What exactly is postal history and why should you collect it?

May 2, 2021, 8 PM

By Janet Klug

Perhaps you have been wondering what exactly is postal history and why should you collect it. Collecting postal history is a big branch of the stamp hobby. It also is fascinating and laden with great stories.

Postal history is not just a fancy term for folded letters, envelopes, postcards and postal stationery that went through the mail. These are called covers by stamp collectors, but collecting a stack of old covers does not necessarily mean that you are engaged in postal history.

Postal history is an all-encompassing term that pertains to the development and use of postal systems. An individual cover can be significant from a postal history standpoint because it represents a rate, a route, a method of delivery or some other aspect of moving the mail.

Figure 1 pictures a stampless folded letter I picked up a few years ago. It might be difficult to see, but in the upper-left corner is a blue, roughly circular postmark from Mobile, Ala., dated April 24. Opening and reading the letter discloses that it was written in 1837, 10 years before the United States issued its first postage stamp.

The upper-right corner of the front of the folded letter has a manuscript "75" (cents) inscription. At the time, the rate for single-sheet letters going a distance of more than 400 miles was 25¢.

Because this folded letter was a single-sheet letter (on very thin paper I might add) sent from Mobile to New York, quite a bit more than 400 miles away, the rate should have been 25¢, not 75¢.

But there is another inscription at the bottom of the lower left side of the folded letter that sets this one apart. This inscription reads "Exp Mail," the abbreviation for express mail.

Between 1836 and 1839, the U.S. Post Office Department had an express mail service on several routes, the first of which was New York to New Orleans. Post riders on horseback carried the express mail in a saddle bag or pouch, making this the first express mail by pony, although it was not the famous western pony express.

This 1837 express mail letter would have been carried by steamship between Mobile and New Orleans. The ½-ounce weight limit for express mail accounts for the thinness of the paper.

Although the contents of the letter do not add a great deal to the postal history, there is some interesting social history that reflects the time and perhaps contributed to the urgency that prompted the sender to post the letter by the much more expensive express mail service.

Though it was difficult for me to read, I understood that the letter relates to the urgency of financial matters and the lack of confidence in "So(uthern) operations in England and the North." On May 10, 16 days after the letter was mailed, the panic of 1837 began in New York City when all the banks stopped payment in specie (gold and silver coins). A five-year depression followed.

Postal history items can have great eye appeal. The advertising cover shown in Figure 2 is a good example. The vivid corner card advertising "Taxidermy taught by mail" is a real eye-catcher.

The cover bears a 1¢ George Washington coil stamp paying the third-class mail rate used for printed matter and circulars.

The undated Omaha, Neb., cancel is typical of the type used on third-class mail. I imagine that this cover contained a brochure describing a home study course on how to preserve and mount animal trophies. However, it is more difficult to imagine how this could be learned through a correspondence course.

A solo usage is a cover on which the rate and fees are exactly paid by a single stamp. Finding properly used solo usage low-denomination or odd-denomination covers can be a real challenge.

Third-class mail was akin to what people today call junk mail, and, then as now, most folks did not save it. It appears that this cover with its stalking leopard corner card was so visually attractive that the recipient was moved to keep it.

Figure 3 depicts a cover franked with three different stamps of the popular Presidential series of regular-issue, or definitive, stamps. The stamps have a total face value of 8¢. The cover also bears a 15¢ special delivery stamp, making for a total franking of 23¢.

Special delivery provided for immediate delivery when a mail piece arrived at the receiving post office.

The cover was mailed April 26, 1952, at Roanoke, Ill., addressed to "Aeolion Box Office" in St. Louis.

The first-class letter rate at that time was 3¢. If the 15¢ special delivery stamp paid the special delivery fee, why was the additional 5¢ in postage affixed to the cover?

In 1952, the special delivery fee was 20¢. So the 1¢, 4¢ and 15¢ stamps pay the special delivery fee, and the 3¢ stamp pays the postage.

The cover bears two backstamps, postmarks applied at the receiving post office that show the date and place of receipt.

Both backstamps are from St. Louis. One is a St. Louis duplex postmark dated April 27, 1952, at 9:30 a.m., and the other is dated the following day, April 28, at 6:30 a.m. at the St. Louis central annex.

Presumably, the letter was delivered to the Aeolian box office that day, and the sender in Roanoke received the tickets to the desired performance.

Collecting postal history requires a little detective work to figure out the rates and routes.

A good catalog will go a long way to help you identify, mount in an album and appreciate stamps. For postal history, you often need to refer to many different references to fully understand all of a cover's nuances.

The American Philatelic Research Library, 100 Match Factory Place, Bellefonte, PA 16823, has excellent resources and a useful card catalog you can access through the web site at

Collectors interested in postal history will want to join the Postal History Society by writing to Kalman V. Illyefalvi, 869 Bridgewater Drive, New Oxford, PA 17350-8206.

Visit the web site at to learn more.