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Rates Can Matter On U.S. First Day Covers

by Marjory J. Sente

Many stamps are issued that don’t seem to pay a specific rate, such as the first-class letter rate (currently 33¢).

So you often have to ask yourself, is the stamp on that first-day cover paying the right rate? Or what rate did it pay? These questions frequently come up when a new set or series of U.S. stamps is released.

Many of these, such as the 1932 Washington Bicentennials or the 1938 Presidential series, included a number of stamps that paid no specific rate.

To obtain a correctly rated FDC including such stamps, they had to be used in conjunction with others, frequently combined to pay a special service, such as registered mail or special delivery service.

The Washington Bicentennial series is the one with which I am most familiar, so I will use it to demonstrate some of the FDC rate quandaries that can arise.

The 12 stamps, with values of ½¢ to 10¢, including a 1½¢ stamp, were issued on Jan. 1, 1932 at Washington, D.C.

At the time when these commemoratives came out, the cost to send a postcard was 1¢ and postage on a first-class letter was 2¢. The rate for a domestic airmail letter was 5¢, the same as a rate to send a letter to a foreign country via surface mail.

These rates account for three of the values in the set — but what about the other nine denominations?

The 12 values in the set total 57¢. But on most FDCs franked with the set, that 57¢ paid the cost of a 2¢ letter, and the other 55¢ — a lot of money in the Great Depression — was for show.

Sometimes an FDC with the set would be registered, accounting for another 15¢. In such cases, the overpayment was a still-hefty 40¢.

Figure 1 shows one of my favorite Washington Bicentennial FDCs, franked with 60¢ postage: the full set, plus an additional 3¢ Washington-Franklin.

After some figuring, I found the cover was correctly rated. The stamps paid the triple airmail letter rate of 25¢. The registry fee was 15¢, the special delivery fee was 10¢, and the money order fee came to 10¢, for a total of 60¢ in postage.

First-day postcards with the 1¢ Bicentennial correctly used are not seen nearly as frequently as a pair of the penny stamps on an envelope. One that I am aware of is an FDC for the 1¢ using a picture postcard of Washington’s Mayflower Hotel.

A number of combinations of stamps from the set were used to make up the 2¢ letter rate. Contemporary collectors could use a pair of the 1¢ adhesives, or four ½¢ stamps, a 1¢ and two ½¢ stamps, or one each of the ½¢ and 1½¢ denominations.

On Jan. 1, 1932, Nation’s Business did a promotional mailing using blocks of four of the ½¢ stamps to frank the covers. An enclosure in one of these FDCs tells how the mailroom force volunteered to work New Year’s morning to affix the stamps.

FDCs sporting one each of the ½¢ and 1½¢ stamps are fairly common. One of my favorites, above in Figure 2, not only has a handsome Gorham cachet, but also the handstamped auxiliary postal marking, “received without contents at . . . . .” This note sometimes shows up on FDCs when they do not include a stuffer. The arrival of an empty envelope in the mailstream clearly alarmed postal clerks!

The solo 5¢ stamp paid the surface-letter rate on standard letters going abroad. The first four values of the set, however — ½¢, 1¢, 1½¢ and 2½¢ and 1½¢ — also correctly paid the rate, making attractive FDCs in the bargain.

Earlier, I mentioned that the domestic airmail rate was 5¢. It is fairly common to find an airmail special delivery FDC franked with the 5¢ and 10¢ Bicentennials, or a combination of the 7¢ and 8¢ values.

Figure 3 shows an airmail special delivery FDC with a variation on this theme, combining the 7¢ stamp and a margin block of four of the 2¢ value.

These 68-year-old covers provide just a few of examples of the mountain of FDCs that require close scrutiny to determine if the intended rate is correctly paid.

To help figure out the rates, you should have U.S. Domestic Postal Rates, 1872-1999 and U.S. International Postal Rates, 1872-1996, by Wawrukiewicz and Beecher. These volumes will greatly help in deciphering the rates appearing on FDCs, and many other U.S. covers as well.