The First Communications Revolution

Stamps played a big part in the communications revolution of the nineteenth century. Before the innovation of postage stamps, mail service was expensive and little used. In the United States in 1840, the per capita number of letters carried by the postal service was three. By 1900 the average person received nearly seventy letters. Before stamps, letters were paid on delivery, resulting in slower and more expensive service as postal deliverers had to stop at each house to make change. Stamps allowed a huge decrease in the cost of mail service and still allowed it to be profitable.

The first US stamp was 5¢ for letters under 300 miles and 10¢ over 300 miles. So successful were the savings that stamps allowed that by 1851, four years later, postage rates were dropped 40% (to 3¢), and only letters from east coast US to west coast US required 10¢ postage. Further, a 1¢ rate was in effect for letters within the same towns—effectively an 80% postage reduction for these letters. And advertisement and printed circulars could also be sent for 1¢ east of the Mississippi. Certainly new technologies such as railroads made cheaper communications possible. But the vast efficiencies that stamps allowed also played a significant role in the communications revolution that continues today.

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