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The “Cheap Postage Movement” and the Advent of the First U.S. Postage Stamp

The 1844 U.S. presidential election between Democrat James Polk and Whig Henry Clay was a nailbiter. Marked by controversies over slavery and the annexation of Texas, Polk ended up winning by just 39,000 votes out of some 2.6 million cast.

 

There was one issue, however, that united Americans in 1844: The desire for “cheap postage.” It was incredibly expensive to send a letter in 1844 - or more accurately to receive a letter since recipients often paid the cost (Image 1). Consider this anecdote from The Evening Post, a New York City newspaper, dated February 11, 1845:  

 

A poor widow came weeping into a grocery store in Bleecker Street and was asked by a gentleman the cause of her distress. She replied that there was a letter in the Post Office from her son who had been absent eleven years, and the postage was twenty-five cents, and all the money she had in the world or could get was six cents, and the letter had been there some time and she had no means of getting it out. Many, very many poor women have been obliged to pawn their furniture or clothes to pay the postage of letters from their absent friends.


IMAGE 1 – On March 9, 1825, the Daily National Journal of Washington, DC printed the postal act Congress had approved earlier that month. The act set forth the postage rates that would remain in effect until 1845. With the exception of the rate for a single sheet traveling 150 to 400 miles, the rates were unchanged from 1816. These rates were multiplied by the number of pages sent, e.g., a two-page letter sent more than 400 miles would cost 50 cents.

 

Another commentator in the July 25, 1843, Huron Reflector of Norwalk, Ohio provided this stunning comparison of postage relative to traveling or shipping goods across country:

 

The postage from Boston to New York is 18-3/4 cents, so that the man who has five letters to send, can pay for his own passage. It costs 18-3/4 cents to pay the postage from Troy to New York or Boston; but to send a barrel of flour from Troy to Boston, it costs but 25 cents, by rail-road, or twenty cents by a vessel, and a barrel of flour may be sent to New York with the same speed, and even in the same conveyance as the letter by mail.

 

The U.S. Congress was inundated by many comparable stories. They heard about laborers who needed “half a day’s work to pay only for the transmission of one bit of paper” and families that journeyed from the East Coast to settle in “the prairies of the far west” and had to pay the equivalent of “half of bushel of wheat for every letter they receive.” Congress received numerous petitions from state legislatures and town meetings all with a singular message: “We must have cheap postage.”

 

The cheap postage advocates pointed to Great Britain that had successfully reduced postage to one penny – equal to 2 cents American – and introduced self-adhesive postage stamps for the prepayment of postage in 1840. In fact, the cheap postage movement in the United States was modeled after a similar effort in the 1830s in Great Britain.

 

There was opposition in Congress to lowering postage rates. Some were concerned that the Post Office Department (POD) would need a U.S. Treasury subsidy, but that was a weak argument. The POD was already suffering losses because the high rates were causing people, particularly on the East Coast, to skip the post office and find other ways to convey their letters through private carriers like Hale & Company (Image 2).

 










IMAGE 2 - Private mail services started to appear in the 1830s. One of the most successful was Hale & Co. founded by James W. Hale in late 1843. As shown in this advertisement from the July 16, 1844, Brooklyn Evening Star, Hale would deliver a one-page letter far and wide for just 6-1/4 cents, a significant savings over the POD rates. That cost could be reduced to five cents by buying a sheet of 20 stamps for just $1. The folded letter sent from New York to Boston on October 14, 1844, is an example of a mail piece franked with a Hale & Co. stamp. Private mail services were put out of business by the Postal Act of 1845.

 

Another argument against lower postage rates: If postage were based on weight instead of the number of pages as it was, it would encourage Americans to use thin French-made paper instead of good old American heavy-duty paper to write lengthy missives to their loved ones!

 

After much debate and competing proposals, Congress passed by wide margins the Postal Act of 1845. That act set a uniform rate of five cents for a half-ounce letter traveling 300 miles or less and 10 cents for any distance over 300 miles, effective July 1, 1845. Not only did this legislation cut postage rates roughly in half, but it simplified the rate structure by reducing the number of zones from five to two.

 

Oddly, the final legislation did not authorize the POD to print postage stamps to prepay the new rates. Congress was certainly aware that other countries were doing so. Great Britain was the obvious example, and Brazil and the canton of Zurich in Switzerland issued their first stamps in 1843. Early drafts of the Postal Act of 1845 included a provision for the POD to issue stamps, but for reasons that are unclear, that was dropped in the final version.

 

Robert H. Morris, the postmaster of New York, however, saw an opportunity (Image 3). He recognized that the lower and more uniform rates were tailored for the prepayment of postage via stamps. Morris also was aware that early closing hours of post offices constrained businesses and that the postage stamps would ease their use of mail.

 

IMAGE 3 – Robert H. Morris (1808-1855). In addition to postmaster, Morris was mayor of New York from 1841 to 1844. Source: New York Public Library Digital Collection.

 

Morris wrote to Postmaster General (PMG) Cave Johnson for permission to issue stamps, which PMG Johnson promptly granted. Morris contracted with Rawdon, Wright & Hatch, a well-regarded engraving firm known for its bank notes, to produce a stamp. With a supply in hand, Morris ran this ad in New York City newspapers on July 14, 1845:

 

The public is respectfully informed that the undersigned has caused to be prepared stamps for the prepayment of letters, made for five cents each, which will be sold in parcels of five and upwards.

 

To prevent counterfeits, they will be sold only at this office and the Branch Office. The public may therefore be assured that any stamps which may be offered for sale at any place other than the Post Offices, are spurious, and will not be received as prepayment.

 

ROBT. H. MORRIS, P.M.

 

Morris was so worried about counterfeits and fraud that in addition to restricting the sale to just two locations, he also had most of the stamps initialed as another control. The most common set of initials seen is “ACM,” for Alonzo Castle Monson, the assistant postmaster in New York and Morris’s brother-in-law.

 

The stamp that Morris offered for sale is now known as the “New York Postmaster Provisional” (Image 4). New Yorkers quickly adopted the stamp, and in less than two years, Morris issued just under 144,000. Ten other local postmasters followed suit with their own stamp designs, but those were issued in much smaller numbers, and today, several are among the great rarities of philately, with matching prices. In contrast, used copies of the New York Postmaster Provision off cover are relatively affordable and can be found for about $500 or less depending on condition.



IMAGE 4 – An example of the New York Postmaster Provisional (Scott 9X1). This stamp is on a folded letter and has a certificate (#594552) from the Philatelic Foundation (PF) opining that “it is a genuine stamp” but with no opinion whether it originated on the cover, i.e. it may have been added after the fact.  The stamp is canceled with a blue pen swish and has the ACM control initials in red.

 

There are also about 1,000 New York Postmaster Provisional covers in existence. Most of the covers originated in New York, but there are also covers postmarked in other cities (Image 5). The reason for that is that in 1846, PMG Cave asked Morris to send a supply to postmasters in Albany, Boston, Philadelphia, and Washington, DC to evaluate the use of prepaid stamps on intercity mail.

 

Image 5 – This cover with a New York Postmaster Provisional was postmarked in Boston on April 11, 1846. The stamp is “tied” to the cover with the postmark, which is a sign it was used to mail this item. This cover has a PF certificate (#18773) opining it is a “genuine use.” The U.S. Philatelic Classics Society keeps an online census of known postmaster provisional covers, and this is listed as number 20552. Of the 1,000 or so New York Postmaster Provisional covers, about two dozen originated in Boston.         

 

The experiment was a success and that opened the way for PMG Cave to ask Congress to authorize the POD to issue its own adhesive postage stamps. That authority came from the Postal Act of 1847. Once the first official POD stamps were issued on July 1, 1847 – also printed by Rawdon, Wright & Hatch, the New York Postmaster Provisionals were pulled from sale (Image 6).

 


IMAGE 6 - The first two general issue stamps were released by the POD on July 1, 1847. The 5-cent depicting Benjamin Frankling (Scott 1b) paid the under 300-mile letter rate, while the 10-cent depicting George Washington (Scott 2) covered the over 300-mile rate. This 5-cent stamp has a certificate from The American Philatelic Expertizing Service (#236909) opining it is “genuine.” The 10-cent stamp is on a folded letter that the PF (#0321413) opined is a “genuine usage.” 

 

While the Postmaster Provisional era ended, the “cheap postage” movement persevered. Contrary to the fears of some in Congress, the postal reforms of 1845 improved the POD’s financial performance. Indeed, after reporting a loss in 1840, the POD reported a profit in 1845 and again in 1850. With that news in hand, the “cheap postage” advocates redoubled their efforts, pushing Congress to reduce letter rates to a flat two cents for any distance traveled. Postage rates were reduced to three cents for a half ounce in 1851, and the distance differential was eliminated in 1863. The goal of a two-cent letter rate was finally achieved in 1883, almost 50 years after the “cheap postage” movement got its start.

 

The “cheap postage” movement was a grassroots endeavor; it did not have a national structure or leader. That may have been the source of its success, since as Tip O’Neill, the former speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives is credited with saying, “All politics is local.”

 

The “cheap postage” movement advocated for reducing the cost and complexity of postage rates, and that in turn paved the way for the issuance of postage stamps in the United States. So, does that mean we have the “cheap postage” movement to thank for this great hobby? I think it does!

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