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Why Stamp Prices Keep Rising

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USPS Postal worker load truck
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Signed, Sealed, Delivered

The U.S. Postal Service is implementing a rate hike yet again. Starting Jan. 22, 2023, the price of first-class stamps rises to 63 cents from 60 cents. The news comes just months after the postal service raised the price of a first-class stamp to 60 cents, the latest in a string of postal-rate increases dating back to the birth of the nation.


Related: 17 Historic and Unusual Post Offices Across America

Benjamin Franklin Post Office, Philadelphia
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1792: 6 to 25 Cents

Before independence, the post office existed mostly for the benefit of the Continental Congress and the Army. The Articles of Confederation, passed in 1781, laid the groundwork for a national postal network and was codified in Article I, Section 8 of the U.S. Constitution. Initially, rates were based on how far a letter (defined as a single sheet of paper) had to travel between post offices. Prices ranged from 6 cents for delivery of 30 miles or less up to 25 cents for distances greater than 450 miles. In 2021 dollars, that's about $1.67 to $6.95, which is a lot more than the cost of a first-class stamp today.


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American forces repelled a British assault on New Orleans in January 181
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1815: 16 to 50 Cents

In an attempt to recoup some of the costs of the War of 1812, the post office doubled its rates, which had last been increased in 1799. Deliveries of 40 miles of less, which had cost 8 cents, were now 16 cents. Mail that had to travel 500 miles or more, which had cost 25 cents, now cost 50 cents. Congress repealed the rate increase in April 1816. A month later, it even rolled back rates. Deliveries of 30 miles or less again cost 6 cents.


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

New York Postmaster's Provisional, 1845
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1845: 5 to 10 Cents

President John Tyler had been in office for just a few months when Congress overhauled postal rates in July, the first time it had done so since 1816. With steamboats and railroads beginning to stitch together the nation, rates dropped precipitously. Letters traveling less than 300 miles now cost 5 cents to send; deliveries of more than 300 miles cost 10 cents. The first official postage stamps, featuring George Washington and Ben Franklin, appeared in 1847 and cost 10 cents and 5 cents, respectively.


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Benjamin Franklin Issue of 1851
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1851: 3 to 10 Cents

The Post Office Department established its first overland mail route to California in 1851, 18 years before the first transcontinental railroad would be completed. Two more routes linking California and the western territories were established in 1857 and 1858. Traveling by stagecoach, mail leaving St. Louis took about three weeks to arrive in San Francisco. Deliveries of less than 3,000 miles were now just 3 cents prepaid, 5 cents if paid upon delivery; destinations of more than 3,000 miles cost 6 cents prepaid, 10 cents if postpaid. In 1855, Congress revised postal rates again, requiring all deliveries to be paid for at the time of shipping.

The "Black Jack" Issue of 1863
Wikimedia Commons

1863: 3 Cents an Half-Ounce

The post office provided a crucial link between Union soldiers and their families during the Civil War. Recognizing the need, Congress abolished the system of distance-based postal rates, replacing it with a flat rate of 3 cents for all letters based on increments of a half-ounce. That rate would stand until 1883, when the price of mailing a half-ounce letter fell to 2 cents. Two years later, the weight limit was doubled to 1 ounce; the 2-cent price stayed the same.


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1917 stamp
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1918: 3 Cents an Ounce

As the nation entered World War I, the need to raise postal revenue was clear. Postage rates had gone largely untouched in a generation, even as the nation continued to grow and technology evolved. That same year, Congress authorized $100,000 to fund an experimental airmail service using Army planes. In 1918, regularly scheduled air service between New York City and Washington began. On Nov. 2, the price of a first-class stamp rose to 3 cents from 2. In July 1919, the price returned to 2 cents.

1932 stamp
Amazon

1932: 3 Cents

It was the worst of the Great Depression: Not a great time to be raising the price of postage stamps, one would think. But it was the first time rates for first-class mail had been increased in 15 years. From 1930 to 1935, the volume of mail handled fell to 22.3 billion pieces from 27.9 billion; it wouldn't return to 1930 levels until 1940. First-class postage once again cost 3 cents. The Depression also saw many post offices decorated with patriotic or scenic murals, painted by artists employed by federal agencies from 1934-43.

1958 stamp
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1958: 4 Cents

The postwar boom radically transformed the way many Americans lived, worked, and played. The post office found itself stretched to the limit as suburban delivery routes grew farther and farther from cities, relying on highways instead of railways to move an ever-growing volume of mail, and building infrastructure to serve these growing communities. All that cost money, so that August the Post Office Department upped the cost of a first-class stamp to 4 cents. Good thing it did: Mail volume rose by some 18 billion pieces during the decade.

5¢ George Washington Regular Issue, 1962
Wikimedia Commons

1960s: 5 to 6 Cents

The Post Office Department raised postage rates by a penny in 1963 and again in '68. Investment in the agency had not kept pace with the nation it served, and it was foundering. Christmas mail volume in Chicago created such a backlog in 1963 that some holiday deliveries didn't arrive at their destinations until February. Three years later, a similar logjam occurred. The government responded in 1967 by appointing a blue-ribbon commission, led by the chairman of AT&T, to recommend ways of reforming the agency.

1973 "Love" stamp
Wikimedia Commons

1970s: 8 to 15 Cents

The resulting Kappel Commission report was argued over at length from its release in 1968 until 1970, when, after lengthy congressional debate and negotiations with postal workers and officials, compromise legislation was signed into law by President Richard Nixon. The newly renamed U.S. Postal Service was now an independent federal agency whose rates would be set by a board of governors, with a merit-based workforce that had the power of collective bargaining. The postal system was expected to be run like a private business, no longer supported by public subsidies. The result? Four postal rate increases between 1971 and 1978. A first-class stamp that cost 6 cents on New Year's Day 1970 would cost 15 cents by the decade's end.

Olympic 1980 Block stamps
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1980s: 18 to 25 Cents

The digital age arrived in a big way for the post office during the Reagan era. With mail volume still growing, the Postal Service turned to computer automation, installing the first optical character readers in 1982. These devices could scan a handwritten address, generating a barcode on the envelope that would be used to expedite the mail-sorting process. A year later, the post office began using ZIP codes that contained an additional four digits, also to make delivery more efficient. All that innovation cost money, and the Postal Service raised rates four times (twice in 1981 alone). The final increase in 1988 raised first-class postage to a 25 cents.

1995 stamp
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1990s: 29 to 33 Cents

The drive to automate continued into the early years of the internet. Some innovations — delivery confirmation, digital self-service kiosks, and print-at-home postage — were customer focused. Other transformative changes, such as the use of robots to sort mail starting in 1997, took place behind the scenes. At the end of the decade, the Postal Service also began partnering with private package delivery services such as Airborne Express and, later, UPS and FedEx. To pay for these initiatives, postage rates were increased three times, in 1991, '95, and '99. As the decade (and the century) closed, a first-class stamp cost 33 cents.

2002 9/11 Stamp
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2000s: 34 to 44 Cents

In the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, mail volume fell for the first time since the Great Depression; the Postal Service was on thin ice financially. In 2003 and again in 2006, Congress passed sweeping legislation that radically remade how the postal system could manage its finances. Money that could have been directed toward service improvements was channeled into pension funding obligations and debt repayments — and regulations limited the amount of money the Postal Service could raise rates by. Though first-class postage rates were raised six times during the decade, topping out at 44 cents, it wasn't enough to compensate for a corresponding 25% drop in first-class mail volume.

2010 Garfield stamp
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2010s: 45 to 55 Cents

In June 2011, the Government Accountability Office reported that the Postal Service was in "crisis." Cost-cutting measures that limited post office hours, consolidated distribution facilities, and reduced staff were implemented, yet still the red ink flowed as first-class mail volume continued to steadily erode. More aggressive measures that could have saved money, such as the elimination of Saturday delivery, went nowhere in Congress. Despite the dark outlook, package deliveries continued to expand along with the world of e-commerce. First-class postal rates were raised seven times to end the decade at 55 cents.

Postal Service worker delivers mail wearing a mask
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2021: 58 Cents

Postmaster General Louis DeJoy has been attempting to dig the Postal Service out of a $160 billion hole. In May 2021, he said first-class stamps would soon cost 58 cents. Slammed by the pandemic, the agency had struggled to process an increasing number of packages, and on-time delivery scores hadn't surpassed 90% since July 2020, according to The Washington Post. DeJoy has also been trying to reduce expenses by shrinking the agency's workforce and lengthening delivery windows.

Forever U.S. Flag Stamps
U.S. Postal Service

2022: 60 Cents

Getting tired of hearing about — and experiencing — inflation? Sorry: As of July 10, first-class stamps are now 60 cents. The postal service says the 2-cent bump is still lower than the current rate of inflation, but not by much. As CBS News points out, it amounts to 9% more than prices less than a year ago, while inflation is about 8.6%. Higher operating expenses are also a factor, the Postal Service says. 

USA First-class forever
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2023: 63 Cents

It appears that if the month starts with a J, you can expect stamp prices to go up. In July 2022 the price of a Forever stamp was raised to 60 cents, and now starting in January 2023, it will be at 63 cents. As the U.S. Postal Service continues to find its way out of a $1 billion debt, price raises will also reflect ongoing inflation. Despite higher costs on letters and postcards as well, the U.S. Postal Service put out a statement that claims, "The prices remain among the most affordable in the world."