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Systems at Work

Postage Stamps

Benjamin Franklin 5-cent and George Washington 10-cent 1847 postage stamps
Benjamin Franklin 5-cent and George Washington 10-cent 1847 postage stamps
A well-digest cheap-postage is the best means of diffusing intelligence among the people.
—President James K. Polk, 1848

Until 1847, local postmasters calculated the cost of postage, which varied depending on the number of sheets in the letter and its destination. The sender could pay all, part, or none of the postage. The addressee had to make up the difference.

In 1845, Congress lowered postal rates and made them more uniform. Two years later, Congress authorized the first postage stamp. Rates dropped again in 1851—down to 3 cents—where they remained for more than 30 years.

Who was on the first postage stamps?
The first two U.S. postage stamps were a 5-cent stamp showing Benjamin Franklin and a 10-cent stamp with the image of George Washington, both issued in 1847. In 1855, Post Office made the use of prepaid postage stamps mandatory for mailing letters.

How did lower postage rates affect ordinary citizens?
Lower rates and prepaid postage stamps brought the cost of sending first-class mail within reach of many more Americans. This encouraged more reading and writing, letters to distant friends and relatives, business transactions, and communication of many kinds across the growing United States.

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