This five-cent stamp celebrating Benjamin Franklin was one of the first general issue postage stamps issued in the United States. Franklin was selected because of his history of postal service. In 1755 he had been selected by the Continental Congress to be the nation’s first Postmaster General. Both Franklin and Washington have continued to be popular subjects for U.S. stamps, appearing on hundreds of stamps.
Stamps were a financial boon to the Post Office Department. They were proof that the cost of mailing the letter had been paid at a time when letters could be sent without pre-payment. Senders and receivers abused this system, sending coded messages on the outside of the letter to deliver a message without the receiver needing to actually pay the postage. Secondly, the emerging hobby of stamp collecting, or philately, gave the Department a whole new audience of stamp buyers.
Letter writing was an expensive proposition through the early decades of the 19th century. By the 1840s, newspapers, franked Congressional mail, and other items that traveled at discounts or for free made up the bulk of the United States mail. In 1845, Congress reduced postage rates, making letter writing more affordable. Two years later, Congress authorized the issuance of general issue postage stamps.
This ten-cent stamp celebrating George Washington was one of the first two such stamps issued in the United States. Senders applied the stamp to their letters to show proof that the postage had been paid. Postmasters made marks on stamps attached to deposited mail to prevent their reuse.