The national collection illustrates and invites research into United States philately and postal operations. It contains prestigious postal issues and specialized collections, archival postal documents and three-dimensional objects that trace the evolution of the postal services.
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The first federally issued postage stamps in the United States were available for sale to the public on 1 July 1847. Prior to this date, postage stamps were in existence; however, they were not endorsed by the federal government. They were generally known as "locals" or "provisionals".
Local stamps were issued by private mail companies or independent carriers, such as Hussey's Post of N.Y.C., between the years 1840 and 1890. It was not unusual for the private companies to provide more services for customers, and at lower rates, than the U. S. postal service. For instance, in addition to selling stamps, many companies offered to pick up and deliver mail more than one time during the same day. The drawback to local stamps was that they were usually only valid for deliveries within the city in which the stamps were issued.
Until 1845, different postage rates were charged for varying distances and weight throughout the country making the postage process complicated and often rather expensive. The high cost of sending mail meant that most of the material carried by the U. S. Post Office Department was related to business or legal matters. On 3 March 1845 an Act of Congress called for uniform postal letter rates across the nation which generated a greater interest in the general public for sending mail. Postage rates were lowered and simplified. As a result, postmasters began to issue provisional stamps. They were more official than local stamps, but only valid as payment for postage at the post office where they had been issued.
It is interesting to note that stamps were not the required method of paying for postage, which is perhaps one of the most likely reasons for the length of time that it took before the federal government issued stamps. A person might pay cash at the time a letter was mailed or send the letter expecting the person who would receive the letter to pay for the postage.
By not requiring the prepayment of postage, the Post Office Department lost a considerable amount of money. Since mail was not delivered directly to people's homes as it is today, it was up to each individual to go to the post office and find out if he had mail. Many people did not claim their mail and the postage was never paid. Federal postage stamps were much more convenient than the locals or provisionals because they could be used anywhere in the country at anytime. However, their usage was not required on domestic mail until 1 January 1856. Therefore, the problem of unpaid postage continued even after federal stamps were issued.
In March 1847 Congress approved "an Act to establish Post Roads and other purposes." Stamps were one of the "other purposes" mentioned in the Act and the Postmaster General was granted the power to authorize the production and sale of postage stamps. Cave Johnson, who had previously served as President Polk's campaign manager, was the Postmaster General at that time. He entered into a contract with the engraving company Rawdon, Wright, Hatch and Edson of New York City for the printing of the first issue of federal stamps.
Rawdon, Wright, Hatch and Edson, which later became part of the American Bank Note Company in 1858, was one of the most prominent engraving companies and had long been employed in printing bank notes and other security documents. The first instance of the firm printing postage stamps was in 1842, when it was employed to print stamps for the City Despatch Post, which was a private mail company in New York. In 1845, when provisional stamps were authorized, Rawdon, Wright, Hatch and Edson printed postage stamps for Robert H. Morris, Postmaster of New York City.
These experiences probably led to their contract with the United States Post Office Department. Their contract was an open agreement for an unspecified amount of time. The ambiguous nature of the contract ensured misunderstandings between Rawdon, Wright, Hatch and Edson and the Post Office Department. As a result, the 1847 five- and ten-cent issues were the only stamps the firm printed for the U. S. Post Office Department.
Both of the stamps featured portraits of renowned Americans, which were taken from stock dies used to produce bank notes for the Bank of Manchester in Michigan. The five-cent stamp featured Benjamin Franklin and a ten-cent stamp bore the likeness of George Washington. Benjamin Franklin was chosen due to his role as the "father" of the U. S. postal system and George Washington because he was the "father" of the nation.
Scope and Content
The collection consists of forty-six letters ranging in date from 1847 to 1851, which have been chronologically arranged. Two of the letters were in the possession of the NPM prior to 1997, when the rest of the collection was donated anonymously. Much of the correspondence consists of letters between Rawdon, Wright, Hatch and Edson and the Post Office Department, and also between different Postmasters and individuals throughout the country and the Post Office Department.
The material contained in the collection is highly significant because it is a written record of the historic first issuance of federal postage stamps. The correspondence traces the business relationship between Rawdon, Wright, Hatch and Edson and the Post Office Department from the time the contract for the first Federal stamps was entered into in 1847, until the steel dies used to produce the stamps were destroyed in 1851. The letters contain information regarding the terms of the contract, when the first stamps were prepared and ready for delivery, and the destruction of the steel dies. The correspondence also includes letters from various Postmasters and members of the general public discussing issues such as stamp cancellation, counterfeit and reuse.
These letters give the reader valuable insight regarding the impact that federal stamps had on the postal system in mid-nineteenth century America and the effect that they had on the people who used the service.
The Collection was donated to the National Postal Museum by an anonymous source in 1997.
April 7, 1845: New York City
Mr. J. Smith Hornans writes to the Postmaster General (PMG), Cave Johnson, urging him to suggest the creation of federal postage stamps to the Post Office Department. He points out the difficulties that businessmen and merchants encounter due to the early closing hour of post offices. Mr. Hornans expresses his opinion that federal stamps would be convenient and also increase the amount of material sent through the mail.
July 10, 1845: New York City
Mr. George Smith writes to the PMG stating that postage stamps would be a great convenience for businessmen in large cities. A response is overwritten on Mr. Smith's letter which acknowledges the value of his statement, but points out that an act of Congress would be required to initiate the project.
March 20, 1847: New York City
The firm of Rawdon, Wright, Hatch and Edson (RWH & E) submit rough designs for the proposed five- and ten-cent stamps. The stamps would be sold to the Post Office Department at the rate of 25 cents per thousand.
March 20, 1847: New York City
RWH & E submit the five- and ten-cent stamp designs to J. W. Brown, the Second Assistant PMG, for his approval. They inform him that they have followed his suggestion and used the head of Benjamin Franklin in place of the head of Jackson, which had originally been requested by the PMG. If the PMG still preferred Jackson it could be used instead. The firm was making steel dies of the designs so that the stamps could be produced immediately in the event that the designs were approved.
March 29, 1847: New York City
RWH & E express to the Second Assistant PMG their pleasure at having their stamp designs chosen. They notify him that Mr. Edson would meet with him the following Thursday to discuss the terms of the agreement. Confirmation of the production of steel dies is given.
March 31, 1847: New York City
RWH & E write to the Second Assistant PMG informing him that the proposal which had been made on March 20 had been revised. Now, 25 cents would be charged for every thousand stamps using two colors and 20 cents for every thousand stamps using one color. It is noted on the letter that this bid was accepted.
April 8, 1847: Washington, DC
Cave Johnson writes to Robert H. Morris, Postmaster of New York City, about matters concerning engravings, paper and a contract. (National Archives Collection; see reference Clarence W. Brazer, “U.S. 1874 Stamp Contract”, The Essay Proof Journal, Vol. 9, No. 3, Whole No. 35, July 1952)
May 25, 1847: New York City
RWH & E write to J. Marron, Third Assistant PMG, to account for the delay in signing the contract. They had signed the contract even though a certain clause had not been inserted into the text. The contract was enclosed with their letter and they requested to have a copy of the contract sent back to them once it had been signed by the PMG.
June 26, 1847: New York City
RWH & E write to the PMG informing him that the stamps which had been ordered were ready for delivery. They would wait for his instructions before doing anything with the stamps. There were 200,000 ten-cent stamps and 600,000 five-cent stamps.
July 19, 1847: Portland, Maine
N. L. Woodbury, Postmaster of Portland, writes to the PMG that plenty of postage stamps are appearing on letters in his city. However, he had not ordered or received any stamps himself and did not believe that the stamps could have been provided by anyone there. It was his opinion that the stamps were genuine, although he stated that he had no way of verifying this. He inquired whether or not he ought to be canceling the stamps and marking the letters "paid".
August 3, 1847: Savannah, Georgia
George Schley, Postmaster of Savannah, writes to the Third Assistant PMG that if he had been aware of the responsibilities that would be relegated to him as a depository (without profit) he would not have asked to have the position. He discusses bookkeeping and the amount of stamps he expects to sell.
August 6, 1847: New Haven, Connecticut
E. A. Mitchell, Postmaster of New Haven, writes to the Third Assistant PMG requesting that he send additional stamps to New Haven.
August 9, 1847: Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
R. A. Bausman, Assistant Postmaster of Pittsburgh, writes to the Third Assistant PMG asking for instructions about bookkeeping methods that ought to be used in regards to the stamps that were being sold.
August 26, 1847: Hillsdale, Columbia Co., New York
J. Wells White, Postmaster of Hillsdale, writes to the PMG to tell him that he had contacted the Postmaster in New York with a request for stamps. The Postmaster had replied that Mr. White would have to pay him in advance for the stamps which Mr. White was willing to do. However, before he did so, he wanted to know for certain when he would receive his percentage of the cost. Also, he stated that several people had attempted to deposit sums of money at his post office which would later be drawn out at other post offices by other Postmasters. He had not seen any material giving him the authorization to perform this service and had been refusing to do it.
October 20, 1847: Philadelphia
Thomas E. Sparhawk writes to the PMG with the suggestion that a three-cent stamp for the prepayment of newspapers should be issued.
October 22, 1847: Philadelphia
Wilson Dunton writes to the PMG suggesting the immediate creation of newspaper stamps.
October 26, 1847: Baltimore
James Buchanan, Postmaster of Baltimore, writes to the PMG about methods of canceling stamps. It had come to his attention that it was very easy to alter a cancelled stamp and make it appear new. He suggests that a sharp instrument would be better suited to cancel stamps than ink.
November 16, 1847: Williamsport, Pennsylvania
H. Frank Hatch of Rochester, New York, writes to the PMG that he purchased stamps at home and used them wherever he went. However, the Postmaster in Williamsport did not sell stamps and if letters were deposited at his post office with stamps he tore the stamps off, destroyed them and marked the letter postage due. Mr. Hatch understands the confusion caused by some post offices using stamps and others not, but hopes that the situation could be remedied with the correct course of action.
November 18, 1847: Evansville, Vanderburgh Co., Indiana
B. F. Dupuy, Postmaster of Evansville, writes to the Third Assistant PMG informing him that the stamps which had been sent had been received. He had also received stamps from the Postmaster of Louisville. He was making the announcement that his post office had been selected for the sale and distribution of stamps in that area.
November 30, 1847: New York City
Unknown author to the PMG.
December 2, 1847: New York City
Robert H. Morris, Postmaster of New York City, forwards a letter written on November 30 to the PMG. The sender of this letter was not named. Both letters address the convenience of three-cent newspaper stamps. Mr. Morris brings instances of postal clerks taking money intended to pay for postage from customers and keeping it for their own private use to the attention of the PMG.
December 18, 1847: Zanesville, Ohio
Horace Hope, Postmaster of Zanesville, writes to the Third Assistant PMG including a receipt that had been requested. He states that the carriage which had been carrying a shipment of stamps had been upset and all of the stamps had gotten wet. He asks to return the damaged stamps and inquires if something is provided to deface the stamps.
January 4, 1848: Williamsport, Pennsylvania
J. J. Ayers, Postmaster of Williamsport, writes to the Third Assistant PMG telling him the problems he has with stamps, namely forgery and reuse.
March 18, 1848: New York City
RWH & E write to the PMG to inform him that they were printing the stamps that he had ordered. They make the suggestion that stamps are cancelled with some type of instrument which would destroy the stamps by cutting them. Designs for a three-cent stamp had been enclosed with the letter.
March 20, 1848: New York City
M. Monson writes to the Third Assistant PMG placing an order for five- and ten-cent stamps.
August 15, 1848: Auburn, New York
G. W. Clinton, U. S. Attorney, writes to the PMG asking him to verify the authenticity of a five-cent stamp. Clinton had doubts about it but others did not share his opinion. He believes that the stamp may be a real stamp, but that it had been chemically altered in order to remove the ink that had been applied when the stamp was cancelled.
August 19, 1848: New York City
RWH & E write to the Third Assistant PMG confirming the hunch of G. W. Clinton in letter .26 that the five-cent stamp in question had indeed been chemically altered due to attempts to remove canceling ink.
August 27, 1848: Buffalo, New York
G. W. Clinton writes to the Third Assistant PMG that he is returning the letter from RWH & E that had been forwarded to him and he was sending back the stamp to the Postmaster of Rochester. He states that it was regretful that Congress had not made the effort to implement laws against fraud.
October 30, 1848: Middlebury, Vermont
Edward D. Barber, Postmaster of Middlebury, writes to John Collamer, PMG, informing him that he is returning the stamps as he had been requested to do. A postscript states that Mr. Barber's successor had decided to keep the stamps and that a receipt would be given to the Auditor.
March 20, 1849: New York City
Robert H. Morris, Postmaster of New York City, writes to the Third Assistant PMG reporting that a package which had been sent to the Treasurer's office had arrived with none of the seals broken.
March 20, 1849: New York City
Robert Morris writes to the PMG reporting the same as in letter .30.
March 24, 1849: New York City
Robert Morris writes to the Third Assistant PMG reporting that the plates sent to the Treasurer's Office had arrived in good condition and they were turned over to RWH & E.
April 11, 1849: New York City
RWH & E write to the PMG informing him that the stamps which were ordered on March 19 were ready for shipment. They ask what type of packaging ought to be used in sending the stamps.
July 29, 1850: Baltimore
Finch writes to the PMG with the suggestion that the government should prepare two-cent stamps to prepay the postage for newspapers. He states that newspapers are not reaching their destinations because they are dropped into receiving boxes at post offices while the post offices are not open to take the payment for postage.
July 30, 1850: Gardiner, Maine
L. H. Green writes to N. K. Hall, PMG, telling him that although Postmasters are required to use printers' ink to cancel stamps, he has noticed many using a type of red ink which is easily rubbed off. It is his opinion that the practice of using the red ink should be stopped quickly.
December 9, 1850: New York City
RWH & E write to the PMG informing him that they had received his order for five-cent stamps with the head of Benjamin Franklin in brown. The stamps would be prepared immediately and he would be notified a few days in advance of their shipment.
December 10, 1850: New York City
William V. Brady, Postmaster, writes to the PMG reporting that he had gone to the Treasurer's Office with Mr. Edson of RWH & E. The five-cent stamp had been delivered to RWH & E and the ten-cent stamp had been returned to the Assistant Treasurer under Brady's seal.
January 17, 1851: New York City
RWH & E write to the PMG enclosing steel die proofs in anticipation of the Post Office Department's need for a three-cent stamp. Since the die was already engraved, stamps could be produced immediately if the design was chosen. If a different design was preferred, RWH & E would be willing to create a new die. They suggest that the three-cent stamp be printed in blue ink. If there would ultimately be one- and two-cent stamps, those ought to be printed using the designs and colors of the current five- and ten-cent stamps. The use of the five- and ten-cent stamps would then be discontinued.
January 24, 1851: New York City
RWH & E write to the PMG informing him that the order of five-cent stamps had been packaged according to his directions and was ready to be delivered.
January 25, 1851: New York City
William V. Brady writes to the PMG stating that the stamps had been given to Cyrus Powers for delivery. The plate was sealed with the seals of RWH & E and William V. Brady and deposited with the Assistant Treasurer of the United States.
March 5, 1851: Philadelphia
James Snyder writes to the Third Assistant PMG asking to know the amount that RWH & E was paid for each sheet of stamps they printed under their agreement with the Post Office Department.
March 10, 1851: New York City
RW & E write to the PMG stating that they do not wish to have their design for the three-cent stamp considered unless they are guaranteed to be compensated for the cost of producing the die in the event that their design is not chosen. They point out that they have been producing five- and ten-cent stamps for the Post Office Department, which have been very satisfactory and have been making very little profit from doing so. They state that they have not been able to cover the cost of the steel dies used for the five- and ten-cent stamps from the profits earned from their production. RWH & E would not be willing to furnish stamps in the future at rates any lower than what they currently received.
April 8, 1851: New York City
RWH & E write to the Third Assistant PMG explaining that their decision not to enter their design for consideration had been due to a misunderstanding and they would like to rescind their decision and apply for the three-cent stamp contract.
November 15, 1851: New York City
RWH & E write to the PMG and suggest that since the dies and plates from the five- and ten-cent stamps would no longer be of any use, they should be destroyed.
The PMG's instructions are written across letter .43 a, directing that the dies and plates of the five- and ten-cent stamps should be destroyed.
December 12, 1851: New York City
William V. Brady writes to the Third Assistant PMG submitting evidence that the dies and plates of the five- and ten-cent stamps had been destroyed.
December 12, 1851: New York City
RWH & E write that the five- and ten-cent stamp dies and plates were demolished according to the PMG's instructions. Their destruction was witnessed and documented by John Moore, William V. Brady and George W. Jenkins.
A paper wrapper which was used to cover the correspondence is titled 1847 Postage Stamps. It is noted on the wrapper that the collection consists of original correspondence from Rawdon, Wright, Hatch and Edson and various postal workers and that it ought to be preserved intact.
Boggs, Winthrop. Ten Decades Ago, 1840-1850: A Study of the Work of Rawdon, Wright, Hatch and Edson of New York City, to which is added Comments, and Articles of Interest, Illuminating the Scene of the Time. The American Philatelic Society, Inc., 1949.
Carr, Timothy and Francis Duncan. "Local Mail Posts in the United States". The Penny Post, volume 7, number 3; July 1997.
Cullinan, Gerald. The Post Office Department. New York: Frederick A. Praeger, 1968.
Goodwin, Frank Elbert. The 1847 issue of United States stamps. Columbus: Linn, 1913.
Griffiths, William H. The Story of American Bank Note Company. New York: American Bank Note Company, 1959.
Hart, C. C. "United States - First Issue: Intriguing Uses of the Five-Cent 1847 Issue of the United States". Postal History Journal, volume 3, number 1; March 1959.
Leech, Daniel Tompkins. The Post Office Department of the United States of America. New York: Amo Press, 1976.
Luff, John N. The Postage Stamps of the United States. New York: The Scott Stamp & Coin Co., Ltd., 1902.
Saadi, Wade. "The 5c and 10c General Issue of 1847". American Philatelist, volume 111, number 3; March 1997.
Scheele, Carl H. A Short History of the Mail Service. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1970.