By Kristin Clark, 1997 National Postal Museum Intern
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.