Our First Postage Stamp
By Joseph Geraci
Volume 6, Issue 3
This summer the National Postal Museum celebrates the anniversary of a watershed event in America's postal history. One hundred and fifty years ago, on July 1, 1847, the first federal United States postage stamps were issued in New York City. To commemorate that event, the National Postal Museum has prepared a special display in the Stamps and Stories gallery's rarities vault, including documents, proofs and covers from this historic event. The First Federal Postage Stamp Issue, which opened June 27, 1997, runs through December 1997. Much of the material for the exhibit comes from a collection of original documents donated to the National Postal Museum. For exquisite pieces also on display were loaned to the museum for this exhibit by the noted Italian collector, Tito Giamporcaro.
Before 1847, only privately-produced postage stamps were available in the United States. Issued by postmasters in cities such as New York and Providence, Rhode Island, these stamps are known today as "postmaster provisionals."
Following the precedent set in England in 1840, Congress approved the Post Office Act of March 3, 1847. This authorized the U.S. Postmaster General "to prepare postage stamps, which, when attached to any letter or packet, shall be evidence of the payment of postage chargeable on such letter."
The New York City banknote engraving firm of Rawdon, Wright, Hatch & Edson submitted a formal proposal for the job, possibly at the request of Postmaster General Cave Johnson.
The firm's proposal was to print engraved stamps in their best style of line engraving. The cost for a two-color process would be twenty-five cents per thousand stamps. For only one color, the cost dropped to twenty cents per thousand. The Postmaster General authorized the cheaper, one-color printing. He also chose the first two stamp subjects. Benjamin Franklin would appear on the five-cent stamp, and President George Washington on the ten-cent.
Many of Rawdon, Wright, Hatch and Edson's customers were bankers. For those jobs, the firm maintained an inventory of engraved dies that could be incorporated into any design. Since, at the time, there was no central banking system that issued currency, individual banks printed their own, based upon each bank's own asset value. Instead of creating brand new dies to accompany the Franklin and Washington images, the engravers chose to use stock dies used for banknotes and engraved frames. After the dies were completed, several trial colors were prepared and submitted to Postmaster General Johnson. He chose brown for the five-cent stamp and black for the ten-cent.
On June 26, 1847, the printers advised Postmaster General Johnson that 200,000 ten-cent stamps and 600,000 five-cent stamps were ready for delivery. Johnson dispatched a special post office agent, believed to be John Marron, Third Assistant Postmaster General, to take delivery of the precious cargo. Marron arrived in New York on June 29 to take possession of the "parcel" of stamps. Before noon on July 1, Marron delivered 60,000 five-cent and 20,000 ten-cent stamps to Robert Morris, the New York City postmaster. While no cover is known to have been posted at New York on July 1, the first day of issue, the new stamps were probably available for sale by that afternoon. The earliest known cover bearing one of these stamps was postmarked at New York City on July 2, 1847, although the stamps were probably purchased on the first day of issue.
Marron's next stop was Boston, where he delivered 40,000 five-cent and 10,000 ten-cent stamps to that city's postmaster on July 2. After spending the fourth of July weekend in Boston, Marron returned to New York by rail and coastal steamer, arriving on the sixth. Pushing on, Marron visited the Philadelphia post office on July 7, leaving 40,000 five-cent stamps and 10,000 ten-cent stamps with that city's postmaster. Marron returned to Washington two days later, depositing the rest of the historic first printing at the Post Office Department headquarters.
No full sheets of 200 stamps of the 1847 issue are believed to exist today. The largest surviving pieces are two panes of 100 original plate proofs, one of the five-cent stamp in orange-brown, the other of the ten-cent in black. Both are marked with the overprint "Specimen." These two panes were recently discovered in an American Bank Note Company specimen archival proof book.
Among the provisions of the Post Office Act of March 3, 1851, was the reduction of postage rates from five cents to three cents on prepaid letters weighing not more than one-half ounce and addressed to locations not more than 3,000 miles apart. Even though the five-cent and ten-cent stamps were no longer valid after July 30, 1851, customers could exchange them for the new stamps through September 29, 1851.
Postmaster General Nathan K. Hall invited Rawdon, Wright, Hatch & Edson to bid on the new three-cent stamps, but the firm declined to do so unless it was compensated in the event that its design was not selected. In November 1851, Rawdon, Wright, Hatch & Edson proposed that the dies and plates be destroyed, since no further use would be made of the five-cent and ten-cent stamps. On December 12, 1851, three officials witnessed the destruction. No records exist documenting the destruction of the transfer rolls. It is tantalizing to note that in or about 1858, 1878 and 1895, reprints of the five-cent and ten-cent stamps were produced by the American Bank Note Company, successor firm to Rawdon, Wright, Hatch & Edson. Were all the dies and plates, and especially the transfer rolls, destroyed after all?
*EnRoute was the National Postal Museum's newsletter.