A Short History of Postage Stamps

Meet the writer: Karen Pieper

Hi, I'm Karen! I've been in the industry for 21 years and can't wait to share my perspective on all things direct mail. I'm currently the Digital Marketing Manager at Letter Jacket Envelopes and deal with tasks from managing the website, facilitating conversations with customers, and much more!

Postage stamps and oxygen don’t usually come to mind in the same thought, or train of thought, nor do they appear to be alike in any way. But they do have one thing in common: you usually don’t realize you need them until you’ve run out. Then the overwhelming necessity of either oxygen or stamps becomes very apparent. The lesson here is that seemingly insignificant things that are invisible or seldom noticed, like postage stamps, can actually have tremendous impact. So why were stamps created, and what is their history? To understand the importance of postage stamps we need to look at what conditions were like before they were invented. Before stamps came into existence, mail was hand stamped or inked. In 1661, postmarks were invented by Henry Bishop and were used by the London General Post Office. They were called Bishop’s Marks and contained the day and month the item was mailed. By the mid 1800’s, mail often took the form of a simply folded sheet of paper onto which the delivery address was written on the outside of the paper and the message on the inside of the paper. Envelopes were rarely used. It was very expensive to mail even one sheet of paper and so people began to devise codes and use trickery to get around paying for the delivery of the mail. The receiving party was expected to pay the postage and if they could discover the message from the code on the outside of the mail they would simply refuse delivery and save themselves the cost of paying for the item.

The Postal Service wasn’t happy with this arrangement and decided it needed a system that worked better. In 1837, a school teacher from England, Rowland Hill, invented the first adhesive postage stamp. This stamp made prepaying postage both easy and practical. It was such a momentous achievement that he was eventually knighted and became Sir Rowland Hill. He became the Post Master General and designed the very first stamp. This government issued postage stamp made its debut in England on May 6, 1840. It was a black and white image of Queen Victoria’s head, worth one penny, and was called the British penny black stamp. The “Penny Black” changed how mail was delivered. Along with the novel idea of pre-paid postage, Sir Rowland Hill also created the first uniform postal rates that were based on weight rather than size. Once these two ideas were implemented the use of the postal service started increasing dramatically. These ideas revolutionized mail delivery and were soon adopted by other nations around the world.

The popularity of prepaid postage and postage rates based on weight caused the use of both envelopes and stamps to surge. And Sir Rowland Hill wasn’t the only member of the Hill family to have an impact on mail delivery as we know it. Sir Rowland Hill’s brother Edwin Hill actually invented an envelope folding machine that could quickly fold a sheet of paper into an envelope so that the increased demand for envelopes could be met as well. There were later inventions that made postage stamps more easily useable. When stamps were first issued they were printed on a large sheet of paper with adhesive backing and had to be individually cut apart. However by 1854, perforated stamps were issued. They took a little longer to be issued in the United States where the first perforated stamps came out in 1857.

Surprisingly, it was a private New York City mail service, Alexander M. Greig’s City Dispatch Post that issued the first adhesive postage stamps in the United States on February 1, 1842. The U.S. Post Office Department quickly bought Greig’s business and then continued use of adhesive stamps to prepay postage. U.S. Postage rates were first standardized in 1845. Congress eventually authorized the United States in March of 1847 to produce a government issued postage stamp. The very first general issue U.S. postage stamps went on sale in New York City on July 1, 1847. They came in two denominations…a five cent stamp which featured Benjamin Franklin, and the ten cent stamp which featured George Washington. These were the only two stamps until 1856 when a five cent stamp honoring Thomas Jefferson was issued. In 1863 a two cent Andrew Jackson stamp was released. All of these postage stamps came printed on large sheets with pre-gummed backing and had to be cut apart.

Postage rates were initially three cents per half ounce in March of 1863. Twenty years later the cost of postage actually decreased, going down to two cents per half ounce in October of 1883. This surprising trend continued when postal rates changed again in July of 1885 and the cost to mail a letter became two cents per ounce, thereby doubling the amount of mail you could send for the same price. Postal rates and types of stamps being issued have continued to change in the ensuing years.

Many postage stamps are now hot collector’s items and come in a dizzying array of colors, shapes, sizes and denominations. Forever stamps were issued in February 2007, whereby you purchase a stamp with a rate that will never change. A standard stamp today will cost you 49 cents per ounce, with 21 cents per additional ounce. One thing has remained the same, regardless of what you need to mail, and however many postage stamps you might require, Letter Jacket Envelopes can provide an envelope that will fit your needs. Our envelopes are available in multiple sizes, shapes, and colors and each envelope can be printed with custom art, courtesy of Letter Jacket’s intuitive ordering system.

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