U.S. Stamp Designs

A history of U.S. stamps focusing on the designs and why they may have been picked.

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Previous to 1847, the United States Postal Service relied upon several unreliable methods for paying letter and package postage. The most common method of mailing a letter was to take it the Post Office and hand it to the desk clerk. The desk clerk would then either print the word “Paid” on the envelope or would stamp it on using an ink pad and an a hand stamp. However, this would create several problems. Bookkeeping was nearly impossible and fraudulent use of the system was a real concern. As a result, several local postmasters printed up their own private stamps. These stamps, which tended to be fairly simple in nature, became known as “Postmasters’ Provisionals”. These proved to be an accurate means of determining that postage had actually been paid. However, they were only valid at the Post Office that created them. On March 3, 1847, Congress passed a bill authorizing the issuance of a national set of adhesive postage stamps, which would be printed privately and distributed to Post Offices throughout the nation. On July 1 of that year, the United States’ first national postage stamps became valid for use.

The First Designs

The first stamps featured a olive-brown 5 cent value of Benjamin Franklin and a black 10 cent stamp George Washington. They seemed to be rather obvious choices. Franklin had come up with and implemented the idea of the American postal system On July 26, 1775, the Continental Congress appointed him the first Postmaster General of the Confederation, and was able to hold that line of communications together throughout the Revolutionary War. Washington, war hero and first President, was also greatly deserving of the honor. However, the choice of subjects was not really as simple as it may appear. The U.S. had not been the first nation to issue postage stamps. It had been preceded by several nations including Great Britain, the world’s first, in 1840. Every nation had featured on their stamp, the portrait of their current President or ruler. The U.S. did not follow in those footsteps. Had they done so, our first stamps might have featured President James K. Polk and Vice-President George M. Dallas. Perhaps noting the wiseness of keeping politics out of postage stamps, it soon became United States policy not to feature any living subject on a stamp. (With but a few minor exceptions, that rule has held true, and even till today, a current President has never been featured on a United States postage stamp.) The United States would continue issuing stamps portraying just statesman and presidents until 1869. Between the years of 1851 and 1868, 32 different new stamp designs would be issued. Below, a breakdown of the subjects of those stamps:

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