Iowa City, Johnson County, and Eastern Iowa history, as seen through the eyes of postage stamps, postcards, letters, coins, books, and other collectibles.
An Introduction to Stamp-less Covers.
Prior to 1847, when postage stamps first appeared, letters went through the mail “stamp-less,” marked for the rate, date and city of origin using 1) a handwritten notation by the postal clerk, 2) a stamped postmark using a hand stamp like the one below, or 3) a combination of both.
How were postage rates determined for “stamp-less” mail?
Back east, up until 1825, it cost 25-cents to mail a letter – a huge amount for most common folk. So, if a person was too poor to pay, the good-natured postmaster would, most likely, trust the sender until the sum was available. Post offices, at the time, were located in general stores, and the postal clerk pretty much knew everybody who wanted to mail a letter.
Yes, things were simpler back then, but receiving mail from others was not an easy thing. If you lived in a larger city in the East, mail delivery ran smoothly, but the further west one went, the higher the odds that your mail would not be received or sent at regular intervals. Everything, you see, was conditional, based on location and if navigation between point A and point B was even possible.
As the nation expanded westward, the U.S. government did its best to bring more continuity to the mailing process. On March 3, 1825 it was declared that postage rates would be standardized, based according to the weight of the letter and the distance traveled. These “zone” rates were relatively stable from 1825 to 1845, with the single (1 ounce) letter rate as follows:
Not over 30 miles: 6 cents. 30 to 80 miles: 10 cents. 80 to 150 miles: 12½ cents. 150 to 400 miles: 18¾ cents. Over 400 miles: 25 cents. There were also “double” and “triple” rates on top of this standard zone pricing, based on the letter’s size and weight.
As you might imagine, this personalized process of “stamp-less” letters worked fairly well when the postmaster had only a mailbag or two of letters go through his post office in one day. But as the mail volume increased, as it did in the mid-19th century, so did the need for automating the whole process.
July 1, 1845 – Things start to get a lot simpler.
On July 1, 1845, postal rates got a lot simpler, dropping to 5 cents for any one-ounce letter traveling less than 300 miles and 10 cents for a letter going over 300 miles. Plus, there was another bit of good news for those hard-strapped for cash: the cost of postage could now be paid by either the sender or the addressee (C.O.D. = cash on delivery)!
And then, on July 1, 1847, it happened: the first postage stamps (5-cent and 10-cent) were sold in New York City.
Even after postage stamps were introduced in 1847, it was not always easy to buy them. Iowa, for example, was “far west” country and until the railroad came into the state in the late-1850’s, settlers were fortunate enough when they had some-what regular mail service, let alone the luxury of postage stamps! Thus, while most “stamp-less” covers from the East are dated pre-1847, it’s very common to find Iowa-related “stamp-less” mail dated well into the late 1850’s. At this present time, Our Iowa Heritage collection contains “stamp-less” covers ranging from 1844 to 1859.
In 1855, as transportation by rail became readily available to a larger part of the country, postal rates went down to 3 cents for any one-ounce letter traveling up to 3,000 miles and 10 cents for a letter traveling more than 3,000 miles. Finally in 1863, that 3,000 mile limit was dropped and all one-ounce letters cost 3 cents until 1882.
“Stamp-less” mail during wartime.
Military mail, as opposed to civilian mail, refers to no-cost letters provided for all current armed forces members, sending mail at no cost. Service members simply mark “FREE” on the envelope and stick their letter in the armed services postal mail.