Thursday, April 8, 2010

Know When To Lick Them

A Brief Overview of Postal History

By Linda Carroll-Bradd

Which of the following scenarios seems believable?

1) A heroine in 1814 sits at her writing desk, licks a postage stamp and affixes it to the letter she has written to the hero.

2) A Revolutionary War captain slips his latest note to his fiancée into an envelope?

3) A heroine accepts a letter marked with the date August 1, 1801, paying the postage only to learn that the sender has jilted her.

For contemporary writers, the above information may be read with only a passing interest. For historical writers, including tidbits like #1 and #2 can cause devoted readers to lose faith in your work. Why? Because both situations are historically inaccurate. Although the detail may be small, we all strive to present our stories with the best information possible.


An inland postal service among the American colonies was established December 10, 1672, and the first letter was sent January 22, 1673. From the service’s inception, postage could be paid by either the sender or the receiver. A letter could be refused by the receiver, in which case no postage would be collected. Nearly two hundred years later on January 1, 1856, pre-payment of postage became compulsory.

Until 1847 when the postage stamp (gummed sticker as we know it) was put into use, postage was paid at a post office and the postmaster stamped “paid” or “free” on the letter so the receiving postmaster would not try to collect payment from the addressee. Only 1.3 percent of all letters posted between 1847 and 1852 used stamps; that percentage increased to 64 percent by 1856.


Because postal rates were originally based on the number of sheets of paper, most letters were folded and held closed with a wax seal. The last sheet of the letter served as the cover where the address was written. A typical cover sent contained three postal markings;

1) the town of origin marking either in manuscript (handwriting) or handstamp form, usually included the month and day date (may or may not include the year too)

2) the rate marking, in either manuscript or handstamp

3) the word ‘paid’ indicating prepayment of postage by the sender or (in rare situations) the word “free” on mail that met particular regulations and travelled without postage.


Starting July 1, 1845, envelope use did not incur additional postage rates and this practice soon became widespread. Envelopes with embossed stamps were first manufactured in 1852.

Postal markings

These include a variety of marking placed on the cover or envelope by a postal employee. The earliest markings were done in manuscript and were not standardized. Franklin marks (American version of British bishop’s marks) denoted the day of the month (a numeral) above the month (Roman numeral) encased in a small circle. This mark signified when the letter left the originating post office.


Postal regulations in 1857 provided the following: "Post offices, the gross receipts of which are over $1,000 per annum, will be furnished with circular marking and rating stamps of steel; less than $1,000 and over $500, with stamps of iron; less than $500 and over $100, with stamps of wood." Post offices generating less than $100 either bought pre-made sets with rate markers, paid and free stamps. Custom-designed town handstamps could also be purchased or crafted by postmaster. The town handstamps were most often used in place of the return address.


These hand-held stamps originated after the introduction of the postage stamp (1847) and were used to cancel the stamps, showing the postal fee had been used. They were usually carved from wood or cork and displayed a variety of designs—bees, bears, chickens, eagles, flags, and stars. In smaller or remote post offices, cancellations were done by hand through the 1880s with the postmaster often using a unique marking.


Postal rates were initially determined by the distance the letter had to travel and how many sheets of paper the letter contained. (My example is from the Oregon Territory in 1848-59. A single-sheet letter traveling less than 20 miles was 15 cents; 30-50 miles, 25 cents; 200 miles, 50 cents.) For the service provided, these rates were quite high relative to the value of the dollar at that time. In 1863, three classes of mail were established (first, second and parcel) and uniform rates were adopted.

Rate Markers

Markings indicating how much postage had been collected were ink-stamped in the upper left corner of the cover or envelope. Standard markers (either metal or carved wood) could be as simple as the number 3, 5, 6, or 10 in Arabic or romance numerals or as elaborate as including sunrays extending outward, the number encased in a stylized shape, or surrounded by a double circle with decorative filigree. As many stamps in whatever needed combination would be used to demonstrate the total rate (twenty cents might be four 5-cent ink stamps or two 10-cent ink-stamps.)


Penny postcards were introduced in 1873 and immediately gained in popularity.


Paty Jager said...

This is interesting information I'll remember for future historical books. Thanks, Linda!

Nicole McCaffrey said...

Great information, very informative!

Thanks, Linda! I love it when a blog post teaches me something I didn't know.

Liz Flaherty said...

This is so interesting, especially since my day job is with the USPS. People still ask us for "penny post cards." :-)