Postal authorities offer special mail services

May 4, 2021, 3 AM
Figure 1. The 1885 10¢ Running Messenger special delivery stamp from the United States, the first country to offer such service. The fee was in addition to regular postage charges.

By Michael Baadke


Postage stamps can be thought of as receipts that show a fee has been paid to deliver a piece of mail. As a general rule, postal services around the world offer many different kinds of mail delivery options, and they charge their customers fees that vary depending upon the type of service requested.

Most postal authorities create stamps that specifically fulfill the basic rates. A very simple example of this is the domestic-letter-rate stamp, which you might put on the envelope you use to mail off your car payment or to send a birthday card to a friend who lives in the same country you do.

In April 2000 such a stamp costs 33¢ in the United States, 1.10 deutschemarks in Germany and 26 pence in Great Britain. Every country sets its own domestic postage rates and creates stamps that mailers can use to pay those rates.

For special services beyond the simple delivery of letter mail, the mailer generally must pay additional money. Often postal authorities will create stamps with greater denominations to fulfill these higher rates. To deliver a birthday card to a friend who lives overseas, for example, someone in the United States must pay 60¢, a German mailer pays 3dm, and a British mailer pays 44p.

In many countries mailers can select delivery options that are expedited (travel faster), or that provide greater security than standard mail delivery services. Among these options are the expedited services called special delivery and Express Mail and the secured services known as certified mail and registered mail.

Not every country offers each of these services, and some offer other delivery services with different characteristics. Some countries offer services that can be used domestically (within the country of origin) but not on mail going to other countries.

Sometimes wording on a postage stamp will designate a specific delivery service. Figure 1, for instance, shows the world's first special delivery postage stamp, issued Oct. 1, 1885, by the United States. The words "SPECIAL POSTAL DELIVERY" are inscribed near the top of the design on the right side.

The many different delivery services interest stamp collectors in different ways. Some collectors choose to ignore these services and any stamps created on their behalf. Instead, they concentrate only on stamps printed and sold for regular mail services.

Some collectors go to the opposite extreme. They collect only the stamps associated with one specific delivery service, and spend their hobby time studying the evolution of rates for the service that is their focus. Still others collect the special-service stamps and their uses on cover, right along with the other stamps and covers they add to their collections. Let's take a look at these four services to learn what distinguishes them and what kinds of stamps have been used to pay for them.

Special delivery service was first established in the United States Oct. 1, 1885. Mail sent using the new service was to be delivered to the addressee immediately after it reached the delivery post office rather than waiting for the next scheduled delivery time. For many years the fee for this service was 10¢, in addition to the standard postage rate.

The first stamp issued for this service, United States Scott E1, shows a mail clerk on foot quickly heading off to deliver a letter he is holding in his hand. At first the special delivery service was not universally available. The stamp is even inscribed with these words: "SECURES IMMEDIATE DELIVERY AT A SPECIAL DELIVERY OFFICE."

There were only 555 post offices in the nation that were designated as special delivery offices. The service was expanded nationwide less than a year later, however. Domestic special delivery service was discontinued in the United States on June 7, 1997. It had fallen into disuse, the result of competition from the United States Postal Service's own Express Mail.

Early U.S. special delivery regulations required the use of the special delivery stamp, but a revision in regulations in 1907 allowed standard postage stamps to be used to pay the fee if the envelope was properly marked "Special Delivery."

Express Mail service was officially established Oct. 9, 1977, but it had been in effect on an experimental basis since 1970, according to an article by Henry W. Beecher in the December 1977 issue of the United States Specialist. The service began with a number of delivery options by offering next-day delivery to selected locations in the United States. It has since expanded to offer nationwide next-day delivery, with a few exceptions. A special mailing label is used to designate Express Mail service.

Express Mail rates began at $7.50 in 1977 and were based on delivery by zones: the farther the delivery point, the more expensive the fee. As the service evolved, the use of zones was gradually eliminated and a standard rate based on weight alone was placed in effect in 1988. The first U.S. Express Mail stamp was the $9.35 Eagle (Scott 1909) issued Aug. 12, 1983.

Obviously, standard postage stamps or postage meters were primarily used to pay Express Mail fees before that date. When the new stamp was issued, the U.S. Postal Service announced in its Postal Bulletin (July 14, 1983): "It also can be used for other mail services as well. To receive Express Mail Next Day Service, however, the stamp must be used in combination with the necessary Express Mail label (Label 11B) which may be obtained free of charge . . ."

Early U.S. Express Mail covers (envelopes) bearing postage stamps are great collectibles, and the stamps on these envelopes shouldn't be soaked off. Any special delivery and most early Express Mail covers should be saved intact to show how the service was actually used. A soaked-off stamp usually provides far less interesting information.

Similar expedited services exist in countries other than the United States. In the Scott Standard Postage Stamp Catalogue, stamps for these services are listed with the letter prefix "E" (such as Italy's special delivery stamps, E1-E36).

U.S. Express Mail stamps do not have a service designation printed on them, and the Scott catalog lists them with regular postage issues. Figure 2 shows an Express Mail package mailed within the United States Dec. 11, 1999, for a fee of $11.75.

While special delivery and Express Mail services helped to speed the mail along, certified mail and registered mail are used to provide more security than standard first-class letter mail. Certified mail began in the United States in June 1955 to provide proof of mail delivery within the country. The sender receives a receipt at the time of mailing, and when the mail is delivered, it is recorded at the recipient's post office.

A special label is affixed to certified mail to mark it for proper handling. Figure 3 shows a certified cover mailed Dec. 2, 1988, franked with the $2 William Jennings Bryan stamp of 1986, Scott 2195.

The stamp precisely pays the postage rate and two fees in effect at the time: 25¢ for first-class postage, 85¢ certified mail fee, and 90¢ for a return receipt notice fee. The return receipt service provides a postcard notification to the sender that delivery has been accomplished.

A single 15¢ certified mail stamp (Scott FA1) was issued in 1955 for certified mail, but it was not required for the service. Standard postage stamps and postage meter stamps are commonly used on certified mail today.

From the point of mailing until delivery is complete, registered mail provides more security than certified mail. Registered mail also provides the mailer with limited indemnity (security against loss).

It is also available for international use, and is available in most foreign countries. Figure 4, for example, shows a registered mail cover from Malaya sent domestically in 1960. Four stamps from Penang state totaling 35¢ pay for postage and registration to Kuala Lumpur in Selangor state.

Registered mail around the world often shows three similar characteristics. A label or handstamped marking with a large letter "R" and a registration number usually is found on the front of the cover.

The back of the cover is often stamped with the markings of the post office where the mail originated and the post office where the mail was received. Such markings are shown in Figure 4, from the back of the illustrated cover. Finally, the front of many registered mail covers often is marked completely through with a cross of one horizontal line intersecting one vertical line. Specialist collectors and students of postal history save registered mail and certified mail covers intact.

There are many other forms of U.S. postal delivery service besides the four described here. These include insured mail, Priority Mail (which extends from first-class mail) and Global Priority Mail (for international delivery). Part of the fun of collecting covers of this material is figuring out the rates that are fulfilled by the postage that is affixed, as we did with the certified mail cover in Figure 3.

U.S. Domestic Postal Rates, 1872-1999, by Henry W. Beecher and Anthony S. Wawrukiewicz, is a terrific comprehensive reference for researching domestic rates. The authors also describe numerous delivery services in great detail, and some of the information presented in this column was researched using this fine book. U.S. Domestic Postal Rates, 1872-1999 is available from philatelic literature dealers, stamp hobby supply dealers, or from the publisher, CAMA Publishing Co., Box 19730155, Portland, OR 97280-0730.