distance, but compared to the old system, which had many combinations, the cost was much easier to figure. For letters sent less than 300 miles, it cost 5 cents a half ounce. Beyond that the cost doubled to 10 cents. A second stamp, a 10-cent one showing Washington, was also issued about that time.

Strange as it may seem, the use of a postage stamp remained optional until 1855, when they became mandatory. The 5-cent Franklins were withdrawn in 1851 and postage rates were reduced nationwide. That’s when communication by letters really began to take off. America became a nation of letter writers, as the average person could now afford to send notes to distant friends and relatives. The country was knitted more tightly together because of this revolution in communications.

We were not the first nation to use postage stamps. Great Britain came up with that idea in 1840, when it issued the so-called Penny Black, which is pretty self explanatory.
It was a black stamp, costing a penny, and showing a profile of Queen Victoria.

In the 174 years since our ancestors could first buy an American postage stamp, the US has issued almost 6,000 different stamp designs. And how the subject matter has changed! For the first few decades our stamps showed only leaders and statesmen (yes, they were all white men), but these days stamps depict everything from cartoon characters to insects to entertainers and sports stars.

Of course the use of stamps is declining all the time due to email and other means of modern communication, and many young people don’t even know how they would go about buying a stamp. What the future of stamps holds, no one can say.

But I’m a long-time collector and I have an example of the 1847 5-cent Franklin in my collection. It was a little bit pricey but the 10-cent Washington is out of my range, going for a cost in the four figures. My collection has brought me countless hours of pleasure and relaxation. And what happened on July 1, 1847 is important. So, if you’re socializing and partying this July 4th weekend, you might consider raising a glass and saying “Here’s to the 1847 Franklin.” I know I will.

2 thoughts on “He Says Happy Birthday to the Nation’s First Postage Stamp

  1. There are still people whose only human contact is with the “postman”. As a recently retired “mail ma’am”, I experienced first hand the decline of the postage stamp. I initially refused to pay bills online in order to avoid the negative impact it would eventually have on my career. This is just one small example of how “progress” to some can be devastating to others. I still like to receive a real Christmas card don’t you? Thank you.

    • Thanks for your comment, Deanna. Not only do I use stamps as much as possible, including for mailing bills, I use commemorative stamps, in hopes that their colorful designs will get the attention of someone and perhaps spark an interest. For the folks not familiar with that term, commemoratives are not the every day stamps you get when you ask for a book of stamps at the post office, but are stamps designed to celebrate a particular theme or event. You can ask your friendly local postal clerk to show you what commems are available.

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