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The USA Postmasters series

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The USA Postmasters series Photo: uspcs.org

By an Act of Congress of March 3, 1845 which came into effect on July 1 that year, postal rates throughout the US were revised. There was a time lag between the passage of this Act and an Act of March 3, 1847 which permitted the Postmaster General to issue stamps. In the intervening period it was left to the Postmasters of various towns and cities to produce their own provisional stamps. Most of the truly great rarities of US philately come from this ‘Postmasters’ period.

The first appeared in New York barely two weeks after this Act came into effect. George Washington formed was the subject and the stamps were recess-printed by Messrs Rawdon, Wright & Hatch (later the American Bank Note Company). The 5c stamps were printed in black on bluish paper, the portrait being taken from the die used in the production of the bank notes then current. The stamps were initialled in red ink as a security measure before sale. The initials of the postal clerk Alonzo Castle Monson are those most frequently encountered, but those initialled by the postmaster, Robert H. Morris are scarce. Only four stamps with the initials ‘M.M. Jr.’ (Marcena Monson Junior) have ever turned up – a pair on cover, a single on cover and a single, putting Marcena’s stamps into the super league of the world’s greatest rarities.

The 1846 versions
James Madison Buchanan, postmaster of Baltimore, Maryland, issued 5 and 10c stamps in 1845, consisting of his signature above the denomination, enclosed in a thin rectangular frame. The make-up of the printing plate is unknown, although 11 varieties of the 5c and three of the 10c have been recorded. The stamps were printed in black on white or bluish paper, but Buchanan also produced postal stationery consisting of envelopes bearing his signature above the word PAID and the value in a circle. Only seven examples of the 10c stamp (one on a piece and six on cover) have been recorded and the last time one came up at auction, in October 1989, it fetched $121,000.

The 1846 Postmasters stamps are all in the rarity class. Annapolis (Maryland) had a 5c stamp printed by hand direct on to blue envelopes which are only known in used condition and have a current Gibbons quotation of £50,000. A crude stamp, typeset on thin paper, consists of the inscription PAID 5 CENTS in three lines without a frame. Only one example has been recorded, and that on cover with pen cancellation from Boscawen, New Hampshire. Almost as unique is the double oval stamp of Lockport, New York, of which only a solitary example on cover has ever been found, although a second cover is known bearing the remnants of such a stamp. The circular stamp from Millbury, Massachusetts, printed singly from a woodcut with a portrait of Washington, is more common in so far as it is recorded mint, used and on cover (with Gibbons prices of £75,000, £17,000 and £60,000 respectively).

The most intriguing of the Postmasters stamps was the circular type-set 5c produced by Daniel Bryan at Alexandria, Virginia. It was blatantly copied by the Russian zemstvo (local) post of Aleksandria, Kherson on a 10 kopek stamp in 1870. The US stamp wasn’t discovered by philatelists until 1872. Only one example has ever been found of the 5c on blue paper. The Alexandria ‘Blue Boy’ as it’s dubbed was sold by David Feldman for $1 million in 1981.

Civil War makeshifts
The stamps of New Haven, Connecticut were handstruck direct on to white, buff or bluish envelopes in red or grey-blue, completed by the signature of the postmaster, E.A. Mitchell in various colours. These permutations and combinations gave rise to five distinct varieties which are today in the price range of £55,000-£70,000. The tiny 5c black on buff stamps from Brattleboro, Vermont are more plentiful and range from a mere £4,000 used to £13,000 mint.

In the early months of the Civil War many Postmasters in the South resorted to their own makeshifts. With the exception of the stamps from Charleston, Fredericksburg, Lynchburg, Memphis, Mobile and New Orleans, all of the Confederate locals are rare and several are unique – the 10c black on yellow from Beaumont,Texas; the circular 10c from Hallettsville, Texas; the 5c from Liberty, Virginia; the 5c woodcut of Mt. Lebanon, Louisiana; the 10c on 5c from New Smyrna, Florida and the 10c black from Port Lavaca, Texas.

The first general USA issue appeared on August 5, 1847. The stamps – in denominations of 5c and 10c – were recess-printed by the same firm (now known as Messrs Rawdon, Wright, Hatch & Edson) and portrayed Benjamin Franklin (the first Postmaster-General) and George Washington. A total of 4,400,000 of the 5c and 1,050,000 of the 10c were printed.