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Be On The Lookout For Classic First-Days

by Marjory J. Sente

With the postal rate increase and the release of numerous new stamps last month to meet the demand for 34¢ stamps, I recently was asked an interesting question.

The query came from a collector who is interested in the history of the U.S. Post Office Department, and how stamp-issuing activities have changed over the years.

He asked: has a stamp ever been issued to pay a new rate on the same day that the a new postal rate went into effect?

He correctly noted that through out most of the 20th century, the stamps paying the new postage cost were released prior to the change in rate. For example, in 1932, when the rate for first-class letters rose from 2¢ to 3¢ on July 6, the new 3¢ Washington adhesives were released at Washington, D.C., on June 16, and the vertical coil appeared on June 24.

In 1978, when the rate jumped from 13¢ to 15¢ on May 29, the nondenominated 'A' stamps were released a week prior to the change, on May 22.

One of the quieter and more unusual rate changes, from a philatelic perspective, was on Nov. 2, 1917, when the war emergency rate went into effect.

The cost to mail a letter jumped from 2¢ to 3¢, but no new stamps were issued to cover the change. The already existing 3¢ Washington definitive was the workhorse for the period. In fact, it was not until March 3, 1919, more than a year later, that a new 3¢ adhesive, the Victory commemorative, was issued. The 2¢ first-class letter rate was reinstated on July 1, 1919.

Now, let's try to answer that collector's question.

A change in rate and the release of new stamps to meet the new postage requirements did happen simultaneously in the 1800s. On July 1, 1851, new postage rates went into effect, and first-day covers for two of the three stamps issued to pay them are reported on the date.

On July 1, 1851, the 5¢ and 10¢ rates of 1847 were eliminated. The prepaid rate to mail a letter up to 3,000 miles became 3¢ cents. Drop letters and unsealed circulars were rated at 1¢.

For the 3¢ Washington, several outstanding FDCs are known. A great example, with a Cincinnati circular datestamp, was sold in the Fisher collection in 1996.

The folded letter includes a postscript that reads, 'I send you a 3¢ piece thinking that, perhaps, you have not seen one yet. Can you get Postage Stamps at Rehobeth [Maryland]? Pre-paid letters are charged only 3-cents after July 1, 1851.'

While the rate changed on 1851 from 5¢ to 3¢ for prepaid letters, the required use of stamps to prepay letters did not go into effect until Jan. 1, 1856, having been made compulsory by a March 3, 1855, act of Congress (Stamp Collector, Jan. 1, 2001, page 14).

You can find, stampless 3¢ covers dated on July 1, 1851, the first day of the rate, and the same can be found for the 1¢ rate.

Above is pictured an outstanding example of the latter - a printed circular with a red 'New York / Jul 1 / Paid 1 ct.' circular datestamp and rate marking in one. (On the inside, the complete date - July 1, 1851 - is printed, so we know that this stampless cover is from the first day of the new 1¢ circular rate.

A companion to the 3¢ Washington was the 1¢ franklin issue, which also has reported FDCs, although only six or seven of these are known.

Four are dated printed circulars that do not have any dated postal markings. Two FDCs are dated with a July 1 datestamp.

The premier U.S. 1¢ first-day cover was posted in Boston and franked with the rare 1¢ blue type Ib (Minkus 5 / Scott 5A). It was described in the Fisher auction as the most important first-day cover in United States philately, as well as one of the most important postal history rarities of the world.

Another FDC for the 1¢ with a CDS is an envelope franked with a strip of three, part of the Franklin Institute Collection.

The 12¢ Washington (Minkus 17 / Scott 17) was the third denomination slated for release on July 1, 1851. Its earliest known usage, however, is Aug. 4 of that year.

A detailed census of the 1851 FDCs, as well as the other early FDCs, has been published by Alan Berkun in his 'Aristocrats of US FDCs' series of columns in First Days, the official journal of the American First Day Cover Society.

Another 19th-century stamp issued simultaneously with the change of rate was the 2¢ Washington issued Oct. 1, 1883. That was also the date that the cost to mail a letter dropped from 3¢ to 2¢.

The date is one of the most significant for FDC collectors in the United States. It marks the first time the U.S. Post Office Department distributed stamps to postmasters prior to the designated date of release, with an edict that these stamps (and their companion stamped envelopes) not be placed on sale prior to the first day of October. (The 4¢ blue green Jackson [Minkus 152 / Scott 211] also was issued on Oct. 1, but was not mentioned in the circular.)

First-day covers for the 2¢ Washington do indeed exist. In fact, the experts say that there may be as many as 30 to 40 surviving FDCs for the issue, while its companion stamp, the 4¢ Jackson, has only one recorded FDC.

FDCs franked with the 2¢ Washington stamp are very common looking and appear to have been used for routine correspondence.

No one paid any special attention to them at the time - and that is precisely the point. Thousands of the FDCs likely existed at one time, but the vast majority were destroyed within days or months after their intended use was completed.

Occasionally, one of the elusive early FDCs turns up in a hoard of old covers. In fact, a collector told me that this past fall, he discovered another one from New York in a dealer's box.

So remember that date - Oct. 1, 1883 - when you are going through old covers from the period.

Unlike the 20th century, in which the U.S. postal rates changed with relatively great frequency and the release of the stamps usually preceded the date of the rate change, the 19th century saw fairly few postal rate changes - and those changes frequently coincided with the release of new postage stamps and postal stationery to meet them.