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A Primer for the New Philatelist (Stamp Collector)

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In the last month, the cash-strapped United States Postal Service has trimmed back its cost-cutting plan to shutter thousands of rural post offices, instead opting to chop hours of operation. This year, the USPS forsees mail volume dropping 9.9 billion — with a B — pieces. In the last decade, the cost of mailing a letter has risen 8 cents a stamp, while its cited competitor, email, remains free.

In the 170 years since the first adhesive postage stamp, the postal service in the U.S. has had its ups and downs. While the USPS battles to remain relevant as more people turn to email and online bill payment, its stamps remain as lasting little thumbnails of, and a way that collectors connect with, the country’s origins and history.

The introduction of the U.S. postal stamp actually began in England in May of 1840. A U.S. Senator, Daniel Webster, recommended that the English postage stamps be used in America as well. The idea was well received and the first adhesive postage stamp ever produced in the western hemisphere was born on February 1, 1842 in New York City by a carrier service called “City Despatch Post.” The first U.S. stamp issue, featuring Benjamin Franklin, worth 5 cents, and George Washington, worth 10 cents, however, didn’t become available for sale until July 1, 1847 in New York City.

Since the 1840s, the United States has become well known for its variety of different stamps throughout the years, especially limited collectors editions featured for national holidays and to commemorate influential American leaders.

There are a few stamp sets that are considered to be the most popular of all stamps in American history. The first series of these stamps was the Liberty Issue stamp set in 1854. The Presidential stamp set from 1954 to 1965 came next. From then on it was the Prominent Americans stamp series from 1965 to 1981, the Great Americans stamp set from 1980 to 1994 and finally the American Celebrities stamp series in 2000.

The Liberty Issue stamp series began in 1854 and offered 24 varieties, from the half-cent featuring Benjamin Franklin to the five-dollar Alexander Hamilton stamp. The normal stamp used for most mail, the 3-cent stamp, did not depict a photograph of an American president, however. The stamp instead pictured the Statue of Liberty. The statue is also depicted on the 8- and 11-cent stamp, which is where the series gets it name “liberty.” Pictures of American landmarks such as Bunker Hill and Mount Vernon can be found on a few stamps but the rest depict prominent American figures, with one stamp featuring Susan B. Anthony, the only woman featured in this particular series of stamps.

Most U.S. postage stamps depict a portrait of an American president more than anything else. Presidents were the first image to ever appear on the stamp, with Benjamin Franklin, who founded the Postal Service, and George Washington, the first U.S. President, making their official debut in 1847. Since then, presidents have continued to be chosen as the face of several American postage stamps for very different reasons.

The Presidential stamp series began in 1954 and lasted until 1965, with some of the most prominent stamps including Andrew Jackson, Abraham Lincoln and Thomas Jefferson. Jackson’s appearance was the first to be presented on two Confederate stamps, which made him the only U.S. President to be introduced to the postage by the Confederacy rather than the postal office. Lincoln’s stamp was also particularly memorable because it was issued exactly one year after his assassination in 1865 and was used to commemorate the fallen president’s life.

The Prominent Americans stamp set came next in 1965. This series of stamps strayed from the typical American tradition that has always included political figures. The Prominent American stamps instead included people such as Elizabeth Blackwell, Albert Einstein, Lucy Stone, Thomas Paine and other figures known for their outstanding efforts in different areas of American culture. The stamps also underwent a makeover, with each prominent American stamp created by a different designer. Previous definitive issues had been set to one standard style, allowing for this particular series of stamps to stand out from previous stamp series.

The next stamp series, the Great American series began in 1980. This particular set of stamps has been known to be a favorite among many for its simple and traditional designs. The Great American collection was similar to previous series, consisting of a portrait, name, occupation, inscription “USA,” and denomination, all in a single color on a plain white background. Compared to the Prominent American series, the range of people featured was much broader. Americans from many different fields and walks of life were portrayed in this series, with only two presidents ever appearing on this stamp collection. Not only this, but the Great American series featured more women than any other previous series, with about 15 women depicted all together. The figures pictured on the stamps included John Harvard, founder of Harvard College, Milton Hershey, founder of The Hershey Chocolate Company and John Hopkins, an abolitionist, philanthropist and entrepreneur of the 19th century.

The last and final stamp series is the Distinguished Americans series beginning in 2000. This particular collection of stamps features a variety of American entertainers, athletes, politicians and more. The first 10-cent stamp depicted Joseph Stilwell, a U.S. Army four-star General known for his service in the China Burma India Theater. Others included in future stamps include author Edna Ferber, athlete Wilma Rudolph and author Harriet Beecher Stowe.

Let’s face it, stamps have become a definitive part of American culture since their debut in 1847. American stamps hold more than financial value–they serve as individual passages of U.S. history. If you have any of these pieces of heritage around, whether inherited or discovered, you’d do well to price your collection and gather some stamp collecting supplies to protect your treasures.

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About Brian P. Russell

Brian Russell lives in University of Florida's Gator Country. He enjoys exploring new places and learning new things, plus sharing what he's found with others. Turnoffs include double spaces after periods and emails with unneeded CCs. He plays H-O-R-S-E at 3 p.m. EST every weekday at 352 Media Group.
  • Jeffry Johnson

    Presidential series: 1938.

    Liberty series: 1954.