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The History of First Class Postage Rates

Updated February 21, 2017

In 1840, England issued the first postage stamp, the Penny Black, which featured a picture of Queen Victoria. Just seven years later, the United States issued its first two modern stamps, one picturing George Washington and the other picturing Ben Franklin, the first postmaster of the country. Since 1847, postal rates have changed to match fluctuations in the economy. The Postal Rate Commission, following recommendations by the Postal Service's Board of Governors, controls these rates.

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Distance differential

Between July 1, 1845, and June 30, 1863, first class postal rates varied depending on the distance the mail would travel. Up until 1851, letters mailed to distances under 300 miles cost five cents for each half ounce; for longer distances that cost increased to 10 cents. A drop letter (first class mail that was mailed and delivered from the same post office) cost two cents during this time. On July 1, 1851, first class rates dropped to three cents per one half ounce for letters that travelled up to 3,000 miles, and six cents for longer distances. Drop letter prices were lowered to a penny.

Distance Differential eliminated

On July 1, 1863, the distance differential was eliminated and the cost for first class mail going anywhere in the country was three cents for each one-half ounce. The three-cent rate remained in effect until 1883, when the rate was lowered to two cents. On July 1, 1885, the weight allowance was increased to one ounce, keeping the cost at two cents.

World War I through the Depression

The rate set in 1885 remained in effect until 1917 when a the World War I emergency rate increase raised the cost of mailing a one ounce letter to three cents. Following the war, on July 1, 1919, the two-cent pre-war rate was restored. In 1932, however, the rate was raised to three cents because of the Depression.

Remainder of Twentieth Century

The cost of a first class stamp remained the same until August 1, 1958 when the rate was increased to four cents. Four and a half years later, in January of 1963, the rate was raised to five cents and that rate remained until 1968 when the rate was raised again, to six cents. In 1971, the rate increased to eight cents, and then to 10 cents in 1974. On December 31, 1975, the rate increased to 13 cents where it remained until increased to 15 cents in 1978. In 1981 the rate increased to 18 cents and then to 22 cents in 1985. Between April 3, 1988 and January 10, 1999, rates went from 25 cents to 29 cents in 1991, to 32 cents in 1995, and finally closed the century at 33 cents.

Twenty-first Century

The 33-cent rate remained until 2001 when it was increased to 34 cents, and then raised to 39 cents in 2006. On May 14, 2007, the rate was raised to 41 cents where it remained until 2009 when it went to 44 cents. In order to give the consumer a small break in these ever-increasing rates, the United States Postal Service issued the Forever Stamp which is sold at the same price as a regular first class stamp, but can be used as a regular first class stamp in the future, making its value "forever" equal to the prevailing first class postage rate.

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About the Author

Peggy Epstein is a freelance writer specializing in education and parenting. She has authored two books, "Great Ideas for Grandkids" and "Family Writes," and published more than 100 articles for various print and online publications. Epstein is also a former public school teacher with 25 years' experience. She received a Master of Arts in curriculum and instruction from the University of Missouri.

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