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US Postmasters’ Provisionals, 1845-1847

The extract below is from a November 2011 article in Gibbons Stamp Monthly. It explores the American uniform postal rates of the 19th century. These early US stamps, which were produced by individual postmasters and were valid in their local areas, and are now some of the most sought after items in American philately.

The complete 5 page article is free to download as a PDF.

Great Britain’s Penny Black, released 6 May 1840, is universally recognized as the world’s first postage stamp. Brazil and the Swiss cantons of Geneva and Zurich were next to issue their first stamps in 1843. The United States and Mauritius followed in 1847 and France and Belgium were added to the list of postage stamp issuing countries in 1849. By 1860 about 85 countries or entities had issued stamps. In the United States, the first stamps were the 5c. and 10c. general issues of 1 July 1847. The stamps (SG 1/2, Scott 1/2) feature Benjamin Franklin, the country’s first postmaster general, and George Washington, the nation’s first president.

Provisional-postmasters-New-York

 The 5c. New York Postmaster’s Provisional with red ‘A C M.’ initials (Courtesy Smithsonian Institution, National Postal Museum)

But before the Post Office Department issued these stamps and received a monopoly on postage stamp issuing, there were several cities that produced what are today called Postmasters’ Provisionals. All are rare and command a hefty premium when they appear on the market.

Prior to 1845 US postage rates were very high and their complexity made them difficult for the public, and even many postmasters, to comprehend. The prevailing custom was for mail to be delivered to the addressee before the Post Office Department was paid for its service. This system was cumbersome and did not encourage the use of the mails.

The Act of 3 March 1845, which became effective on 1 July of that year, finally provided for uniform postage rates that were considerably lower and easy to understand. Once the act went into effect, a letter could be mailed up to 300 miles for 5c. per half ounce. Letters travelling more than 300 miles were charged at the rate of 10c. per half ounce.

The new act did not provide for the government to issue postage stamps but it did allow individual postmasters to issue stamps that would be valid only at their local post office.

Postmaster's Provisonal

Interior view of the New York City Post Office showing clerks sorting the mail. The postmaster’s office was located behind the eagle, a spot that allowed him to see everything that was going on 

New York City: The first Postmasters’ Provisional

The first postmaster to take advantage of the new law was New York Postmaster Robert Hunter Morris, who took office on 21 May 1845. Upon the assumption of his duties, he quickly proceeded with plans to issue an adhesive stamp. While Morris was a forward-thinking individual, he also figured that a stamp would impress his superiors in Washington, DC, while also adding to his salary. During that time, a postmaster’s compensation was tied to the receipts of his post office.

Morris asked Postmaster General Cave Johnson to allow him to issue stamps for prepayment of letters going through his office and when his request was approved Morris contracted with Rawdon, Wright & Hatch of New York, to print a five-cent stamp bearing an image of George Washington.

Rawdon, Wright & Hatch became one of the most prominent printing and engraving firms in nineteenth-century America. The company’s artistry set the standard for succeeding US printing and engraving firms. The 1858 merger of an expanded Rawdon, Wright, Hatch & Edson with seven other firms created the American Bank Note Company with RWH&E holding the largest share in the new company (23.9 per cent).

Between 12 July 1845 and 7 January 1847 RW&H made 18 deliveries of sheets to the New York Post Office, for a total of 3590 sheets of 40, or 143,600 stamps. The stamps were printed in a variety of wove papers varying in thickness from pelure to thick and in colour from grey to bluish and blue. Initially, a thick brown gum was used, succeeded by a thin white transparent gum.

The 12 major and minor Scott Catalogue listings for the New York provisional reflect the specialized classification of paper colours and initial types. A census of this stamp indicates there are about 5500 surviving copies, of which 500 are uncancelled. Perhaps the most significant aspect of the New York provisional is that its success demonstrated the efficacy of adhesive postage stamps to the public and to Congress, paving the way for the 1847 general issue. The New York City experience quickly motivated ten postmasters in other US cities and towns to issue their own stamps.

US Provisionals

New York Postmaster’s Provisional with red grid and ‘Paid’ markings on a cover to Providence, Rhode Island (Courtesy Smithsonian Institution, National Postal Museum)

Discover more about U.S. Postmasters’ provisionals in the complete 5 page article (from Gibbons Stamp Monthly) which is free to download as a PDF.

Gibbons Stamp Monthly is the UK’s best selling stamp magazine.

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