History of the Postage Stamp - from 1842 to the present

Whether you collect them or still use them to send mail, the postage stamp has had an interesting history.

The first adhesive stamps were issued on February 1st, 1842 by Alexander M. Greig’s City Dispatch Post, a private New York City carrier. The Post Office Department bought the business and continued to use adhesive stamps to prepay postage.

After U.S. postage rates were standardized in 1845, New York City Postmaster Robert H. Morris, among others, provided special stamps or markings to indicate prepayment of postage. These now are known as Postmasters’ Provisionals.

On March 3, 1847, Congress authorized United States postage stamps. The first US postage stamp was issued on July 1, 1847. Before that, letters would be taken to the Post Office where the postmaster calculated the postage required and noted it on the upper right corner. Postage was calculated based on the number of sheets in the letter and how far it needed to travel and could be paid by either the writer or the addressee. Until government-issued stamps became obligatory January 1, 1856, other payment methods remained legal.

The first stamps were cut from non-perforated sheets with scissors. One stamp, initially priced at five cents, depicted Benjamin Franklin. The other, a ten-cent stamp, pictured George Washington. In 1856, a five-cent stamp honoring Thomas Jefferson was introduced, followed by a two-cent stamp featuring Andrew Jackson in 1863. George Washington still holds the record for appearing on more U.S. postage stamps than any other person.

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The first U.S. commemorative stamps were issued in 1893, honoring that year’s World Columbian Exposition in Chicago. The subject — Columbus’s voyages to the New World — and size of the stamps were innovative. Standard-sized stamps were too small for engraved reproductions of paintings that portrayed events connected to Columbus’s voyages. The stamps were 7/8 inches high by 1-11/32 inches wide, nearly double the size of previous stamps. Over the years, commemorative stamps have been produced in many sizes and shapes, with the first triangular postage stamp issued in 1997 and the first round stamp in 2000.

Stamp booklets were first issued on April 16, 1900. They contained 12, 24, or 48 two-cent stamps. The first non-denominated stamps (stamps without a printed value) in the United States were two Christmas stamps issued on October 14, 1975. After a few initial tries, self-adhesive stamps were nationwide in 1992, and quickly became popular with customers. By 2002, nearly all new U.S. commemorative stamp issues were self-adhesive.

On April 12, 2007, the Postal Service issued its first Forever stamp, a non-denominated, non-expiring stamp intended for customers mailing a piece of First-Class Mail. Sold at the going rate of a First-Class stamp, a Forever stamp is always valid for the first ounce of First-Class postage. The original design for the first Forever stamp was the Liberty Bell. In 2011, all First-Class commemorative stamps were issued as Forever stamps.

History of the Postage Stamp - from 1842 to the present