US Stamps

Rules for returning undeliverable domestic postal cards after 1940

Jul 29, 2014, 2 AM

This article will illustrate the United States Post Office Department’s policy of guaranteed non-free returns of undeliverable postcards and postal cards after 1940.

The examples shown are an undeliverable local domestic surface postal card from 1949, and an undeliverable nonlocal domestic surface postal card from 1951.

I am presently developing an exhibit of the return process for U.S. domestic surface postal cards and postcards.

Postal cards are manufactured with an imprinted stamp and sold by the post office, and postcards are usually purchased from retail vendors and mailed with an affixed stamp.

First and foremost, this exhibit is driven by the Post Office Department’s seeming lack of respect for postal cards (after May 1873, when introduced), and then postcards (after July 1, 1898, when allowed).

This lack of respect is reflected in a number of ways: (a) by their postal return essentially not being allowed before 1887; (b) before 1985, by single postal cards being allowed as free delivery office (undeliverable) returns only from 1887 to 1893; (c) by nonlocal single card undeliverable returns not being free from 1924 to 1985; (d) by even local and reply card returns not being free from 1941 to 1985; and (e) by the fact that Dead Letter Office returns were never allowed for cards.

I have had to do extensive research into many documents to fully understand the ramifications of how the USPOD handled these returns. For instance, Insert No. 38, Order No. 16411 of Nov. 6, 1941, reporting a change in the 1940 Postal Laws and Regulations (PL&R) stated: “Unpaid, misdirected, unmailable and unclaimed domestic postal cards and post cards, whether single or double or whether addressed for local delivery or otherwise, shall be returned to the sender only when they bear his return card in the upper left corner of the address side, together with a pledge to pay return postage. Such cards bearing the sender’s return card and pledge to pay return postage shall be returned charged with postage due at the rate of 1 cent each, to be collected on delivery as provided in Section 805. This applies regardless of whether in the case of double cards postage has been prepaid on the reply portion.”

Incidentally, this new law represented a change from the 1940 PL&R in that prior to this insert, undeliverable, local, single and reply-paid domestic surface postal cards could be returned without payment of 1¢.

The 1¢ green Thomas Jefferson postal card in Figure 1 (Scott UX27) was mailed locally March 22, 1949, in Pittsburg, Cal. and returned to sender marked “unclaimed.”

After Nov. 6, 1941, it could only be returned if the pledge “return postage guaranteed” and a return address were placed in the upper left corner of the address side of the card.

In this case, the return address was somewhat obscure but apparently adequate for a local return, and together with the guarantee, was adequate enough to assure the card’s return with 1¢ postage due and paid, as indicated by the 1¢ postage due stamp (Scott J70) placed on the card.

The second postal card (another Scott UX27), illustrated in Figure 2, was a nonlocal card mailed April 23, 1951, from Washington, D.C., to Berwyn, Md.

It was also “unclaimed” and it was appropriately returned due 1¢ (again with the 1¢ postage due stamp Scott J70 affixed) because it was correctly pledged “return postage guaranteed” with a return address, both in the upper left corner of the address side of the card.

Again, the 1¢ postage due stamp indicated payment of the return postage.

The uses shown here are important and indicative of the poor regard in which the USPOD held postal cards and postcards.

Such uses on postal cards are, in my experience and in that of others with even more knowledge in the area than I, very hard to find on pre-1970 postal cards, and even rare on pre-1970 postcards. In fact, I know of no such uses on postcards.

Importantly, these are not third-class postal card usages with return postage guaranteed, because the return postage due would have been the 1½¢ single-piece third-class rate of the time.

By the way, the 1¢ postage due for return is the first-class surface domestic postal/postcard rate of the time, for instance increasing to 2¢ when the postal/postcard domestic surface rate became 2¢ on Jan. 1, 1952.

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