The Earliest U.S. Postage Stamps

The Earliest U.S. Postage Stamps 2020-07-07T08:04:05-06:00

imagesThe United States Post Office Department released its first two stamps on July 1, 1847, marking the beginning of what came to be known as the 47-year “Classic Period” of postage stamp production. The earliest stamps were not perforated, requiring postal clerks to cut individual stamps from the sheets using a knife or scissors. While machines would later do the job, the earliest stamps were hand-gummed on the back. During a period of experimentation lasting from 1847 until 1894, five different private banknote companies printed U.S. postage stamps trying different techniques for printing, gumming, perforating and using different paper types. After 1893, the United States Bureau of Engraving and Printing became responsible for printing U.S. postage.

Most Americans in 1847 mailed their letters without postage, despite the unveiling of stamps. Only about 1 in 50 citizens actually purchased a stamp for their mail. Stamp use went up somewhat in 1851, when the Post Office Department modified its rates: prepaid letters cost 3¢, while postage for the same letter cost 5¢ if paid by the receiver. The requirement that postage for all letters be prepaid was implemented on April 1, 1855. Beginning on January 1, 1856, all letters were required to have postage stamps on them.

The earliest stamps are known as Regular Issues (to distinguish them from other kinds of stamps that were later printed, such as commemorative issues).

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The Rawdon, Wright, Hatch & Edson Issue of 1847

America’s first two postage stamps, the 5¢ Benjamin Franklin and 10¢ George Washington, were designed and printed in 1847 by the New York City banknote engraving firm of Rawdon, Wright, Hatch & Edson which had produced the New York Postmaster Provisional stamps earlier. Operating under a four-year contract, the company engraved the initials “RWH&E” at the base of both stamps that it printed. This can easily be seen in the stamps today, sometimes requiring magnification. Although Rawdon, Wright, Hatch & Edson produced only two different stamps (another company won the second printing contract in 1851), the quality of their designs set a standard for future postage stamp releases. The designs for both stamps had been made years earlier by the noted painter, Asher Brown Durand, originally for use on banknotes.

Production began with a precise and detailed image, in reverse, was  engraved on a steel die. A “transfer roll” made from a band of softer steel, was rocked over the die to produce an impression of the engraved image. The transfer roll was pressed onto a printing plate multiple times, producing reverse images. The plate was then used for printing the stamp. Both the 5¢ and 10¢ stamps were printed in sheets of two side-by-side panes of one hundred stamps each on a thin bluish wove paper. The dies used for printing the first two postage stamps happened to be in stock, having been used previously for printing bank notes. They were not specially made for the two new stamps.

Put on sale on July 1, 1847 at the New York City Post Office, the stamps arrived for sale in Boston the following day.  Other post offices received their allocations of stamps throughout the month of July. Once used for postage, stamps were meant to be cancelled. Larger post offices were provided with a cancellation stamp with a round, seven-bar enclosed grid. Smaller post offices sometimes obtained unofficial hand stamps or custom-made their own, though the original expectation was that these post offices would cancel by hand with an “X”.

The first person to purchase a pair of 1847 stamps is believed to have been It is believed that Congressman Harvey Shaw of Connecticut bought the first pair of 1847 stamps, keeping the 5¢ stamp for himself and presenting the 10¢ stamp to his state governor.

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1847 5¢ Benjamin Franklin with various cancels including circular seven-bar grid and X in pen and ink

united-states-george-washington-essay-gilbart-collection-siegel-auctionDuring the four years the 1847 Regular Issue stamps were in use, postal rates were 5¢ for letters going less than 300 miles and 10¢ for letters going farther.

New postal rates went into effect on July 1, 1851 along with a new issue of stamps, rendering the two original U.S. postage stamps obsolete. Neither stamp was accepted for postage following that date. This was one of only two times in U.S. postal history that stamps were demonetized. The second was at the beginning of the Civil War some ten years later.


The stamps selected for study in the section below were chosen to show how commonplace U.S. patriots became on U.S. postage.  The 47 years composing the Classic Period of U.S. stamps features multiple varieties of many stamps, different colors of the same stamp, five different printing contractors, reprints of previous stamps, reuse of one image on more than one stamp, changes in postal rates and many technological advances. While adaptations such as grilling and perforations came along, one thing that remained constant was the subject matter of U.S. stamps: American founding fathers and patriots.

While the stamps of the Classic Period are a strong foundation to any stamp collection, the many permutations require expert guidance for certain identification.

America’s first postage stamp – the 1847 5¢ Benjamin Franklin –

Scott-no.1_1847-5cent_Ben-FranklinBenjamin Franklin, the nation’s first Postmaster General, graced America’s first postage stamp even though first consideration had been given to General Andrew Jackson. Appointed by the Second Continental Congress in July, 1775, Franklin served until November, 1776. The stamp is typically described as being light brown in color, there are actually more than 25 color variations recognized, some common and some very rare.

In addition to color variations, the appearance of the stamp also varies from printing to printing. Across five separate printings, the first printing has the sharpest images. Subsequent printings showed a loss in sharpness due to abrasion of the printing plate caused by earthen pigments in the brown ink used. By the third printing the image was so blurry the plate was acid etched prior to the fourth and fifth printings. The acid etch resulted in the deep lines of the image being sharper while the fine lines nearly disappeared.

There is a wealth of literature available showing which printing a particular Franklin stamp comes from., however it does take skill and experience. Over the span of the five printings, about 4.4 million of these stamps were produced and about 3.7 million sold. As America’s first official national postage stamp, the 5¢ Benjamin Franklin ranks highly with almost all collectors of U.S. stamps.

The 1847 10¢ George Washington

George_Washington_1847_issueThe 10¢ Washington stamp is unusual among U.S. postage stamps because the denomination on the stamp is given in Roman numerals. Fewer variations of this stamp exist than in its 5¢ companion stamp because the printing plates did not sustain damage. A carbon-based non-abrasive black ink was used and the four printings of this stamp are virtually identical. Being printed in a deep black ink, there is not a range of shades. Postmasters complained that the deep color made it difficult to see cancellation marks on this stamp.

Relatively few of these stamps were printed – 10¢ was a high amount of postage that fewer consumers would require – about 1.05 million in all. Of that number, about 863,800 were sold. The 10¢ George Washington is also a favorite of most collectors of U.S. stamps.

Ten-cent stamp bisected to use for five cents postage

The 10¢ Washington stamps can be found in a bisected state (cut in half diagonally) in about 100 of the remaining specimens. The purpose of bisecting was economy: half of a 10¢ stamp counted as 5¢ postage, so the purchaser did not waste money spent. It is also believed bisecting was allowed in order to reduce the number of remaining 10¢ stamps prior to July 1, 1951. On that date, both 1847 stamps were officially demonetized, no longer valid for sending mail. Nevertheless, about 50 examples of invalid uses of this stamp after that date are known.

In 1851, new postal rates went into effect to encourage the public to use the federal postal system more. People could send a letter ten times the distance for 40% less than before. Along with the reduced rates came the need for new stamps. A six-year printing contract (later extended to 1861) was awarded to Toppan, Carpenter, Casilear & Company. All stamps in this series were produced in both perforated and imperforate formats. Two of them – the 3¢ and 5¢ – are bordered by intricate scrollwork, engraved by Cyrus Durand with a geometrical lathe he had invented. Because all the stamps in this series had complex border designs and were printed with several tones of ink, there is considerable variation in the appearance of the printed stamps.


A very early printing. The framework is still complete at the top and the bottom.

The 1851 1¢ Benjamin Franklin

Printed in indigo blue ink, and released imperforate in 1851 (perforations were added in 1857), the 1¢ stamp again features Benjamin Franklin. A penny was the newly-established rate for “circulars” (junk mail). This stamp was printed several times, in sheets of two hundred, over ten years. This stamp caused considerable printing difficulties due to the extremely ornate edges, particularly at the top and bottom edges of the stamp. The stamp is classified into many types and varieties (and Scott Catalogue numbers) according to the relative completeness of the border design. The stamps with intact borders, assigned Type I, are the rarest among the imperforated specimens of this stamp. Type V, the most common, has incomplete borders on all four sides. The 1¢ Franklin has been called the most studied stamp in history and some philatelists collect and concentrate only on the varieties of this stamp.

10The 1851 3¢ George Washington

On March 3, 1851, the cost for mailing single letters was reduced from 5¢ to 3¢, making the Washington stamp the most commonly used of the 1851-57 issue. Over its ten years of use, the 3¢ Washington was printed in various shades of orange and red and had minor design changes. The design shows George Washington in profile, from a 1785 terra cotta bust. Most stamps issued were printed on white wove machine-made paper. Like the 1¢ Franklin, this stamp was printed without perforations until 1857. This stamp has many collectible varieties due to the absence or presence of perforations, color differences and slight design variations.

28The 1857 5¢ Thomas Jefferson

Unlike the other stamps in this series, it was not issued until 1856 (imperforate). The following year perforations were added, with more than 2.3 million perforated stamps beingeventually issued. The red-brown 5¢ Jefferson was the first U.S. stamp to celebrate the third President.  The stamp’s value gave it few domestic uses; instead, it was likely intended to cover the U.S. Internal Rate for British packet ships transporting mail between the United States and England. Applied to an envelope in strips of three, it was often used to send a letter to France.

130px-Washington_1855_Issue1-10cThe 1855 10¢ George Washington

A 10¢ stamp became an urgent necessity after the Postage Stamp Act of March 3, 1855 increased the rate for letters travelling more than 3,000 miles to 10¢. Printed in dark green, the 10¢ stamp features an ornate frame and lettering surrounding a portrait of Washington. Variations in design and the presence or absence of perforations resulted in many variants of this stamp and five separate recognized types. More than 5 million imperforates were printed, and 16 – 18 million in the perforated format. This stamp was often used for sending a letter across the country from coast to coast.

us-stamp-values-scott-17-1851-12-cents-washington-bennett-346-685The 1851 12¢ George Washington

When the 12¢ Washington was released on July 1, 1851, it had the highest value ever printed on a U.S. stamp up to that time. The image is the same Washington portrait as used on the 10¢ stamp, but it was printed in black. Because 12¢ covered half the regular rate of a letter to England, it was often used in pairs. About 8.3 million were printed, of which 2.5 million were imperforate and the remaining 5.8 million perforated. Like the 10¢ George Washington stamp of 1847, this 12¢ stamp was bisected vertically or diagonally, to cover the 6¢ postage rate. Soon, however, the Post Office Department outlawed bisected stamps.

In 1857, when the Post Office Department began perforating stamps, all the designs of 1851 were re-released in the new perforated format and an additional three designs were added.

The government declared existing stamps invalid for postage and quickly issued redesigned stamps after the outbreak of the Civil War. The designs of this series are similar enough to the old designs to be familiar, but still easily distinguished. These are the oldest United States stamps still valid for postage.

Between 1867 and 1871 the Post Office Department applied embossed impressions to its stamps in a process referred to as “grilling”. The function of the grill was to make it more difficult to wash off cancellations in order to reuse stamps. The extent to which reuse of stamps was an actual problem is not clear. The first grills covered the entire stamp, but later examples only cover part of the stamp. Depending on the condition of the stamp, a grill can be difficult to see and study. Grills are distinguished by the size of the embossed area and by the number of “points” in the grill.

1342011719_ggrill f-grill-92 85dgrill 10c-16 An array of stamp grills

Following the short run of the 1869 Pictorial Issue, a new series of more traditional portraits was released by the National Bank Note Company in 1870, ushering in a period of stamp production collectively called the Banknote Era. During this time numerous stylized, similar-appearing stamps were produced as contracts changed hands among three printing and engraving contractors. Stamps varied by paper type and grill, but also by a series of intentional plate variations known as secret marks. While there are some examples available, stamps of this era are some of the most scarce and sought after in all of philately.

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Some of the Banknote Era stamps

When the Continental Bank Note Company took over the printing contract in 1873, it took over many of the original plates and dies of its predecessors. The designs are, therefore, similar or identical to those printed earlier. The 1¢ through the 12¢ can be identified by “secret marks” added to the designs. The 15¢ can be distinguished by plate wear and shade variation, and the 30¢ and 90¢ can be distinguished by shade differences. Although both National and Continental printed the 24¢ stamp, there is no way to tell the issues apart; there is no secret mark or consistent color variation. There is one exception: a single example of the 24¢ exists on ribbed paper which was only used by Continental.

The National, Continental and American Bank Note Companies ultimately merged under the name of the American Bank Note Company which assumed the contract for printing stamps in 1879. When American first took over the contract, it used the Continental plates. The original plates were imprinted Continental, so the imprint on these issues does not always accurately reflect the printing firm. The American stamps are distinguished from the Continental printings by paper type. American used paper that is described as “soft porous.” When held to a light, soft porous paper looks mottled or quilted.

The American Bank Note Company re-engraved several denominations in 1881 and printed them on soft porous paper. These stamps can be distinguished from the earlier printings by subtle design changes.
210211212In 1883, the domestic letter rate was reduced to 2¢ per one-half ounce. To accommodate the change two new stamps were issued: the 2¢ Washington (red brown) and 4¢ Jackson (blue green). In 1887, the 1¢ Franklin was redesigned with a frame similar to the 2¢ and 4¢ stamps.

1890-93 marked the last regular issue stamps printed by the American Bank Note Company. Although similar to previous issues, they are smaller and different in their shades of color, introducing the look and style of U.S. definitive stamp issues for the next 50 years. The Bureau of Engraving and Printing, a part of the U.S. Department of the Treasury, was about to take responsibility for producing American stamps.