Stamp Lickers Beware!
“THE DEADLY STAMP,” warned The Washington Post headline and announced that “Postage Stamp Tongue is a new disease.” The ailment was characterized by a sore tongue covered with red spots. Without treatment, it would likely develop into a bad sore throat. The short article concluded with simple advice for its readers: “Never lick a postage stamp with your tongue…It shows a great lack of cleanliness and hygienic knowledge.”
The Washington Post article, which ran November 22, 1896, was similar to stories in The Los Angeles Times, The Atlanta Constitution, the New York Times, The Boston Budget, and the (London) Daily Mirror at the turn of the twentieth century. These articles warned that the lowly postage stamp was threatening the nation’s public health because it was the breeding ground for virulent germs.
This news piece came at a time when the germ theory was emerging as the leading explanation of infectious disease transmission. Also known as the pathogenic theory of medicine, the theory proposed that most diseases were caused by microorganisms that could be spread easily through casual contact.
The theory gained ground in the scientific and medical communities during the last half of the nineteenth century through the experiments of Louis Pasteur, Robert Koch, and Joseph Lister. Progressive Era reformers brought the ideas to a larger segment of the population through their sanitation crusades.
Newspaper articles ran images of the microscopic bacteria that were found on the backs of stamps and reported on the varying levels of germs depending on where the stamps were bought. Stamps bought at the corner drug store fared the worst because they were often kept in drawers with loose change, another terrible harbor for germs. Stamps bought directly from postal clerks might be a little safer, but they still “boasted whole colonies of such deadly germs as tuberculosis, diphtheria and typhoid.” The best option was to buy “sanitary stamps” that were sealed in packets and had minimal contact with human hands.
Stamp Vending Machines
The advertising benefit of marketing sanitary stamps to skittish consumers dovetailed with the rise in popularity of vending machines in America. Known as the Silent Salesmen, vending machines were introduced to Americans in 1888 when Thomas Adams installed gum machines on the elevated train platforms in New York City.
In 1905 the Post Office Department officially began investigating the use of vending machines to sell stamps, stamped envelopes, and postal cards. Stamp vending machines were initially designed as a convenience for customers, allowing them to purchase stamps outside normal post office hours and at more locations without a significant cost to the Department.
In 1908 the Post Office Department reviewed 25 machines and field tested six. Although none of the machines met the standards for use in post offices, some of the leading manufacturers began producing stamp vending machines that could be used in other public locations, such as the countertop of a drug store.
Joseph Schermack is generally credited with producing the first practical stamp vending machine. In 1910 he introduced a “profit-sharing” model where he sold two two-cent stamps or four one-cent stamps for a nickel, and in 1926 he formed the Sanitary Postage Service Corporation. Labeling the machine as a vendor of “sanitary stamps” differentiated the machine from competitors while attracting a clientele that feared the spread of germs.
Of course as scientists and doctors continued their research and refined their understanding of germs and the transmission of disease, the link to postage stamps as a threat to public health lessened. Doctors continued to recommend using a stamp moistener rather than the tongue, but assured people that there was little risk in handling stamps themselves.
“The Deadly Stamp.” The Washington Post. November 22, 1896.
“Disease from Postage Stamps.” The Washington Post. May 15, 1910.
“Licking Postage Stamps.” The Atlanta Constitution. September 22, 1907.
“Postage Stamps Alive With Germs.” The New York Times. July 23, 1916.
“The Stamp Lickers.” Los Angeles Times. May 12, 1927.
Tomes, Nancy. The Gospel of Germs: Men, Women, and the Microbe in American Life. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1998.
Brady, William. “Never Mind the Germs All Around.” Los Angeles Times. May 23, 1936.
Howard, George P. The Stamp Machines and Coiled Stamps. New York: H. L. Lindquist Publications, 1943.
Schereiber, G. R. A Concise History of Vending in the U.S.A. Chicago: Vend, 1961.
Segrave, Kerry. Vending Machines: An American Social History. Jefferson: McFarland & Company, Inc., 2002.
By Allison Marsh