By Marsha Brandsdorfer
In A History of America in Thirty-Six Postage Stamps, author Chris West explains that before stamps, postage was paid by recipients. In 1840, England introduced the Penny Black stamp as a means for the sender to prepay the postage instead. The United States followed suit on July 1, 1847 when the first two U.S. stamps showed portraits of President George Washington and Benjamin Franklin. Benjamin Franklin was honored as he was the first Postmaster General in 1775. Jefferson Davis became the President of the Confederate States of America during the American Civil War and established the Confederate Post Office. He appeared on the first Confederate stamp. To date, Davis has been the only living person on an American stamp.
The only stamps close to breaking this rule are 2013 stamps showing live actors in their roles from the fictitious Harry Potter movies. President Lincoln was commemorated on a U.S. stamp a year after his assassination. Lincoln had experience as a Postmaster when he was just 24 years old in the small rural town of New Salem, Illinois. Franklin, Washington, and Lincoln have appeared on more American and foreign stamps than any other individuals.
In 1869, the first stamps not issuing a national figure were issued. One such definitive stamp commemorated the Pony Express. During its 18 months of operation, mail was carried by horseback through all types of weather conditions from Missouri to California. Once a railroad had been built, mail could be transported efficiently by train. Taking advantage of railroad parcels, in 1914, a young girl named Charlotte May Pierstorff was shipped by her parents in Idaho in the train’s mail compartment for 53 cents postage, so that she could visit her grandparents 70 miles away. Charlotte made it to her grandparents’ home safely, but after that incident, postal regulations were changed to prohibit the shipment of humans.
Airmail became the next newest challenging way to deliver mail. Some postage stamps were issued specifically for airmail delivery. The most famous error stamps are the Inverted Jenny Stamps, which is now one of the rarest stamp collectibles in existence. One stamp that might not have been distributed was the 4 cents commemorative Project Mercury stamp prepared in secret in February 1962, to celebrate Astronaut John Glenn’s mission of circling the Earth on February 20, 1962. If something had gone wrong with the flight, the stamp would not have been issued. Fortunately, the mission was a success, and the stamp went on sale throughout the country.
In 1963, the United States Postal Service established new Zoning Improvement Plan (Zip) Codes to help with the post office’s mechanical sorting of mail. In the 1980s, the United States Post Office increased the number of commemorative stamp issues, taking advantage of the fact that stamps were a valuable source of revenue. The continuing Black Heritage series is an example, so far with 38 individuals portrayed. Harriet Tubman, who was issued on a 13 cents stamp, began the annual series in 1978. Today, we can even create our own postage stamps. Using Zazzle.com, customers can upload their own photos from their computers to create their own unique postage.