A Brief History of the U.S. Prestamp Era

In the era before the advent of American postage stamps, postage was expensive, being calculated based on a complicated schedule of distances plus the number of pages in a letter. Envelopes were rarely used, as they would be counted as another page. Consequently, letters were sheets of folded paper, more often just one, with a portion of the backside reserved for addressing. Folded letters were usually sealed with wax and and almost invariably sent unpaid, meaning the recipient had to pay the postage.

This inefficient system persisted until July 1, 1845, when domestic uniform rates for letters were established with the minimum cost for a half-ounce letter being 5¢ for up to 300 miles and 10¢ for distance over that to 3,000 miles. Incremental higher rates applied as the weight of a letter increased. The first national postage stamps followed in July of 1847 with denominations of 5¢ and 10¢. Unpaid letters could still be sent however, which slowed the adoption of prepaying postage with stamps.

Due to the greater volume of mail the lower rates prompted, the domestic postage rate was lowered in 1851 to 3¢ for up to 3,000 miles and 10¢ for over that distance. New stamps were issued to meet those rates, including a 1¢ stamp to pay the drop letter rate applicable to a letter left at the same post office where the recipient was expected to pick it up. Unpaid letters were still charged 5¢, but four years later they were no longer permitted, completing the conversion to a much more efficient system of paying for postage.

For more details on domestic postage rates from 1792 to 1863, please refer to this chart developed by the historian of the U.S. Postal Service.

U.S. Postage Rates and History

Click on each topic below to see a chart with applicable postage rates and fees. Listed are fees commonly charged retail customers at the post office with an emphasis on rates for which stamps were issued. A sampling of discounted commercial rates are listed under the Bulk Rate/Standard Rate Mail category for the periods when denominated stamps were issued to meet those rates.

Domestic Rates

International Rates

Other internet sources for rates