US Stamps

When postage due stamps mean postage due hasn’t been collected

May 1, 2021, 2 PM

Modern U.S. Mail — By Tony Wawrukiewicz

As I mentioned in my Feb. 13 Linn’s column, I am studying how United States postage due stamps have been used since they were introduced in 1879.

As noted then, basically there are two ways in which U.S postage due stamps were used. First, they indicated shortpaid or unpaid postage due that was collected (unless the item was forwarded, undeliverable, sent to the Dead Letter Office, and so on), or second, they indicated actual collection of some type of fee.

In this column, I will discuss nuances of the first type of use. Almost all of the citations represent my own original research.

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In this first case, the rules that defined the use of postage due stamps existed from when they were first introduced July 1, 1879, until at least the publication of the last Transmittal Letter of the U.S. Postal Service Postal Manual, dated Aug. 21, 1978.

During this time period, at non-letter-carrier post offices, the postage due stamps were to be affixed only upon actual delivery of the shortpaid item. In that case, the placement of the postage due stamps indicated that the due amount had been collected.

On the other hand, at letter-carrier post offices (also called free delivery or city delivery offices), the postage due stamps were to be affixed on the shortpaid item as soon as it arrived at the office of delivery.

Therefore, in this case, if the shortpaid items were forwarded, undeliverable or sent to the Dead Letter Office, then the placement of the postage due stamps would not indicate payment of the postage due.

How does one determine whether a city’s post office was a letter-carrier or non-letter-carrier office? The first such list pertinent to postage due stamp use, called the “List of Carrier-Delivery, or Free Delivery Post Offices,” was published in the July 1879 U.S. Official Postal Guide.

As of January 1890, until January 1907, they were called only free delivery offices, and were listed yearly in the Postal Guide. As of January 1908, until 1943, they were listed annually in the Postal Guide as “Offices Having City Delivery.”

I am unable to find a subsequent list, even though non-letter-carrier rates continued until Jan. 6, 1967, and such post offices remained until and after postage due stamps were discontinued Oct. 2, 1986. (See additional information in the last paragraph in this article.)

I’m now going to describe two examples of due covers, both of which illustrate postage due stamp use where the stamps did not represent collection of the shortpaid postage.

A drop letter, traditionally, is a mailpiece left at the post office for the addressee to collect.

From the introduction of postage due stamps July 1, 1879, until Jan. 7, 1968, drop letters, when forwarded, were rated for collection of additional postage for the difference between the amount already prepaid and the total postage computed, if the inter-city rate was greater than the drop rate.

From Oct. 1, 1883, until July 1, 1933, except for the war-tax years, the inter-city first-class rate equaled the carrier drop rate.

At the same time, noncarrier drop rate forwarding, where rates remained unequal, is rarely seen. So, except for the short early period from 1879 until 1883, examples of any type of drop forwarding with postage due stamps are generally seen only after July 1, 1933, and then only for carrier-office drop forwarding.

An important additional note: Because carrier-city drop rates ended March 26, 1944, and noncarrier-city drop rate forwarding is rarely seen at any time, examples such as that shown in the first illustration are rarely seen after March 26, 1944.

The July 1, 1933, date is when the carrier-office drop rate became 1¢ less than the inter-city rate of 3¢. As announced in the August 1933 supplement to the Postal Guide, as of July 1, 1933, drop letters prepaid 2¢ and addressed for local delivery could be forwarded to another post office rated with postage due to be collected from the addressee on delivery.

Based on most examples known to me, the postage due stamps were usually affixed by the new, forwarded office. This makes sense, because that is where the postage due was to be collected, and thus the addition of postage due stamps to the envelope indicated collection of the postage due at that office.

The 1939 up-to-1-ounce domestic surface letter in the first illustration was mailed in Albany, N.Y., at the carrier-office drop rate of 2¢ for up to 1 ounce. It was then forwarded to Miami, Fla., correctly rated “Postage Due 1 Cent,” because the inter-city rate was 3¢ for up to 1 ounce.

When it reached Miami, another carrier city, the postage due stamp was correctly affixed when the letter reached the delivery office (see the Miami cancel on the postage due stamp). There it was undeliverable (for the multiple reasons handstamped on the letter), and it was “RETURNED/TO WRITER.”

Because the letter was undeliverable, and the postage due stamp was added before collection of the due amount was possible, remarkably, this postage due stamp never represented the collection of the due amount.

Now let’s turn our attention to the cover in the second illustration.

As of July 1, 1956 (Postal Bulletin 19952), if a shortpaid letter with postage due stamps on it was undeliverable, forwarded, sent to the Dead Letter Office, or for some other reason did not indicate collection of postage due, the stamps were henceforth to be “VOIDED” and credit for them was to be obtained.

In the second illustration, the March 4, 1958, domestic surface letter mailed at the up-to-1-ounce rate of 3¢ was unpaid at the office of delivery. Therefore, double the postage, or 6¢, was due, as indicated by the first set of postage due stamps affixed at the right.

For some reason, the stamps were not used to collect the 6¢ due, and they were correctly “VOIDED.”

Then, a second pair of 3¢ postage dues was added, and the fact that they were not “VOIDED” means that the 6¢ postage due was collected. Therefore, the first set of postage due stamps did not indicate collection of the due postage.

As far as I am able to tell, my research is the first to recognize what the placement of postage due stamps on U.S. items actually means: namely, that there are times when the postage due stamps indicate that some amount of postage due was actually paid, and other times when they did not indicate this.

As I slowly determine the rules that governed postage due stamp use, I find there is frustrating inconsistency in the manner with which such stamps were used over the years. Also, as I will show in a subsequent column, remember that meter stamps are postage due stamps, and they were correctly used after Oct. 2, 1986.

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 online.