Friday, February 8, 2008

Fractional Postage in the United States

In April 1925, the United States Post Office changed the third-class mail rate to 1½ cents. In order to meet the demand for this new rate, a 1½ cent stamp honoring the recently deceased president Warren Harding was quickly rushed out. One month later, a ½ cent stamp honoring patriot Nathan Hale was issued so that it could be combined with existing 1 cent stamps to reach the third-class mail rate. This was the first time that the United States had to deal with fractional postage.

In 1925, there was no ½ cent denomination of coinage in the U.S., nor has their been since. To purchase the stamps, one had to buy an even number of fractional denominated stamps, in order to round the purchase up to a whole cent. For example, a customer could buy two ½ cent stamps for a penny; or a 1½ cent stamp plus a ½ cent stamp for two pennies, and so on. You could not buy just one stamp without someone losing money.

Another problem with fractional postage deals with postage due stamps. Because the third class rate changed from 1 cent to 1½ cent, any third class mail posted with only a 1 cent stamp was shorting the Post Office ½ cent in revenue. The postal carrier would have to charge the customer ½ cent to meet the postage due. The lack of a ½ cent coin compounded this problem since the customer could not pay the postage due outright. The postal carried would collect one cent, and then give the customer a ½ cent postage stamp in change.

The ½ cent stamps never paid the full postage for anything ... they always had to be used with other stamps to make up a postal rate.

Interestingly, fractional postage stayed around for over 30 years; the last fractional stamp issue in the U.S. was the ½ cent Benjamin Franklin stamp released in 1955.

Because of their long lifespan, and the fact that they were made in high quantities, most fractional stamps can be purchased for extremely low cost.


Joshua McGee said...

"Extremely low cost" can even mean "at face value"! I love using one Ben Franklin (1/2 cent) and one Martha Washington (1 1/2) Prexie together to make up the rate from $0.39 to $0.41. Anything that makes people do a double-take is great! And those covers are more likely to be saved, and given to a child who might like to have the 70-year-old stamps in his or her collection, even if they are used drastically out-of-period.

Anonymous said...

It's not true that the last fractional stamp was issued in the mid 1950s. For years after that, a long series of coil stamps in fractions of cents was issued - 8.3 cents, 10.1 cents, 5.5 cents, 12.5 cents, perhaps a dozen more - issued at least well into the 1980s if not into the early 1990s.

Len Nadybal