Early American Stamps

3/11/2017     United States

In this short article I shall attempt the impossible, a potted overview of the earliest US postage stamps… please forgive me but I came up with the idea with just an hour or so before our publishing deadline because I spotted that we had a number of nice single stamps due to be sold next Tuesday!

So here goes nothing…

Although the first stamps issued within the US were the New York local carrier stamps of 1842 it was not until 1847 that the first national stamps appeared, a 5c showing Benjamin Franklin and a 10c depicting George Washington, both imperforate. Print runs of around just 4.4 & 3.7 million copies respectively were made (compare this to the 60+ million British Penny Blacks and you will gain a sense of this vast and at the time, underpopulated country).

In 1851 postal rates dropped, alongside a growing menu of rates and services this necessitated a new series of 5 different stamps from 1c to 12c depicting portraits of Franklin, Jefferson & Washington, all of these were imperforate. In 1857 this series was perforated and the 24c, 30c & 90c values added.

Collectors will generally see the 1847 first issue, the 1851-57 imperfs & the 1857-61 perforated series as 3 different issues.

1861 saw an announcement that due to the retention and improper use of stamps by “delinquent postmasters” in the seceded states that there would be an issue of new stamps “altogether different” from the current issues. So it was that in August 1861 new designs began to circulate which also included Andrew Jackson (a 2c black, often affectionately referred to as the “Black Jack”) and Lincoln. In 1867 embossed grills were impressed into these stamps as a security measure to increase the absorption of postmark ink into the fabric of the stamp. There are different grill sizes and they are collected together by their grill types.

These 1861-66 designs and then the same stamps with impressed grills from 1867 are chiefly viewed as 2 different issues by collectors.

The spectacular 1869 issue with its bicolour higher values topped by the delightful 90c black and carmine Lincoln is a classic issue and the subject of many collections in its own right.

Perhaps the most daunting of the early US issues are those generally termed as the “Banknote Issues”, a series of elegant stamps to 90c depicting Presidents & popular national figures facing leftwards. They were printed over an almost 20 year period from 1870 by either the National Bank Note Co., the Continental Bank Note Co., and the American Bank Note Co. The collector is faced with a range of challenges to identify stamps correctly, for example the 10c brown Jefferson has 9 basic different stamps listed by the American Scott catalogue!

Like many stamps it helps to identify different “Bank Notes” if you have a large number to compare against each, however the array of so-called “secret marks” added by engravers and different paper types may lead the person wishing to build a collection to purchase a copy of Charles Micarelli’s “Identification Guide to U.S. Stamps” which as it groups each value together and compares the differences can be a great time saver! Or you can simply purchase them from reliable sources -such as us!

I’ll leave it at that for now, as I can already hear specialists weeping at my attempt to condense several lifetimes of philatelic research into just a few hundred words! We think both the Scott and the Stanley Gibbons USA listings are the best listings we’ve seen of these fabulous stamps and highly recommend the aforementioned Micarelli book if you are considering collecting this great area.

Vincent Green

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