Stick to 1847 for nation's first stamp

Hobbies

January 05, 2003|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

WASHINGTON - Daniel Webster was celebrated for his oratory and nationalist beliefs but was little known for pushing fellow lawmakers to adopt the postage stamp.

As soon as England's one-penny "Penny Black" stamp appeared in 1840, Webster, a senator from Massachusetts, sought to revamp how letters were sent in the United States and its territories.

In the Republic's early decades, mailing a letter was prohibitively expensive - about 25 cents when the average laborer earned $1 a day.

It took seven years for Congress to authorize postal stamps, which began to make national delivery a viable proposition. In 1847 the first two adhesive stamps, with Benjamin Franklin on the 5-cent and George Washington on the 10-cent, were issued. It was the first time that a letter could be sent from one American coast to the other.

"When California became a state, these stamps became a symbol of a nation that stretched from the Atlantic to the Pacific," said Allen Kane, director of the National Postal Museum, which is showing the country's first official stamps, called the 1847s, in an exhibit that runs until May 19.

In the 19th century, the idea of a national post office and reliable mail delivery was in its infancy. Americans, like the British, had based the cost of a letter on how far it traveled and on the number of sheets of stationery (envelopes were extra) it contained. And the local postmaster had to keep track of each letter, laboriously recording it in a ledger.

Most letters were sent collect, and the recipient frequently did not, or could not, pay.

"America's First Stamps" shows both stamps on "covers," folded letter sheets similar to airmail stationery where the address is on the outside flap, and on the rarer envelopes.

"America's First Stamps: The 1847s" are on display at the National Postal Museum, 2 Massachusetts Ave. N.E., Washington, daily from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. The exhibit is free. Call: 203-357-2991 or visit www.si.edu/postal.

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