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The Early History of Stamps

When you think about the history of the postal service and stamps in the United States, perhaps the stalwart riders of the Pony Express come to mind. Though those riders have certainly left their stamp on history . so to speak . they were only active for a mere 18 months. The history of stamps and the postal service in general, began much earlier.

In fact, the first stamps weren't even issued in the United States. The first stamp as we know it was the Penny Black, a British stamp issued in 1840 that featured a picture of the then young Queen Victoria. A system of uniform postage was suggested by Rowland Hill, later knighted, in Britain . he also designed and printed the first stamps. British stamps continued to feature Queen Victoria until 1900.

In the United States, postage rates were standardized in 1845. The first stamps, called Postmasters' Provisionals, weren.t the separate stamps we think of today, but more like our modern postmarks. Adhesive stamps had become available a few years earlier, when private carrier Alexander M. Greig's business began to offer then in 1842. Later the United States Postal Service bought Mr. Greig's business and incorporated his methodology into their practices.

In July 1847, in New York, the first stamps of general issue . a five cent stamp featuring Benjamin Franklin . became available for purchase. Another stamp, sold for 10 cents, pictured first president George Washington. Until 1856, these were the only two people whose images appeared on stamps . this was also the year that government-issued stamps became the only acceptable form of payment for postage. That year, a nickel stamp picturing Thomas Jefferson debuted. In 1863, Andrew Jackson was also honored with a stamp.

The first envelopes that came preprinted with postage debuted in 1853, while the first post card was issued in 1869 in Austria. Four years later, in 1873, the United States issued their first post card. These cards were sold for the cost of postage up until 1999, when prices increased to cover the costs of manufacturing the card in addition to the postage amount, which had always been the case with envelopes that carried postage.

The first commemorative stamp issued honored the World Columbian Exposition, which was held in Chicago in 1893. This was the first stamp to feature a larger size, which was necessary to reproduce the paintings that depicted Columbus's voyages. In 1997, the first commemorative postage stamp with a triangular shape was issued, while the first round commemorative stamp appeared only three years later, in 2000.

One of the best selling commemorative stamps ever was the 1993 stamp picturing young Elvis Presley. This stamp was also unique in that consumers were invited to vote on whether they wanted the stamp to feature the .young. or .old. Elvis.

The stamp that first featured an America woman was an eight cent stamp in 1902, picturing Martha Washington. Admiral David Farragut became the first Hispanic American to be featured on a stamp one year later in 1903. In 1907, a stamp featuring Pocahontas became the first stamp to recognize a specific Native American, while the first African American honored on a stamp was Booker T. Washington in 1940.