United States Postal Service

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United States Postal Service



United States Postal Service, independent agency within the executive department of the United States government, responsible for nationwide postal regulation and delivery. The postal system, formerly known as the Post Office Department, was reorganized as the U.S. Postal Service under the Postal Reorganization Act of 1970, which became effective in July 1971. The chief functions of the Postal Service are the collection and delivery of letters, parcel post, and printed matter, such as books, magazines, and newspapers, and the issuance of domestic and foreign money orders. The Postal Service handles more than 160 billion pieces of mail a year.

The changes in the postal system stemmed from four basic provisions of the Postal Reorganization Act: elimination of politics from postal management; adequate financing authority; establishment of a postal career service, allowing collective bargaining between management and employees; and creation of an independent commission for setting of postal rates.

The Postal Service is directed by an 11-member board of governors, 9 of whom are appointed by the president on a bipartisan basis with the advice and consent of the U.S. Senate. The nine governors appoint a tenth to be postmaster general; they then appoint a deputy postmaster general. The independent Postal Rate Commission has five members, appointed by the president. Tenure in these offices is decided on the basis of performance rather than political affiliation; one purpose of this stipulation is to avoid needless discontinuity of the postal system, which formerly occurred in presidential election years. The Postal Service is authorized to borrow up to $10 billion from the general public, that is, from the Department of the Treasury, and can propose to the Postal Rate Commission changes in rates or classification of mail.



Mailable matter in the domestic service is divided into four classes, for which different rates are charged. First-class mail includes letters, postcards, matter wholly or partly in writing, and matter sealed or closed against inspection; second-class mail comprises newspapers and periodical publications; third-class mail (less than 16 oz/170 g) includes books, circulars, matter wholly in print, and proof sheets; and fourth-class mail (domestic parcel post, 16 oz or over) covers merchandise and all matter not covered in the other three classes. Express mail, the newest service, provides overnight delivery for packages of up to 70 lb. Letters and postcards sent by airmail to foreign countries are considered first-class mail, as are parcels sent by air or as registered mail. Additional fees are charged for special delivery or special handling. No airmail category exists for first-class letters within the United States.



According to current regulations, liquor, poisons, medicines under certain restrictions, explosives, all articles likely to cause injury or damage, and seditious, obscene, defamatory, or threatening matter are excluded from the mails. Postal regulations restrict unsolicited advertisements that are of a sexually explicit nature. The postmaster general is authorized to prevent mail delivery to persons conducting a fraudulent business.



In 1963 the ZIP (Zoning Improvement Program) code system was introduced to simplify the patterns and procedures of mail distribution. The ZIP code is a five-digit number used on the last line of the address following the name of the city and state. The first digit, from 0 to 9, stands for one of the ten main geographical areas into which the United States and its possessions are divided; each area includes three or more states or possessions. The next four digits delimit localities further by subdividing the main area; the first three digits together represent a sectional or metropolitan area, with the next two numbers specifying an associated or branch post office. In October 1983 the Postal Service began using an expanded ZIP code system of nine numbers, consisting of the five-digit code plus four additional digits, which specify an individual delivery route. Use of ZIP codes is voluntary; however, reduced postage rates are offered to large-volume mailers employing the expanded nine-digit code.



The first American postal service was established in the colony of Massachusetts in 1639. From 1707 until the year before the American Revolution, the General Post Office in London controlled the postal service in America. In 1775 the Continental Congress resolved to have a postal system of its own, and Benjamin Franklin was elected to carry on the work. When a postal service was authorized by Congress in 1789 under the U.S. Constitution, the nation had 75 local post offices, and the mails were carried over 1875 mi (more than 3000 km) of postal routes.

The introduction of adhesive stamps in 1847 greatly simplified post office operations. The system of registering letters was first adopted in 1855. In cities, street letter boxes were introduced in 1858 and free mail delivery in 1863 under Postmaster General Montgomery Blair. The Pony Express began mail service between Saint Joseph, Missouri, and San Francisco in 1860. The money order system was put into operation in 1864, and rural free delivery service was established in 1896. The parcel post system came into operation in the U.S. in 1913. The first regular service for airmail was established between New York City and Washington, D.C., in 1918. The Postal Savings System, established by Congress in 1911, was terminated in 1966.

From 1829 to 1971 the appointment as U.S. postmaster general carried with it a position in the president's cabinet. The postmaster general makes postal agreements with foreign governments, awards and executes contracts, and directs the foreign mail service.

Microsoft ® Encarta ® 2008. © 1993-2007 Microsoft Corporation. All rights reserved.

National Postal Museum

National Postal Museum, museum of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., that explores the history of the United States postal service and celebrates the art of letter writing and the beauty and lore of postage stamps. The museum is home to the National Philatelic Collection, the nation’s largest and most comprehensive collection of stamps, postmarks, and related materials.

The museum opened in 1993 in the historic City Post Office Building, designed by Daniel Burnham and built in 1914. Exhibitions trace postal history as a reflection of the nation’s industrial, technological, and social progress. The museum follows the development of national mail service, beginning with the American colonial era, when postal routes followed trails used by Native Americans. Exhibits also describe the operations of the Pony Express, the effect of urbanization and rural life on delivery systems, the importance of letters as windows on history, and the intriguing stories behind stamps and stamp design. The museum displays a rotating selection of more than 55,000 stamps.

For philatelic researchers, the museum offers a wealth of material, including certified plate proofs of stamps printed by the Bureau of Engraving and Printing. It also has a master collection of U.S. postage stamps dating to 1847, and a large collection of revenue stamps, which are issued as proof of payment for special government taxes. The museum’s library, a center for postal history and philatelic research, is among the largest of its kind in the world.

Microsoft ® Encarta ® 2008. © 1993-2007 Microsoft Corporation. All rights reserved.

Universal Postal Union

Universal Postal Union, specialized agency of the United Nations, consisting of 189 member states and territories united in a single postal territory for the reciprocal exchange of correspondence. Nearly all independent nations and various dependent territories are members. The union implements the provisions of the Universal Postal Convention, adopted in 1874, which specifies the types of correspondence that may be transmitted internationally; prohibits mailing of certain articles and commodities, such as narcotics; provides for the redirection or return of correspondence that cannot be delivered; regulates payments when the mail goes through the territory of several members; and guarantees freedom of transit throughout the entire union.

The organization was established in 1875 as the General Postal Union by the provisions of the convention; the present name was adopted in 1878. In 1947 the union became a specialized UN agency, responsible for international postal activities. Headquarters is in Bern, Switzerland.

Microsoft ® Encarta ® 2008. © 1993-2007 Microsoft Corporation. All rights reserved.

Stamps and Stamp Collecting



Stamps and Stamp Collecting. Postage stamps are adhesive labels affixed to letters or parcels to indicate that a specified amount of postage has been prepaid for delivery. Stamps are usually issued by a government or an agency representing a government, such as a national post office. The collecting and study of postage stamps and related items such as postcards is known as philately, a word derived from Greek meaning, literally, “love of what is free of further tax.” Stamp collecting is one of the most popular hobbies in the world.



The idea for the adhesive postage stamp was first suggested by the English schoolmaster and civil servant Rowland Hill as one of the many postal reforms in Britain in 1837. Hill's conception, for which he was later knighted, was derived from similar labels that had been issued almost a century earlier in many parts of Europe as a way of collecting a tax on newspapers. In a treatise on post office reform, Hill also suggested that mail be prepaid, that charges be based on weight instead of the number of pages being sent, and that the rates be low enough to allow ordinary citizens to mail letters.


The Penny Black

Through Hill's efforts, on May 6, 1840, Britain released the world's first officially issued adhesive postage stamp, a one-penny denomination universally referred to as the Penny Black. The stamp features a portrait of Queen Victoria on a black background, establishing a postal precedent in Britain. Since that time, all regular-issue British stamps have portrayed the reigning monarch. Moreover, like the Penny Black, no subsequent British stamp has been inscribed with the name of the country, a privilege reserved for the nation that invented the postage stamp.

A companion two-pence blue Victoria portrait stamp was placed on sale a few days later, and both denominations became so popular that many people bought them not only for postal use but for their design and value as souvenirs. Within days after these first stamps were issued, the hobby of stamp collecting was born. The Penny Black is not a rare stamp—many millions were issued—but, as the world's first adhesive issue, it remains highly regarded by philatelists (stamp collectors).


Development of Stamps

Brazil became the second country to use adhesive postage stamps in 1843, and the United States was the third in 1847. By 1860 most nations had adopted the use of the postage stamp. Early designs imitated those of Britain. Monarchies and their territories issued stamps with portraits of their reigning king or queen. The United States depicted George Washington and Benjamin Franklin, two deceased statesmen, on its first stamps. Some countries used national symbols.

Nonportrait designs became popular by the end of the 19th century, and stamps created to commemorate important events began to be issued. Today almost all countries issue large, colorful pictorials, often solely for the revenue obtained from sale to collectors. Portraits of presidents and others who have made significant contributions to American life have since been featured on U.S. stamps. Portraits of living people, however, are forbidden—a person’s likeness cannot appear on a U.S. stamp until at least ten years have passed since his or her death. The only exceptions are presidents, whose portraits may appear on stamps immediately after they die.

Postage stamps eventually took on a wide variety of special purposes. Postage-due stamps (or simply “dues,” as collectors call them) were affixed to envelopes to indicate insufficient postage. Special stamps for airmail, newspapers, military delivery, income tax, railway delivery, special handling, and all sorts of other purposes were created. Semipostals, or charity stamps, became a popular way for governments to raise funds for various causes. These stamps cost more than their postage value, with the difference going toward the charitable cause.

Stamps have historically shown a specified amount of prepaid postage. But in recent years many stamps have been printed without denominations, the majority from the United States, which often prints huge quantities of one-ounce, first-class stamps in anticipation of a postage increase. The exact amount of the increase is not known at the time the stamps are printed, so they are simply marked with a letter of the alphabet or some other designation to indicate they represent the going rate for a one-ounce letter. The year of issue is commonly placed at the bottom of U.S. nondenominational stamps to avoid confusion.

The last major postage innovation of the 20th century was the development and wide distribution of self-adhesive stamps—stamps that do not have to be moistened. Consumers love them for their convenience, but collectors hate them because they are difficult to store in a stamp album. Eventually, the only “lickable” stamps will likely be those intended primarily for collectors and souvenir hunters, such as America’s enormously popular Elvis Presley, James Dean, and Marilyn Monroe stamps. The 21st century is apt to bring major changes to the postal industry, due mostly to the growing use of e-mail and other electronic means of transmitting information. As post offices become less and less important and postal revenues decline, stamps commemorating events and folk heroes will likely become more common as a means of increasing sales.


Famous Stamps

The world’s most valuable stamp has long been considered the famed 1856 British Guiana one-cent magenta, an octagonal stamp with corners missing and postmarked “Demerara April 4, 1856.” No report of a second copy has ever been verified. This stamp sold for $935,000 at a New York auction in 1980, then the highest price ever paid for a single philatelic item in a public sale.

Among the most renowned of all U.S. philatelic material was a sheet of 100 bicolored 24-cent airmails, issued in 1918. The stamps feature as their central figure a picture of the Curtiss JN-4 biplane (commonly referred to as the Jenny), the aircraft designated for mail-carrying service, with the Jenny inadvertently printed upside down. Only one single sheet of the inverted centers has ever been found. After it was purchased in the 1920s, the stamps were separated into various singles, pairs, and blocks. The 24-cent Jenny invert has escalated steadily in value. In 1989 a block of four was sold at auction for $1 million.

Other famous, rare, or otherwise interesting stamps include the 1851 Baden 9 Kreuzer Blue Green stamp, the 1849 Bavarian 1 Kreuzer Black tête-bêche (two adjoining stamps printed upside down relative to each other), the 1851 Canada 12-pence Black (issued before Canada adopted the dollar as its unit of currency), the 1925 Honduras “Black” Airmail, the 1855 Sweden 3 Skilling-Banco (printed orange instead of green by mistake), and the 1851 Hawaiian “Missionaries”—2-cent, 5-cent, and 13-cent stamps so named because they were often used by American missionaries in Hawaii for correspondence sent back to the U.S. mainland.


Omnibus Issues

An omnibus issue is any group of stamps, generally with the same design, released by a number of stamp-issuing authorities to mark the same occasion. The British Commonwealth has by far produced the greatest number of omnibus issues, the first being the George V Silver Jubilee series of 1935, another being the series released on July 29, 1981, to commemorate the wedding of Prince Charles and Lady Diana Frances Spencer.



Philately continues to increase in popularity. Today, the number of collectors around the world numbers in the millions. Unique and valuable stamps, apart from their aesthetic or financial appeal to collectors, are also records of history, geography, politics, art, and numerous other aspects of human civilization.


Types of Collecting

From the earliest years of the hobby, most philatelists have preferred to collect by country, specializing in the issues of one or more nations. Since about the mid-1950s, however, many philatelists have become interested in topical collecting, acquiring stamps illustrating certain themes or subjects. Among the wide range of pictorials are stamps devoted to sports, art and music, aviation, birds and flowers, literature, scouting, ships, and telecommunications.



National, regional, and local stamp-collecting organizations exist everywhere. Many stamp clubs focus on a particular philatelic specialty, but others encompass the entire realm of philately. The American Topical Association, in Johnstown, Pennsylvania, is one of the specialized organizations of stamp collectors in the United States. It publishes a monthly magazine, Topical Time, as well as special handbooks. The largest general organization for stamp collectors in the Western Hemisphere is the American Philatelic Society (APS), in State College, Pennsylvania. The organization publishes The American Philatelist, a monthly journal.

The U.S. National Philatelic Collection is housed in the National Postal Museum of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. A philatelic reference library is also maintained in the same building.


Collecting Procedures

One of the attractions of stamp collecting is the ease of starting a collection. With access to enough incoming mail, especially from abroad, a person can build a collection without any expense. Literally tens of thousands of stamps, however, including many of the older issues, are priced very cheaply.

Little special equipment is required. A collector needs only an album to house the collection, some hinges or other types of mounts to attach the stamps to the pages, and a pair of stamp tongs with which to handle them. Stamps and accessories can be purchased easily. Nearly every city has a one or more professional stamp dealers. Thousands of other dealers operate exclusively by mail or the Internet.

Exchanging duplicate stamps is one of the greatest pleasures in philately. The best way to find trading partners is to join a school or other local stamp club.

When collectors have accumulated a number of valuable stamps, they must take precautions for safe storage, preferably in a bank safety deposit box. If the stamps are in mint condition, they should not be overlapped; through changes in humidity, overlapping stamps may stick together and become seriously damaged. Collectors also should keep accurate written inventories of all their philatelic material.

Contributed By:

R. Scott Carlton

Microsoft ® Encarta ® 2008. © 1993-2007 Microsoft Corporation. All rights reserved.

1972: Stamps And Stamp Collecting

Archives consist of articles that originally appeared in Collier's Year Book (for events of 1997 and earlier) or as monthly updates in Encarta Yearbook (for events of 1998 and later). Because they were published shortly after events occurred, they reflect the information available at that time. Cross references refer to Archive articles of the same year.

1972: Stamps And Stamp Collecting

U.S. developments.

The focus of the philatelic world was on the U.S. Postal Service, with its innovations in hobby promotion and stamp design. Foremost among the former was the publication of a colorful book, Stamps and Stories, combining a priced catalog of all U.S. issues, a technical guide, and a history of the nation as shown on stamps. The book was produced by the Scott Publishing Company, Omaha, and is sold in cloth and paper bindings. Special philatelic gift shops were opened in large metropolitan offices, and the Philatelic Automatic Distribution Service was established to merchandise souvenir album pages for new issues.

A departure in design was the four-element two-cent Cape Hatteras National Seashore commemorative in the national parks centennial series. Each stamp is an entity, but blocks of four combine to complete a larger design. Other parks honored for the first time were Wolf Trap Farm Park for the Performing Arts in Virginia, City of Refuge National Historical Park in Hawaii, and Mount McKinley National Park in Alaska. The eight-cent stamp of the series repeated in multicolor the Old Faithful design on the 1934 Yellowstone stamp.

Se tenant arrangements for four different designs in a sheet were utilized for the wildlife conservation and American bicentennial issues. The latter was also furnished in first day cover form with a Bureau of the Mint medal attached. Other special issues commemorated poet Sidney Lanier, fictional hero Tom Sawyer, the Peace Corps, mail order business, and the Olympic Games. Osteopathic medicine, pharmacy, family planning, and the Parent-Teacher Association furnished socially oriented themes. A new face in the regular series was New York mayor Fiorello La Guardia on a 14-cent denomination, and another new face—Santa Claus—appeared on one of the Christmas stamps. To celebrate the 125th anniversary of U.S. stamps and to salute stamp collectors, an eight-cent stamp based on the Benjamin Franklin issue of 1847 was released to the public on November 17.

Highlighting new postal stationery were five large pictorial postal cards issued for the Tourism Year of the Americas. Printed in black and orange on beige stock, each has an imprinted stamp design with tourist-oriented theme; on the picture side are four reproductions of tourist sites.

Stamps in space.

A negative aspect of American philately was the revelation that astronauts David R. Scott, Alfred M. Worden, and James B. Irwin of the Apollo 15 moon mission of 1971 had carried at least 632 unauthorized covers. One hundred of these reached a German dealer, who sold 99 of them for about $1,500 each. This violation of NASA rules resulted in the reprimanding and reassignment of Scott and Worden, and Irwin resigned to go into religious work.

World developments.

The traditional omnibus issues dominated international philately, with the majority devoted to the Olympic Games, the 25th wedding anniversary of Britain's Queen Elizabeth, the UNESCO campaign to save Venice, and the World Health Organization's drive against heart disease. Climaxing the fellowship aspect of the hobby was Belgica, the two-week exhibition held in Brussels during the summer.

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