Things You Didn't Know About the U.S. Postal Service

Letter Carrier Collecting Mail

Letter Carrier Collecting Mail by Smithsonian Institution (CC BY)

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Letter Carrier Collecting Mail
Letter Carrier Collecting Mail by Smithsonian Institution (CC BY)

Stamp of Approval

The United States Postal Service is part of our national heritage going all the way back to the Revolutionary War. The Founding Fathers believed a postal system to be so important that they wrote it into the U.S. Constitution, compelling Congress to establish one. As America grew, so did the Postal Service. The post office — and its ubiquitous postage stamps — became a part of daily life, an important conduit for news and information, a vehicle for commerce, and of course, a way to stay in touch with friends and family. Test your knowledge of Postal Service history with these postal firsts and facts.

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New York Postmaster's Provisional, 1845
Wikimedia Commons

1847: The Very First Stamps

Postage stamps first appeared in 1847; prior to that, postal clerks simply noted the amount the sender paid on the envelope. The first two official postage stamps were issued on July 1; Ben Franklin graced the 5-cent stamp and George Washington was on the 10-center. Until 1855, postage was based on distance, not weight. Letters traveling less than 300 miles cost 5 cents to send; deliveries of more than 300 miles cost 10 cents.

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Pony Express Stables in St. Joseph, Missouri
Pony Express Stables in St. Joseph, Missouri by Americasroof (CC BY-SA)

1860: Pony Express Hits the Trail

The Central Overland California and Pike's Peak Express Co., better known as the Pony Express, operated for less than two years and didn't even begin carrying mail for the Postal Service on a contract basis until July 1861, just a few months before ceasing operations. And yet the Pony Express and their fleet of riders remain an icon of the nation's frontier days. It took about 10 days for mail to travel from St. Joseph, Missouri, to Sacramento, California, and cost as much as $5 to send a half-ounce letter. 

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William Cooper Nell
Wikimedia Commons

1863: Breaking the Color Barrier

William Cooper Nell (1816-74) was a journalist and civil rights activist from Boston who led a years-long effort to desegregate Massachusetts' public schools, something that culminated successfully in 1855. In 1863, the postmaster general of Boston hired Nell as a postal clerk, making him the first African-American postal employee.

The 2¢ Landing of Columbus is the most common stamp of the Columbian Issue
Wikimedia Commons

1893: An Occasion to Commemorate

The Chicago World's Fair (aka the Columbian Exposition) was a dazzling spectacle on the shores of Lake Michigan, a chance for the growing nation to show off its technological might as it observed the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus' arrival in the New World. To honor the event, the post office issued its first-ever commemorative postage: a series of 16 stamps ranging in value from 1 cent to $5. 


1903 Columbia Electric Runabout, the best-seller car in the U.S. in 1900 and the first to exceed 1000 sales.
1903 Columbia Electric Runabout, the best-seller car in the U.S. in 1900 and the first to exceed 1000 sales. by F. D. Richards (CC BY-SA)

1901: Mail, Motorized

As the new century dawned and cities boomed, so did interest in using the automobile to deliver the mail. A trial run in Los Angeles in 1899 led to the first contracted mail route via electric car (yes, those did exist) in 1901 in Minneapolis. A decade on, seven cities had motorized routes, and by the mid-1930s, the automobile had all but replaced the horse-drawn wagon as the primary means of urban mail delivery.

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Martha Washington Stamp, 1902

1902: A First for Women

The postal service had honored plenty of men individually on stamps, but never had featured a woman until Martha Washington appeared on an 8-cent stamp issued in December. Washington wasn't the first female to be depicted on a U.S. postage stamp, however; Queen Isabella of Spain was featured alongside Christopher Columbus on a $4 stamp issued as part of the 1893 Columbian Exposition series. In 1907, Pocahontas became the second woman to be featured on a stamp (and the first Native American). It would be 21 years before another female appeared on postage. 

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Inverted Jenny Stamp
Wikimedia Commons

1918: Million-Dollar Misprint

Printing postage stamps requires precision, and from time to time a misprint occurs. Usually, these are destroyed as soon as they come off the presses, but once in great while one will slip past the inspectors. Perhaps no postal misprint is more famous than the upside-down Curtiss biplane on this 24-cent stamp, known among collectors as the "Inverted Jenny." A sheet of 100 misprinted stamps first sold to a collector in 1918 for face value — and then was quickly resold for a tidy profit. In 2019, a block of four of these rare stamps from that original misprinted sheet sold for about $1.7 million at auction.

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The first U.S. Air Mail takes off from Washington, D.C., on May 15, 1918.
Wikimedia Commons

1918: Mail Goes Airborne

Postal officials had discussed using airplanes to deliver the mail as early as 1911, but it wasn't until the final months of World War I that it became a reality. The first scheduled air mail route between New York City and Washington, D.C., began in May, using Army planes and pilots. Postage cost 24 cents. By 1920, transcontinental service had been inaugurated, slashing the time it took for a letter to travel across the country in half.

Booker T. Washington stamp

1940: Recognizing African-American History

The post office had been printing stamps for nearly a century before it finally chose to honor an African-American. Booker T. Washington, founder of the Tuskegee Institute, was the first Black man to be featured, appearing on a 10-cent stamp issued in April. A 3-cent stamp commemorating ratification of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, which abolished slavery, was also issued in 1940. In 1956, the post office again honored Washington with a 3-cent stamp celebrating his 100th birthday.

Highway Post Office Bus at Strasburg, Virginia
Highway Post Office Bus at Strasburg, Virginia by Smithsonian Institution (CC BY)

1941: Post Offices on Wheels

For generations, the railroads had been the primary means of transporting mail over long distances. But by 1940, it was clear that transportation's future lay inroads, not rails. To get mail from one region to the next, the post office launched its Highway Post Office in 1941. These were essentially mail-sorting operations on wheels, servicing an average of 25 post offices along a route. The bus service was discontinued in 1974, and one of the postal buses today can be seen at the Smithsonian's National Postal Museum.

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Missile Mail cover launched from USS Barbero
Wikimedia Commons

1959: Mail by Missile

The post office has never been shy about experimenting with new means of delivering the mail. One of the weirdest trials occurred in 1959, when a guided missile containing 3,000 letters was launched from the U.S.S. Barbero, bound for the Mayport, Florida, naval auxiliary air station about 100 miles away. The 22-minute voyage so impressed Postmaster General Arthur Summerfeld that he predicted guided missiles would be transporting mail "before man reaches the moon."

A 1963 U.S. Post Office sign featuring Mr. ZIP
Wikimedia Commons

1963: ZIP Codes Arrive

With mail volume booming and the nation's suburbs sprawling away from city centers, the post office needed a more efficient means of organizing and sorting mail for delivery. Enter the Zone Improvement Plan, or ZIP, code, a series of five numbers that delineated the general and specific regional destination of each mailing address in the United States. Unveiled to great fanfare in 1963 (including a mascot, the hyperstylized Mr. ZIP), use of ZIP codes wasn't fully implemented until the decade's end.

1974 self-adhesive holiday stamp

1974: No More Licking

Nowadays, all first-class stamps are self-stick, but back in 1974 they were quite the new thing. The Postal Serive issued a special holiday stamp that year with a self-adhesive backing, rather than the traditional lick-and-stick kind. They were sold pre-canceled in an effort to prevent people from reusing them, something consumers found annoying, and they cost exponentially more to print than regular stamps. In 1989, having perfected a cost-effective printing method, the Postal Service again began selling self-adhesive stamps. 

1978 A stamp

1978: Stamps with No Apparent Value

In the 1970s, the post office was reorganized as an independent federal agency that was required by law to be financially self-sufficient. Without federal subsidies, the newly renamed U.S. Postal Service had to squeeze more revenue from stamp prices, and it raised rates four times during the decade. When the Postal Rate Commission voted to do so again in 1978, officials weren't sure if there would be enough stamps with the as-yet-to-be-determined new value available to meet demand. As a stopgap, the Postal Service released the "A" stamp in May, which had no face value, and bore a simple graphic image of an eagle set against a monochromatic background. It sold at the new first-class rate of 15 cents.

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1993 Elvis stamp

1993: Young Elvis or Old Elvis?

To promote its upcoming Legends of American Music postage series, the Postal Service did something new: It asked the public in 1992 to choose the version of the stamp honoring Elvis Presley that would be printed, along with stamps honoring Buddy Holly, Patsy Cline, and Dinah Washington, among others. The young, 1950s-era Elvis won handily over the older '70s-era Elvis, and the winning stamp was released in January of 1993.

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1998 breast cancer research semipostal stamp

1998: Postage with Purpose

An act of Congress created a new kind of postage stamp called a semipostal. These stamps sold for a premium over the current first-class rate, with the additional proceeds benefiting a designated cause or organization. The first of these stamps, benefiting breast cancer research, was issued in July and has been reissued several times since. As of May 2021, the Postal Service has raised about $92.6 million in proceeds from this stamp alone. Since then, semipostal stamps have been issued honoring the families of emergency workers killed or injured in the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks; victims of domestic violence; international wildlife conservation; and Alzheimer's disease research.

2007 Forever Stamp

2007: Stamps, Forever

Facing the twin challenges of declining first-class mail volume and rising postal rates, the Postal Service unveiled "forever" stamps. These postage stamps would always guarantee first-class delivery, no matter how much they originally cost. By 2011, all first-class stamps (except those sold in bulk) were designated as Forever stamps.

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Megan Brennan
Jason Merritt/Stringer/Getty Images Entertainment/Getty Images North America

2015: Another First for Women

Women have been a part of the post office since its colonial days. The first female postmaster, Mary Katherine Goddard, worked in Baltimore from 1775-79. In 2015, Megan Brennan — a career postal worker whose brother also worked for the Postal Service — became the first female postmaster general; she retired in 2020.