United States Postage Stamps


United States Postage StampThe United States has been issuing postage stamps since July 1, 1847, when two stamps – a 5-cent reddish brown stamp bearing a portrait of Benjamin Franklin and a 10-cent black stamp bearing a portrait of George Washington – were placed on sale in New York City. Thousands of stamps have followed.

Over the years, U.S. stamps have been issued for use during the Civil War era, the brief but exciting Pony Express era, and of course continually during the 20th and 21st centuries.


Definitive U.S. Stamps

A definitive stamp is sometimes called a “regular issue” stamp because it is intended to serve the regular needs of people using postage stamps. In other words, a definitive stamp is not a commemorative stamp (see below). That distinction does not make definitive stamps any less collectible; indeed, some definitive U.S. stamps are hard to find simply because they were not considered to be “special,” and so at the time the stamps were issued people did not bother to put any aside for future stamp collectors. Portraits of former Presidents and other prominent persons in American history and national shrines are traditionally the subjects of these stamps. 


Memorial Stamps

Memorial Stamps were once infrequently issued to honor an American official who died in office. That policy was amended; the new policy states that, “A memorial stamp will be issued honoring U.S. presidents after they are deceased.”


Commemorative U.S. Stamps

As the term implies, commemorative stamps commemorate something – the anniversary of a historic event, the anniversary of a famous American’s birthday, etc. According to the US Post Office, “Commemorative Stamps were first issued on the occasion of the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. Since then, nearly every event of importance in which the Government has participated by Act of Congress, including statehood anniversaries, has been recognized by commemorative postage stamps. In addition, many stamps have been issued to commemorate other important events and persons associated with the development and ideals of the Nation.” 


Standards for Commemorative Stamps

The criteria listed below now serve as the basis for the recommendations on commemorative stamps made by the Stamp Advisory Committee to the Postmaster General.

  • U.S. postage stamps and stationery will primarily feature American or American-related subjects. Other subjects may be considered if the subject had significant impact on American history, culture or environment.
  • The Postal Service will honor extraordinary and enduring contributions to American society, history, culture or environment.
  • U.S. stamp programs are planned and developed two to three years in advance.  In order to be considered, subject matter suggestions should be submitted three or more years in advance of the proposed stamp. 
  • Living people will not be considered at the present time.  Beginning in 2018, proposals for a deceased individual are considered three years following his/her death.
  • Events of historical significance shall be considered for commemoration on anniversaries in multiples of 50 years.
  • A balance of stamp subjects that includes themes of widespread national appeal and significance will be considered for commemoration. Official postal cancellations, which may be arranged through the local postmaster, may be requested for significant local events or commemorations.
  • Commemorative postage stamps will be issued at intervals of 50 years from the date of the state’s first entry into the Union.
  • The stamp program commemorates positive contributions to American life, history, culture and environment; therefore, negative occurrences and disasters will not be commemorated on U.S. postage stamps or stationery.
  • Due to the limitations placed on annual postal programs and the vast number of locales, organizations and institutions in existence, it would be difficult to single out any one of the following for commemoration: government agencies, localities, non-profit organizations, associations, and similar entities. Stamps or stationery items shall not be issued to honor religious institutions or individuals whose principal achievements are associated with religious undertakings or beliefs.  However, these subjects may be recognized with commemorative postmarks.
  • Stamps may be issued for the five active-duty branches – Air Force, Army, Navy, Marines, and Coast Guard. This includes Reserve/Guard components of the current organizational structure.  Stamps for the major service academies will be considered on a case-by-case basis for 50-year anniversaries (or multiples thereof). 


Other U.S. Stamps

In addition to definitive and commemorative stamps, the United States has also issued a wide range of other stamps, including air mail stamps (first introduced in 1918), parcel post stamps, postage due stamps, and revenue stamps. These stamps, other than air mail stamps, are sometimes referred to as, “special stamps” or, in a reference to stamp catalogues, “back-of-book stamps.”


Air Mail Stamps

Air Mail Stamps, first issued in 1918, were used to prepay domestic and international air mail postage. The history of aviation and air mail developments were usually pictured on these stamps.


More Information

The criteria for commemorative stamp subject selection was taken from the USPS website.

1920s Postage Stamps


1930s Postage Stamps


1940s Postage Stamps


1950s Postage Stamps


1960s Postage Stamps


1970s Postage Stamps


Forever Stamps