An Introduction to Stamp-less Covers.

A Letter from Home. In 1937, Mildred Pelzer won the federal commission (WPA) to complete the post office mural for Waverly, Iowa, as part of the Section of Painting and Sculpture′s projects. The mural depicts a scene of a couple on their farm, where the wife had brought a letter from their previous home to the field. As her husband paused his plowing, the wife read the letter to him, as their child grasped at her mother’s skirts. Click here to read more about the artwork of Mildred Pelzer.

Prior to 1847, when postage stamps first appeared, letters went through the mail “stamp-less,” marked for the rate, date and city of origin using 1) a handwritten notation by the postal clerk, 2) a stamped postmark using a hand stamp like the one below, or 3) a combination of both.

(C-0022) How much does this cost, sir? As you can see from the “stamp-less” cover (above) from 1845 (one year before Iowa became the 29th state in the union), the postmaster in Iowa City wrote “Double 20” on the letter and then stamped it with an Iowa City postmark dated Feb 10. So, without the benefit of postage stamps, how does one determine how much the sender paid to mail this letter?

How were postage rates determined for “stamp-less” mail?

Back east, up until 1825, it cost 25-cents to mail a letter – a huge amount for most common folk. So, if a person was too poor to pay, the good-natured postmaster would, most likely, trust the sender until the sum was available. Post offices, at the time, were located in general stores, and the postal clerk pretty much knew everybody who wanted to mail a letter.

Yes, things were simpler back then, but receiving mail from others was not an easy thing. If you lived in a larger city in the East, mail delivery ran smoothly, but the further west one went, the higher the odds that your mail would not be received or sent at regular intervals. Everything, you see, was conditional, based on location and if navigation between point A and point B was even possible.

As the nation expanded westward, the U.S. government did its best to bring more continuity to the mailing process. On March 3, 1825 it was declared that postage rates would be standardized, based according to the weight of the letter and the distance traveled. These “zone” rates were relatively stable from 1825 to 1845, with the single (1 ounce) letter rate as follows:

Not over 30 miles: 6 cents.
30 to 80 miles: 10 cents.
80 to 150 miles: 12½ cents.
150 to 400 miles: 18¾ cents.
Over 400 miles: 25 cents.
There were also “double” and “triple” rates on top of this standard zone pricing, based on the letter’s size and weight.

(C-0022) “Double 20” Our 1845 “stamp-less” letter is going from Iowa City to Bloomington (Muscatine), which is 41 miles, plus it was extra heavy (over 1 ounce), so the postmaster marked it “Double 20” which meant the sender paid the 10 cent rate (30 to 80 miles) x 2 (double – due to the extra weight) = 20 cents total.

As you might imagine, this personalized process of “stamp-less” letters worked fairly well when the postmaster had only a mailbag or two of letters go through his post office in one day. But as the mail volume increased, as it did in the mid-19th century, so did the need for automating the whole process.

July 1, 1845 – Things start to get a lot simpler.

On July 1, 1845, postal rates got a lot simpler, dropping to 5 cents for any one-ounce letter traveling less than 300 miles and 10 cents for a letter going over 300 miles. Plus, there was another bit of good news for those hard-strapped for cash: the cost of postage could now be paid by either the sender or the addressee (C.O.D. = cash on delivery)!

And then, on July 1, 1847, it happened: the first postage stamps (5-cent and 10-cent) were sold in New York City.

Where does the stamp go? Actually, once postage stamps were developed, it took Americans a while to get used to this new less-personal process of mailing letters. And like most things in life, it took a while for folks to get the system down.

Even after postage stamps were introduced in 1847, it was not always easy to buy them. Iowa, for example, was “far west” country and until the railroad came into the state in the late-1850’s, settlers were fortunate enough when they had some-what regular mail service, let alone the luxury of postage stamps! Thus, while most “stamp-less” covers from the East are dated pre-1847, it’s very common to find Iowa-related “stamp-less” mail dated well into the late 1850’s. At this present time, Our Iowa Heritage collection contains “stamp-less” covers ranging from 1844 to 1859.

In 1855, as transportation by rail became readily available to a larger part of the country, postal rates went down to 3 cents for any one-ounce letter traveling up to 3,000 miles and 10 cents for a letter traveling more than 3,000 miles. Finally in 1863, that 3,000 mile limit was dropped and all one-ounce letters cost 3 cents until 1882.

Just for the record, here’s what’s happened after 1882. From 1883 to 1917, prices dropped to 2-cents. From 1917 to 1919, prices went up to 3-cents due to WWI.

From 1919 to 1932, after the war, prices came back down to 2-cents; but in 1932 through 1959, an increase brought the price back up to 3-cents.
1959-1963 = 4-cents
1963-1968 = 5-cents
1968-1971 = 6-cents
1971-1973 = 8-cents
1973-1975 = 10-cents

As you know, since 1975, rates have climbed steadily, reaching the current 55-cent rate as I write this in 2021. Wow, now that’s inflation! But, keep in mind that a 3-cent stamp purchased in 1860 would be the equivalent of 49 cents in today’s economy.
(C-0244) An interesting postal cover from 1919. During WW I (effective in March 1917) postage rates increased from 2-cents to 3-cents in order to raise funding for the war. When the war ended, the Postal Service did something they ‘never’ do…decreased rates back to 2-cents! This collector, wanting to remember such a rare event, pasted a newspaper article from The Sioux City Journal informing folks on how & when to turn in their 3-cent stamps for 2-centers. The change occurred on June 28, 1919.
In 2007, the US Postal Service introduced Forever stamps. These stamps sell for the current cost of postage but instead of having a face-value of that amount, they will always be worth the current value of a first-class stamp. For example, when these stamps were introduced, the cost of a first-class stamp was 41 cents. If you bought enough Forever stamps in 2007 to still have some today, you would save 14 cents on every letter you mail.

“Stamp-less” mail during wartime.

Military mail, as opposed to civilian mail, refers to no-cost letters provided for all current armed forces members, sending mail at no cost. Service members simply mark “FREE” on the envelope and stick their letter in the armed services postal mail.

(C-0118) Here is a ‘stamp-less’ Military Mail cover from my dad, Sgt G.E. Boller to his mom in Wayland, Iowa when he was stationed at Heart Mountain, Wyoming during WWII. The letter is postmarked March 10, 1945 and is marked “Free.”
(C-0230) This “stamp-less” postal cover is Military Mail, thus has the “Free” marking in the upper right corner. The letter is postmarked October 8, 1943 on the U.S.S. Iowa and also stamped “Paused by Naval Censors” with the initials of the censor who reviewed the contents of the letter. Military mail is not always censored by opening or reading the mail, but this is much more likely during wartime and military campaigns. The military postal service is separate from civilian mail and is usually totally controlled by the military, so during wartime, mail from the front (in this case – the U.S.S. Iowa was actively involved in WWII) is often opened and offending parts blanked or cut out, and incoming civilian mail may be subject to much the same treatment.

Our Iowa Heritage: An Introduction.
An Introduction to Stamp Collecting
An Introduction to Embossed Envelopes & Postcard

Click here for a complete INDEX of Our Iowa Heritage stories…

Click here for a complete INDEX of PEOPLE-PLACES-THINGS…

Click here for a complete INDEX of stories listed CHRONOLOGICALLY…

Click here for a numerical INDEX to all of the U.S. postage stamps, postal cards, and coins in our collection…

Click here to see the complete Index of stamp themes…

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