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Classic Period (1847-1893)

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5-cent Franklin

In 1847 President James Polk occupied the White House as the young nation's eleventh president. Polk, born after the signing of the Constitution, and others born during that period formed a new generation of Americans—a generation that had not fought for independence but was born into it. In 1847 several men were born who proved crucial to American modernity. Thomas Alva Edison (1847-1931), Alexander Graham Bell (1847-1922) and Joseph Pulitzer (1847-1911), all innovators in the realm of communication, have provided the base for generations of inventive thought.

In July 1847 another event of lasting consequence occurred-the United States issued its first adhesive postage stamps. The two stamps produced for the federal government inaugurated a period in U.S. philately unlike any other—the Classic Period. For the next forty-seven years, five private printing and engraving firms designed and produced all federal postage stamps and experimented with every aspect of the stamp-making process. Their investigations produced machine perforation and gumming processes, which replaced the cumbersome manual tasks of cutting stamps from imperforate sheets and gluing. Each firm made its own contributions to the gumming process. Another innovation, National Bank Note Company introduced grilling stamps to prevent fraud. The grill was thought to deter people from removing the inked cancellation and reusing the stamp. Beyond these improvements, many different paper types and printing techniques contributed to making the stamps of the Classic Period extraordinarily dynamic and fascinating.

These landmarks in philately coincided with other advances in communication. Christopher Latham Sholes invented the modern typewriter in 1873. In 1879 Thomas Edison invented a reliable, long-lasting source of light, and he would go on to invent the electric lighting system, motion pictures, and the film projector. In 1876 Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone. Though less noticeable, the postage stamp achieved a similar impact on daily lives by changing the process of communication. Just as these other devices revolutionized the ways in which people communicate, so too did postage stamps. The stamps of the Classic Period brought sweeping change and are fundamental to the history of American discourse.

Alexander T. Haimann, National Postal Museum and Wade Saadi


refer to caption 10-cent Washington single

Rawdon, Wright, Hatch & Edson (RWH&E), one of the most prominent printing and engraving firms in nineteenth-century America, was the first to...

refer to caption 30-cent Franklin single

Charles Toppan opened his own engraving business in Philadelphia in 1829. He was thirty-three years old. Other engraving firms-Draper, Underwood, Bald, Spencer & Hufty, for instance-were already well-established in the city. But...

90-cent Lincoln with G. Grill single

Some people saw the formation of the American Bank Note Company in 1858 as a threat. A firm formed by the...

24-cent General Winfield Scott card plate proof

Intense competition for contracts to engrave and print U.S. Treasury bank notes raged among engraving firms prior to 1876. The struggle ended that year, when the...

5-cent Zachary Taylor stamp

Jocelyn, Draper, Welsh & Co., with offices in New York City and Philadelphia, actually used the American Bank Note moniker in 1854. Four years later...

About U.S. Stamps