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home : opinion : columnist June 4, 2023

3/21/2023 12:03:00 AM
Guest Column
When It Comes To Stamps, Cheapness Is Relative

Tammy Wilson
Guest Columnist

When the first Forever Stamps went on sale in April 2007, they said it was a sign of things to come… namely escalating prices.

Stamps continue their upward spiral. This past January they went up another three cents. For the record, it now costs 63 cents a letter. That little two-sided “book” of 20 you’ve been buying now costs $12.60.

Not that this shouldn’t shake too many people up. Who sends letters anymore? Who mails greeting cards?

Most letters have devolved into text messages, DMs and Facebook posts, so if you show up at the postal window and need to mail something first class, you may be in for a shock.

This is the point when seniors march out their old-timer stories of how things used to be.

Here goes.

My earliest memory of first-class postage was a purple four-cent stamp bearing the likeness of Abraham Lincoln. Those stamps lasted well into the mid-1960s. They adorned envelopes I addressed to cousins and pen pals. Pen pals—who has those anymore?

By that time, the price went up a whole penny. The year, if I remember right was 1965. We either had to add a one-cent stamp or pony up a whole nickel to purchase a stamp, this time a gray square with the image of George Washington. Bear in mind these were actual stamps you had to moisten to adhere to an envelope. The self-adhesive variety didn’t appear until the 1990s.

What I didn’t know until I looked it up was that the four-centers were introduced in 1958—before I knew how to read and write. Prior to that, the three-cent stamp had reigned until 1932. Two-centers were the going rate for fifty years, until 1883 when, believe it or not, stamp prices dropped a penny from three cents. That must have felt like pennies from heaven.

It seems that you could save a penny if the envelope wasn’t sealed. Or maybe I dreamed that.

While these old-time prices seem ridiculously cheap, they’re actually on par with what money could buy at the time. At the end of the Civil War, when first-class postage was three cents, or 60 cents in today’s money. What goes around, comes around. And in 1883, when stamps actually decreased in price again, the modern equivalent of 60 cents.

Postage stamp collectors know the details, but essentially stamps haven’t decreased in price, save for a brief time after World War I.

During the 1970s, the cost of stamps soared every few years. Into the early 90s, a first-class stamp went up a whopping four cents overnight. The date was Feb. 3, 1991—a hike of .25 to .29., a 16 percent increase.

There were no Forever stamps and customers were obliged to buy fractional stamps to round up postage to the correct amount. Anybody remember receiving a letter in the mail with a string of one-cent stamps affixed to the right corner? Or maybe a one and a two-cent stamps. It must have been especially aggravating to be a postal clerk back then.

Before one of those rate hikes back in the day, my husband and I dragged out some birthday and holiday cards we had in the drawer and mailed them to family and close friends as a joke. Each bore the note, “Beating the rate hike.”

This was way before email, when people actually wrote letters. They paid attention to how much it cost.

True to my thriftier nature, when I visited the post office last month, I bought a few sheets of stamps to have them on hand. After all, the 58-cent stamp will work “forever.” Using them when the rate is 60 cents is giving myself a three-cent discount.

Three cents are three cents.

Which brings me back to the Forever stamp. If you still have one of those first issues, you would be 22 cents to the better. A value gain of 53 percent, all said.

---Tammy Wilson lives near Newton. Her latest book is Going Plaid in a Solid Gray World: Collected Columns, published by Red Hawk Press. Contact Wilson at [email protected]

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