By Rick Miller
In 1885, the Universal Postal Union established the basis for a special service for the speedy delivery of mail for an extra fee. This class of service is known as special delivery or express delivery.
The United States was the first country to issue postage stamps expressly for this service, also in 1885.
The world's first special delivery stamp, a 10¢ blue Running Messenger special delivery stamp (U.S. Scott El) is shown in Figure 1.
The numbering system used in the Scott Standard Postage Stamp Catalogue and other Scott catalogs uses the prefix "E" with each special delivery stamp catalog number.
To Scott catalog users, special delivery stamps are considered to be "back-of-the-book" stamps. They are listed after the regular postage stamps, with the other special service and fee stamps.
The first U.S. special delivery stamp established a pattern of showing one of the methods by which special delivery was accomplished: in this case, by a uniformed messenger hotfooting it down the street.
Transportation and methods of delivery are a common theme for the designs of special delivery stamps.
The U.S. stamp is inscribed "Special Postal Delivery" and "Secures Immediate Delivery at a Special Delivery Office."
Initially the service was available only from 555 post offices in large metropolitan areas. On Oct. 1, 1886, the service was extended to all first-class post offices in the United States.
In the United States, special delivery stamps paid only the special delivery fee. The regular postage had to be paid with postage stamps. While the special delivery fee could be paid with regular postage stamps, after July 1, 1907, special delivery stamps were not authorized for payment of regular postage.
A special delivery cover franked with a 20¢ black Post Office Truck special delivery stamp (Scott E19) is shown in Figure 2. The cover, mailed Oct. 27, 1952, by Gimbel Brothers of Long Island, N.Y., was assessed 3¢ postage due because it lacks a regular stamp or stamps to pay the then-current 3¢ letter rate.
Many postal administrations have offered special delivery service at one time or another without issuing special stamps to signify payment for the service.
In Belgium, hexagonal telegraph stamps were used to show payment of special delivery fees, resulting in covers with mixed franking of postage stamps paying the postage and telegraph stamps paying the special delivery fee. The letters were delivered by telegraph messengers rather than by postal employees.
Off-cover Belgian hexagonal telegraph stamps bearing postal cancellations are from special delivery letters.
In many countries of the British Commonwealth that did not issue special delivery stamps, a blue pencil line at the center of the envelope indicated special delivery service.
Special delivery stamps have been issued by Albania; the Bahamas; Belgium; Brazil; Bulgaria; Canada; China; Colombia; Cuba; Czechoslovakia; Dominican Republic; Ecuador; Egypt; Ethiopia; Fiume; Guatemala; Haiti; Hungary; Italian East Africa; Italy; Italian offices in China, Crete, Africa and the Ottoman Empire; Rhodes; the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes (national issues of Bosnia and Herzegovina and Croatia); Liberia; Libya; Mauritius; Mexico; New Zealand; Oltre Giuba; Panama; Peru; Philippines; San Marino; Somalia; the Soviet Union; Spain; Spanish Morocco; Spanish Guinea; Spanish Sahara; Spanish West Africa; Tangier; Uruguay; and Vatican City.
The United States, Italy and Spain were among the most prolific issuers of special delivery stamps. Twenty-three major U.S. special delivery stamps were issued over an 86-year period.
Many postal authorities issued only one or two special delivery stamps.
One of the most interesting and exotic series of special delivery stamps was issued during 1905-11 by the Chinese Imperial Post. The stamps (Scott E1-8) came in four parts with serrate roulette separations between the parts. The stamp design pictured a large dragon inside an irregular oval across the second, third and fourth sections of the stamp.
The first section of the stamp bore a Chinese inscription and a serial number.
When a customer mailed a special delivery letter, he received the right-hand section (the dragon's tail) as a receipt. The first section was retained by the post office as a receipt. The middle two sections of the stamp were canceled and attached to the letter.
Upon arrival at the delivery post office, the backs of the two middle sections were given receiving marks. The right-hand piece (section three) was retained by the receiving post office, and the left-hand piece (section two) was signed by the recipient and was returned to the originating post office.
An unused four-section Chinese Imperial Dragon special delivery stamp (Scott E3) is shown in Figure 3. Scott catalog values for these Chinese special delivery stamps are for used mailers' receipts (section four).
One of the more unusual running-messenger special delivery designs is the 10-centavo brown-red and blue Messenger With Quipu special delivery stamp (Mexico Scott E3) shown in Figure 4.
Quipus are groups of multicolor strings hanging from a main string on which knots representing numerical values have been tied. The color of the string showed what was being counted. Quipus were used throughout pre-Columbian Mesoamerica and the Inca Empire.
One step up on the transportation scale from the running messenger is the bicycle messenger. Several postal administrations, including that of the United States, have issued special delivery stamps picturing a bicycle messenger.
A 10-centavo orange and blue J.B. Zayas special delivery stamp (Cuba Scott E4) featuring a bicycle messenger in the design is shown in Figure 5. The stamp is inscribed "Entrega Immediata," which is Spanish for "deliver immediately."
Motorize a bicycle, and you have a motorcycle, another frequently used design element on special delivery stamps. A 5-kopek dull brown Motorcycle Courier special delivery stamp (Russia Scott E1) is shown in Figure 6.
Most special delivery stamps of Spanish Morocco and Tangier feature a speedy but nonmechanized method of special delivery, the mounted courier or postrider.
A 20-centimo vermilion Mounted Moorish Postman stamp (Spanish Morocco Scott E5) is shown in Figure 7. The "Urgente" inscription indicates the special delivery nature of the stamp.
New Zealand chose a speeding two-door coupe for the design of its 6-penny violet Mail Car special delivery stamp (Scott E2) of 1939, shown in Figure 8. The stamp is inscribed "Express Delivery."
Perhaps the U.S. Post Office Department was emphasizing reliability over speed when it pictured a delivery truck on the 20¢ black special delivery stamp (Scott E14) shown in Figure 9. The stamp is inscribed, "Special Delivery at Any United States Post Office."
Spain chose one of the more unusual methods of mail conveyance when it pictured an electric locomotive on its 20-centimo brown-orange special delivery stamp (Scott E6) of 1930, shown in Figure 10.
A number of special delivery stamps depict airplanes, including the Dominican Republic 10-centavo deep ultramarine Biplane special delivery stamp (Scott E1), shown in Figure 11.
But Canada tops all entrants in the method-of-delivery derby with its 20¢ orange Five Stages of Mail Transportation stamp (Scott E3), shown in Figure 12.
The stamp depicts a mounted rider, a dogsled, a ship, a train and an airplane, all presumably carrying special delivery mail.
Domestic special delivery service came to an end in the United States in June 1997. It was superceded by the U.S. Postal Service's Priority Mail service, which had been ongoing since 1968.
Because the service for which they pay no longer exists, U.S. special delivery stamps have, in effect, been demonetized, although in practice they are often still accepted in payment of postage even today, usually on packages and large, flat envelopes.