Collectible United States Stamps

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If you’re just beginning to collect stamps, starting close to home makes sense. What many people don’t realize, however, is that United States’ stamps are one of the more difficult countries to collect. Serious collectors struggle with the sheer number of special printings and other collecting minutia, as well as the fact that the passionate interest of many collectors means certain items rarely become available.

With the byzantine extent of design and printing types that have been issued throughout the country’s postal history, it’s clear that U.S. philately is among the most challenging in the world.

America’s Postal History

Some understanding of America's postal history is essential when putting together a collection of U.S. stamps. In fact, one of the great things about stamp collecting is how it acts as a mirror on history. By looking at a country's postal history, we see a reflection of its aspirations, values and anxieties. The United States is no exception. Postal service in the U.S. predates independence. As early as 1639, mail was delivered in the colonies. In 1692, King William III of Britain imposed a tax on mailing official documents — a controversial decision that encapsulated many of the frustrations leading up to the Revolutionary War. The year 1775 saw the founding of the United States Postal Service, with Benjamin Franklin famously acting as its first Postmaster General. Following independence, service expanded rapidly. For a long time, however, delivery rates were not standardized, and the system was widely considered inefficient and unreliable.

Introduction of Stamps to the U.S.

Stamps were first used in the United States in 1842 — two years after British authorities introduced the Penny Black. City Despatch Post, a private courier in New York City, began requiring the use of a 3-cent issue bearing the likeness of George Washington on all letters. City Despatch Post was quickly acquired by the USPS, which kept the stamp in circulation, making it the first official adhesive postage used in the Western Hemisphere. In 1845, postal rates were standardized by an Act of Congress, setting the stage for the rollout of U.S. stamps nationwide. This occurred in 1847, though in the interim several provisional issues were produced at local post offices around the country. Today, these early issues are some of the more rare U.S. collectors' stamps. The first official national postage stamps were sold in New York City on July 1, 1847. They included a 5-cent Benjamin Franklin issue and a 10-cent George Washington. Use of stamps became mandatory in 1855, and the country's first imperforates were issued in 1857. The adoption of adhesive postage improved the efficiency of the US Postal Service, so much so that rates were revised and, in 1851, a new 3-cent stamp was issued. A 1-cent issue from the same period ranks as one of the most valuable U.S. postage stamps today, thanks to a range of extant variations produced as a result of ongoing plate modifications.

U.S. Stamps During the Civil War

The 1861 outbreak of the U.S. Civil War led to significant disruption of the divided country's postal systems — as it did for almost all government services. The Confederate States quickly established postal services and began issuing stamps in May, 1861. At the same time, Union authorities recalled all stamps currently in circulation and printed an entirely new set, leading to widespread confusion among the public. Several notable postal events occurred during the war years. The famous Pony Express was established, delivering mail between coasts in a record ten days. Lincoln's assassination in 1866 led to the printing of what is thought to be the first memorial stamp, a 15-cent issue depicting the president against a somber black background. Other oddities during this time include the use of specially encased stamps as currency, a result of widespread coin hoarding. Concerns about stamp reuse led to the introduction of grills, a type of embossed cancellation mark that was used until 1871. Due to their scarcity, grill stamps are among the most valuable rare US postage stamps today.

After the War

With America returning to stability after the Civil War, stamp production continued apace. The World Columbian Exposition of 1893 led to the production of the country's first commemorative issues. A set of definitives printed in 1902-1903 is notable for its ornate, Beaux Arts-inspired design. The 1920s and 1930s were another boom period for American philately, with a range of attractive and unique issues which today are some of the rarer U.S. collectors' stamps.

Rare United States Postage Stamps

inverted jenny stamp

Even a brief survey of U.S. postal history shows that stamps in this country come in all shapes and sizes, from limited-run issues to bizarre errors that were quickly caught. Some of the most famous U.S. collector stamps include:

  • Benjamin Franklin Z Grill — Only two 1 cent Z Grills are known to exist today. The stamps were produced in 1868 and feature special indented marks along the face. Currently, one Z Grill is owned by the New York Public Library. The other is in the hands of a private collector and was recently valued at over $3 million.
  • St. Louis Bears — The provisionally-issued St. Louis Bears were printed between 1845 and 1846, a time when the nascent US Post Office was still developing the capacity to roll out stamps nationwide. St. Louis Bears were sold in 11 cities in denominations of 5, 10 and 20 cents. Today, they can go for anywhere between $5000 and $50,000 at auction.
  • Inverted Jenny — Perhaps the best-known collectible U.S. stamp, the Inverted Jenny has an estimated 100 in existence.  They can fetch upwards of $500,000 at auction today. The stamp is the result of a printing error, and it famously features an upside-down Curtiss JN-4 biplane on its face.

Starting a U.S. Stamp Collection

The difficulty of maintaining a complete collection doesn’t mean you should be discouraged from buying collectible U.S. stamps. In fact, the sheer volume of stamps available is such that even collectors of relatively modest means can curate an interesting and highly-personal collection. The best way to begin is to attend an auction — either online or in-person — and see what’s available in your price range. From there, you can choose to further refine your interests to a specific era or style.

For more information or suggestions for beginning a U.S. rare postage stamp collection, contact Apfelbaum, Inc. today.