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Why We Still Use Postage Stamps

The enduring necessity (and importance) of a nearly 200-year-old technology.

The postage stamp as we know it today is a relatively young technology. Prior to the mid-1800s, “most letters were sent collect, so postage was paid by the recipient of the letter rather than by the sender,” Piazza told me. This turned out to be a very bad business model for the Postal Service. First, it required people to go to their post office to see whether they had mail. In fact, postmasters paid to run ads in local papers listing who had letters to collect so those people would retrieve them. (One true constant across time seems to be that people consider going to the post office a chore.) Then, if there was a letter for someone and they did pick it up, the receiver had to pay the postage, which they sometimes refused to do, given its expense. “So it’s a very cumbersome, sort of expensive system” for both the Postal Service and the receivers of mail, Piazza said.

Until a breakthrough in 1840. The U.K. issued the Penny Black, the world’s first prepaid, adhesive stamp. With this stamp, people could send a half-ounce letter for a flat, prepaid rate of one penny. The Penny Black featured the face of Queen Victoria, and, in a sign of the times, some people believed that “licking the back of the queen’s head was undignified, if not potentially treasonous,” Altman wrote in his book. On a recent visit to the British Library, I was able to see the last remaining press of the type that printed the Penny Black. Displayed on the library’s upper-ground floor, the machine—which was smaller than I had imagined, given its function—looked as delicate as an antiquity of the Industrial Revolution can, with its large spindle, rope pulleys, and iron weights.

This British innovation in stamp production set the path for other countries to follow. In the 1840s and ’50s, several other nations developed their own postage stamps. The U.S. issued its first ones on July 1, 1847: a five-cent stamp featuring Benjamin Franklin, the country’s first postmaster general, and a 10-cent stamp featuring George Washington. (Washington, distinguished in so many ways, also has the distinction of having more appearances on U.S. stamps than anyone else.)

The start of stamps in the U.S. was an unheralded affair. A postmaster in Maine mailed a letter—without a stamp, postage due—to the postmaster general to inquire whether the stamps his office had received were “genuine,” according to Smithsonian Magazine. But by 1856, all mail required federal, prepaid postage stamps, and we largely entered the state of postage stamps as we know them today. Or, as Morel put it, their invention “triggered our information revolution.”