US Stamps

By Tony Wawrukiewicz

Was there ever such a thing as free international mail?

December 27, 2013 08:02 AM

  • Despite the “Free” marking and congressional signature, this 1957 letter addressed to Manila in the Philippines was correctly franked to pay the 8¢ surface letter rate.

  • This Feb. 14, 1955, letter in an Official penalty mail envelope was returned for postage before being sent to Germany. Why was its international travel not free?

Wade Saadi recently sent me scans of the two envelopes shown with this column and asked me if there was such a thing as free international mail.

The first letter is a Feb. 14, 1955, penalty letter from a Department of the Army office to Germany.

Initially it carried no franking, and as the rubberstamped marking indicates, it was “Returned for Additional Postage, Postage Due 8¢.”

On Feb. 25, 1955, the mailer added the 8¢ due for the international surface rate of 8¢ per ounce, using the 8¢ flat plate Statue of Liberty stamp from the 1954 Liberty series (Scott 1041), and the letter was successfully sent on.

The second letter is a June 18, 1957, free-franked letter to the Philippine Islands from a member of the House of Representatives.

It was correctly franked at the international surface letter rate of 8¢ per ounce, using the 3¢ Statue of Liberty stamp (Scott 1035) and the 5¢ James Monroe stamp (1038) of the 1954 Liberty series.

Why was postage required to mail these two letters overseas? The reasons can be found in information abstracted from my book, U.S. International Postal Rates, 1872-1996, pages 231-32.

The Pan American Postal Union Principal Convention of Buenos Aires of Sept. 15, 1921, proposed reduced mailing rates for certain countries allowed to sign it, after they ratified the agreement. Mail matter originating in the Pan American Union, formerly the Bureau of American Republics, bearing the card of the Union and weighing no more than 4 pounds, 6 ounces (2 kilograms), was admitted to the mails free of charge.

Eventually, all correspondence (except parcel post) of members of the diplomatic corps and consulates of its member countries, mailed in any of the member countries and addressed for delivery in the United States, and vice versa, was free. (Such correspondence mailed in the United States and addressed for delivery therein was not entitled to free postage.)

For diplomatic correspondence, the name of the ambassador, minister, embassy or legation had to be placed at upper left on the envelope, with the words “Diplomatic Mail/Free” at upper right.

For consular correspondence, the name and address of the consulate had to be placed at upper left, and the words “Consular Mail/Free” at upper right.

Beginning in the July 1929 United States Official Postal Guide, freedom of postage previously referred to (since 1921) was not allowed for articles addressed to foreign countries and intended for transmission by air, even if the articles had to be forwarded over part of their route by ordinary means of transportation. In other words, these articles were subject to payment of the airmail fee and the ordinary postage.

The list of countries that ratified this convention, with the ratification dates, is shown in my international rates book. Effective July 1, 1972, per the Postal Union of the Americas and Spain (PUAS) Convention of Santiago, Chile, of November 1971, there no longer was free diplomatic and consular mail, either domestic or international.

Because the two letters illustrated in this column were not sent to treaty country members, they could not be sent through the international mails free of postage, and had to be franked at the international mail rates.


Tony Wawrukiewicz and Henry Beecher are the co-authors of two useful books on U.S. domestic and international postage rates since 1872. The third edition of the domestic book is now available from the American Philatelic Society, while the international book may be ordered from the web site