Ben and George

Ben Franklin Postage Stamp 1847
Ben Franklin 5 Cent Stamp, United States Post Office, 1847

The U.S. postage stamp was born on July 1, 1847. This red Franklin five cent stamp, and a similar stamp portraying George Washington were the first stamps issued by the United States Post Office.

The circulation of letters through a mail service existed long before the invention of the postage stamp. Ancient Neanderthals, in an effort to communicate with one another, probably left notes chiseled on rocks and drawing in caves to let their colleagues know that they were out to pick up some mammoth for supper. Over the years, rock became paper, because was far easier to fold and address. Then paper became electronics with the invention of email. Backing up to the paper era, our ancestors wrote letters that were hand delivered or pigeon-delivered. It was not long before governments figured out a way to charge people to mail personal infomation back and forth. After all, the mail system is a public service and a public service requires capital to operate. The postage stamp is one of the first user fees in history, right up there with horse rentals, bridge tolls, and ferry-crossing fees.

So the mail system predates the postage stamp by about a million years.

Prior to the invention of government-based postage systems, letters were delivered by private citizens or delivery companies. The recipient of the letter paid the delivery fee. The private mail system was expensive, and delivery companies passed along that expense to those who received the letter. This was just fine as long as you had the money to pay for the letter, but many people did not. Prepaid postage became the norm shortly thereafter.

Sir Rowland Hill, Postmaster General of Great Britain, devised the first pay-for-postage system by charging a penny for each letter mailed within the British Isles. The letter sender paid the fee. A small piece of colored paper was affixed to the outside of the

Penny Black postage stamp,  Great Britain, 1840

letter to indicate that postage had indeed been paid. The stamp was born. The first stamped letters began to circulate around May 6, 1840. The first stamp being the Penny Black, which was at the time, and still is, the most popular stamp in the world.

The United States picked up on the idea of prepaid postage in the early 1840’s. On March 3, 1847, Congress passed an Act to establish Post Roads “and other purposes.” Under that “other purposes” section, one finds the necessary language to create the postage stamp. On  July 1, 1847, letters needed an adhesive postage stamp affixed in order to secure its delivery to the intended recipient. Rawdon, Wright, Hatch and Edson, engravers and printers of New York City, printed Benjamin Franklin and George Washington on the first postage stamps. The first Benjamin Franklin stamps had a face value of five cents. President Washington fared a little better at ten cents. At first glance, it seems that five and ten cents is a lot to pay for 1 inch square pieces of gummed paper in 1847. That is, until one considers that, with that stamp on its cover, a letter could go from one end of the country to the other.

Most things created in 1847 have lost their usefulness. It’s true that gas masks and doughnuts, two inventions of 1847, still have merit, but most things have passed. The lowly postage stamp prevails. The United States Postal Service delivered 154 billion pieces of mail in 2016, and most of the had some form of postage affixed to the cover. The next time you affix a stamp to a letter, think of Ben and George, and the long history of the postage stamp.

“American Philatelic Society.” N.p., n.d. Web. 29 Jan. 2017.
“Arago: 10-Cent Washington.” Arago. N.p., n.d. Web. 29 Jan. 2017.
“Postal Facts 2016.” 2017. Web. 29 Jan. 2017.