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What is Postal History?







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The following are excerpts from a short article in the North Carolina Postal Historian, Spring 1995, by Vernon S. Stroupe. While many philatelists are stamp collectors, many also collect more than just stamps. The philatelic collecting category called “postal history” has thousands of devoted fans.

What is postal history? By definition, it is a study of the postal system or any part of it. This study can be approached from many directions and from diverse interests. Why should we be interested in studying postal history?

It is the study of:

*The political emergence of a postal system,

*The postal laws and their social effects,

*The post offices, postal routes, and trans­portation of the mail,

*Postmasters and postal employees and,

*Genealogy through the addressee and addressor,

*Historical context of material sent through the mail,

*Postmarks, postal rate usage and stamps.

The latter two will be our basic subject for discussion in this article, but all the above overlap and are useful to the understanding of the whole. The study of postmarks, rates, and stamps on cover starts with an accumulation or collection of postally used envelopes. The object is to find some basic things about each item in the accumulation, which can then be arranged into a collection around a topic or theme. We need to find out:

- Where did this cover originate?

- What stamp is this?

- When was it mailed?

- What do these markings mean?

- Who was the addressee?

- Who was the addressor?

- Were the contents historically meaningful?

There is almost no “right” or “wrong” way to collect postal history. The only mistake that a collector can make is to remove stamps from their covers, cut the backs off the envelopes, drastically reduce the size of the envelope by trimming, or in some other way destroy the cover. The collector has the option of collecting a country, state, county, or just a city. The collector can specialize in a period, such as the Civil War, the Colonial period, or any time frame which interests him. Or, he can collect everything.

By examining the rates and markings, the postal historian can tell the era in which a folded letter or envelope was used by the postal rate and supplemental markings even if no year date is on the correspondence. The most important marking on a letter from the point of view of the collector is the post office. The earliest of these was simply a manuscript marking. Manuscript markings are to be found until the 1880's even though postal regulations required a handstamp after 1857. The other markings are usually a postal rate and date, but too often the date did not include the year.

Supplemental postal markings help to clarify the date of their usage. Way markings, meaning that a post rider accepted the letter along his route for deposit in the post office to which he was going, were used as early as the Colonial period, but without additional payment. In 1794, a rate of two cents was applied to letters delivered by the post rider along his route more than two miles from the nearest post office. In 1825 this amount was changed to one cent for both receiving and delivery, and, in 1836 the way route charge was changed back to two cents. Drop letter rates, that is, letters posted to an address serviced by the same post office, began in 1794 at one cent and was increased to two cents in 1845. Some other supplementary markings are Due, Ship, Steam, Express, Advertised and Registered.

The color of the postal markings is sometimes significant. Black predominates, but red became very popular in the mid-1820's and was used until the end of the Civil War when red stamps became the color for the first class rate. A light red postal marking on a red stamp made it easy for stamps to be reused, so red became a color only occasionally used. The inks have been used in all colors of the rainbow by various postmasters. Some of the early postmasters had to make their own inks, and the result was usually a messy cancellation. These markings can be identified by an oily spread around the edges of the marking. Pittsboro markings of 1840's-1860's show these characteristics and can be found in yellow, orange and red.

A change in the color which a post office used, such as red to black, sometimes occurs with a postal rate change, a change in postmasters, a change in the political control, or it can just mean that the postmaster ran out of ink and decided to change colors. Infrequently the change in colors was made without the postal clerks bothering to clean the handstamps. The result is a little mixing of the old color with the new for a short period afterwards.

The postal rates are an involved study unto themselves. They are best investigated with good references at hand, but the information derived from them is invaluable to a postal historian as they can often date material closely.

The advent of the postage stamp in the United States is another area of great interest. The first two U.S. stamps, the five cent Franklin and ten cent Washington, appeared on July 1, 1847 and were used until they were replaced by the 1851 issue. They are found mostly from major post offices unless used by a traveler who had carried them to a smaller post office. The 1847 series and the 1851-56 series were without perforations, which were added in 1857 to stamps printed from the same plates as used in 1851-56.

All postage stamps printed and put into service by the United States are still valid for postage with the exception of the series of 1847 issue which became invalid when the second issue became available on 1 July 1851 , and the series of 1851 which was demonetized in 1861 to prevent its use in the Confederacy.

Certain public officials have had free franking privileges. The president of the United States has the privilege as does his widow. Senators and congressmen have the privilege for their office purposes. Various state and federal officials have had the franking privilege for their official duties, such as envoys and militia officers. The operational phrase for such franking was, “On Public Service” and signed by the official.

Postmasters had the free franking privilege and could both send and receive mail free. The received mail was ostensibly either on post office business or their private business. The free frank was for the first 1/4 ounce or first letter sheet. All additional weight or letter sheets had to bear the appropriate rate.

In the early 1800's the free frank was changed to affect only postmasters whose offices produced less than $200 annual income. …The franking privilege was part of the personage of the postmaster, as it traveled with him wherever he went.

The physical structure of the letter can often speak to the era in which it was produced. The folded letter was the first form. The letter was written on one side of a sheet of paper, folded, sealed, and the address was written on the outside. A variation of this was to place a blank piece of paper with the letter sheet, fold, seal, and address the outer wrapper.

The postal regulation of 1794 directed that each piece of paper should be charged the single letter rate. Thus, a single folded letter sheet would be charged at the 1/4 ounce rate. If a single letter sheet with wrapper, the double rate, and a third sheet would be the triple rate. Above one ounce, the charge would be the single letter rate multiplied by the number of 1/4 ounces the letter weighed.

Envelopes made their appearance in the late 1840's. By 1855, they accounted for the majority of the letters mailed. The first postally stamped envelopes (pse) were made available in 1853. During the Civil War, due to the extreme shortage of paper, envelopes were often hand made from any spare paper available. The well run southern household would use a steamed open envelope as a template and make covers from wallpaper, maps, brown wrapping paper and blank forms. These are adversity covers and make fascinating collectibles. Another form of adversity cover is a postally used envelope which has been turned inside out and reused.

Many of the covers which we collect are of interest to the genealogist, especially if the letter's contents are intact and the subject of the letter is family matters. Siblings can be identified from cousins; relatives living in the same household can be identified; family members who historically disappeared can be accounted for (the “Went West” syndrome), to mention only a few situations. Moments in history can be recalled and the times better understood by identifying the writer, addressee and the events which shaped their lives.

Civil War propaganda can be found printed on envelopes as cachets. They are slogans, caricatures, emblems, poems and cartoons. Both North and South used this Patriotic format, but it was used far more extensively in the North where there was more access to printing presses and paper.

In the latter part of the 1800's, businesses used cachets on envelopes as a form of advertising. They could be as simple as a blind-embossed corner card, a fancy return address corner card, an illustration of buildings or product, or as fancy as an all-over advertisement. The advertising envelope is still with us today and is most often found on our bills and junk mail.

An outgrowth of the advertising cover is the philatelic cacheted cover known as a first day cover or special event cover. These are prepared for sale to the collector and have minor postal history interest.

Postal history, as a hobby, takes the philatelic specialist, who has necessarily narrowed his field, and widens that field again into more satisfying collecting. It combines the philatelist's urge to collect, and his need to know the past.

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