Stampless mail: something old, something new

Oct 11, 1999, 8 AM
Figure 2. How did mail travel before there were stamps? In some cases, mailers paid a fee that was noted on the cover. This 1843 letter between two Ohio cities cost 20¢ to mail. Click on image to enlarge.

By Michael Baadke

A large amount of today's mail is delivered without postage stamps affixed, a fact that aggravates more than a few stamp collectors.

Instead of finding a postage stamp in the upper-right corner of the envelope, postal customers frequently encounter postage paid permit imprints, the boxed-up messages shown in the four examples in Figure 1.

The fact is, a postage stamp is simply a receipt that indicates postage has been paid. That's why most stamps bear a denomination, just as any other receipt tells you how much you paid for a product or service.

For any company that has to send out a lot of mail, it is easier, cheaper and faster to have a "postage paid" message printed directly on the outgoing envelope and to use the post office's permit system than it is to purchase postage stamps and hire a person to make sure they all get affixed correctly.

Despite the added expense of doing so, Linn's Stamp News uses postage stamps on nearly all of its outgoing mail, including bills and correspondence. It's just one part of Linn's commitment to support the stamp hobby, even though more convenient alternatives exist.

Permit imprints are allowed when a company or organization sets up an advance deposit account with the United States Postal Service to prepay the mailer's postage fees. Similar systems exist in many other parts of the world as well.

In the United States, permit mail is set up in three main categories for first-class mail, bulk rate (which is now known as standard mail) and mail from nonprofit organizations.

Many different payment levels exist for these three categories, depending in part upon how thoroughly the mail has been prepared for handling before it is handed over to the Postal Service.

If the mailer reduces the Postal Service's workload by sorting the mail and adding automation barcodes, the mailer is rewarded with a reduction in the amount of postage that has to be paid.

There are a few stamp collectors who save examples of these privately imprinted envelope markings, usually watching for unusual designs or varieties. They recognize that a permit imprint is just as valid as a postage stamp when it comes to showing that postage has been paid.

However, most collectors, like the public in general, discard these imprinted envelopes without giving them a second thought.

The first postage stamp created by any country was the Penny Black from Great Britain, a 1-penny stamp issued in 1840.

The first U.S. issues came seven years later, when a 5¢ stamp picturing Benjamin Franklin and a 10¢ stamp honoring George Washington were released.

Postal systems were organized and mail deliveries were being made long before there were postage stamps, however, and the letters and envelopes sent during this prestamp period are now known as stampless mail.

Unlike today's stampless permit mail, though, stampless mail from before the postage stamp era is very collectible and treasured by many individuals who study postal history.

Figure 2 shows just one example of what classic stampless mail looks like.

Instead of an envelope holding the correspondence, the sheets were simply folded and addressed on the blank side of the outer sheet.

This type of mail is referred to as a folded letter sheet. Postage rates in those days were based in part on the number of sheets mailed. An envelope, if used, counted for extra postage.

Mailed in 1843, the letter was sent from Sidney, Ohio, (where, it so happens, Linn's Stamp News is now published) to the town of Kalida, Ohio, about 45 miles due north.

Although stamps were not yet part of the mailing procedure, postmarks did exist, as evidenced by the Sidney circular marking in the upper-left corner.

Letters to be mailed were presented at the local post office, where payment was accepted and then marked with the amount and the word "paid" in the upper-right corner, or they could be sent unpaid.

The postage fee charged on the letter in Figure 2 was 20¢, and the cover is marked "Paid 20."

American Stampless Cover Catalog, edited and published by David G. Phillips, notes that in some instances the word "free" was applied to mail that was sent free of postage under existing regulations.

Another alternative was mail sent unpaid: The recipient would pay the postage fee when the mail was delivered. The catalog notes that the absence of the words "paid" or "free" indicated this method of payment was used.

Although U.S. stamps were made available in 1847, the prepayment of domestic letter mail postage was not compulsory until Jan. 1, 1856.

The Postal Service today allows mail to be sent free of charge under a few very special circumstances.

Collectors refer to this privilege as "free-franking."

Once again, though postage stamps are not used on these items, the complete covers (envelopes, postcards or outer wrapping) are saved by many collectors interested in postal history.

Letter mail sent by certain military personnel stationed in designated overseas locations may be sent without charge.

In the upper-right corner the serviceman writes the word "free." The sender's name, military grade and complete military address must appear in the upper-left corner.

The upper-right corner of a piece of free military mail sent this past spring is shown at the bottom of Figure 3, courtesy of Linn's reader George Jarema.

The president of the United States, the vice president and members of Congress have some free-franking privileges as well. When these officials exercise this privilege, the envelope must bear their signature or a facsimile of their signature in the upper-right corner.

Figure 3, top, shows an example of free-franking on an envelope mailed by former President Gerald R. Ford in 1973, when he was the minority leader of the U.S. House of Representatives.

Postal regulations also allow free-franking for correspondence and the mailing of select items to or from persons who are blind.

Of course, other types of mail can be sent using prepaid postage other than conventional postage stamps.

Three examples are shown in Figure 4: the postage meter stamp (top), the postage value indicator label (center) created at U.S. post office counters, and one of the new computer-generated postage imprints (bottom, submitted by Linn's reader Bill Hancock).

These may not be thought of as stamps by most collectors, but there are others who watch for varieties of all of these items and even create specialized collections showing how they are used.

After all, these labels and imprints are prepaying the postage rate that delivers the mail, the same function that is fulfilled by the conventional postage stamp.