In the early years of the United States Postal Service, the mail system was used for more than just letters and packages. Newspapers and other periodicals have been part of the mail service from the beginning, though sometimes they proved to be more trouble than they were worth. The short history of newspaper and periodical stamps shows a new mail service struggling to provide good service at reasonable prices.
Before the creation of newspaper stamps in 1865, all postage rates were payable upon delivery. The problem was, this often left post offices with newspapers and periodicals that were never collected, causing both a loss of money, and more paperwork. In addition, while periodicals received lower rates through the mail system, the items moved slowly, causing publishers to look for other ways to deliver their periodicals.
The post office tried to win back business by slashing rates for anyone willing to pay postage on periodicals quarterly, but this didn’t solve the problem. By the 1860’s, trains and steamboats were the preferred mode of transport as publishers sent newspapers to local distributors. Postal agents who worked on trains and other vehicles were permitted to take receipt of paper and periodicals, with fees paid in cash, but the system proved ripe for embezzlement, as the agents often simply pocketed the money.
In 1865, the post office adopted a method that had become popular in Austria: the newspaper stamp. William Dennison, the Postmaster General of the time, stated: “New stamps have been adopted of the denominations of 5, 10 and 25 cents for the prepayment of postage on packages of newspapers forwarded by publishers or news dealers under authority of law, whereby a revenue will be secured hitherto lost to the department.”
The first newspaper stamps were very large, measuring 51 by 95 millimeters, not counting the substantial margins. Washington was featured on the five cent stamp, Franklin on the ten cent, and Lincoln on the twenty-five cent stamp. Sources differ as to when the first of these stamps were issued: if the April 1, 1865 date is correct, then Lincoln was still alive when the stamp with his likeness was released. Regardless, it was the first time his portrait appeared on any stamp.
Newspaper deliver through the mail was streamlined in 1875, and a year later, Postmaster General Edward W. Barber reported, “Previous to the time when this law began to operate, no stamps were required for the prepayment of postage on newspapers sent to regular subscribers, as the postage was collected in money quarterly at the office of delivery. Last year  there were 35,000 offices at which newspaper postage was collected, while under the present system, the whole amount is collected at 3,400 offices where newspapers and periodicals are mailed. The postage is computed on the whole issue, the proper amount in stamps handed to the Postmaster, who gives the publisher a receipt as evidence of payment, and on the stubs of the receipt book he affixes and cancels the stamps which correspond in value with the sum mentioned on the receipt. In no case are stamps affixed to the papers that pass through the mails.
The new 1875 periodical stamps were renowned for the beauty of their design, featuring allegorical illustrations of the goddesses of Freedom, Justice, Agriculture, Victory, History, Wisdom, Home, Peace, Commerce, and Youth, with the final stamp featuring a young Native American woman.
According to Linn’s Stamp News, “The newspaper stamps of 1875 and later were never designed or intended to be affixed directly to bundles of papers. At first the stamps were sold in advance to publishers, who would turn in the required amount when shipments of papers were presented for mailing. A receipt was issued to the publisher, and the stamps were affixed to the receipt stub maintained by the post office and were canceled, initially by punching and later by pen cancellation. Later, the sale of newspaper stamps to anyone was forbidden. The publisher paid the postage in cash, and the postal employee affixed the required number of stamps to the receipt stub and canceled them. Stubs with affixed stamps were periodically turned in for accounting and destruction. The used newspaper stamps of this era in collector hands today were salvaged from postal rubbish.”
Newspaper and periodical stamps were only used until 1898, when they were devalued, and returned for credit. Given the way in which these stamps were used and discontinued, the unused stamps are more common, while those which were used are a good bit more rare. One such stamp is currently for sale in our eBay store.
[Photos credit Stamp Smarter, used by fair use.]