Whether they are issued by government postal systems or private, competitive carriers, stamps are at the center of philately. They are the receipt for pre-payment of a specific level of service afforded the customer. They reveal the mailing status and the country of origin of the cover on which they are affixed. They symbolize the authority of the agency handling public communication. And they serve as icons for the age.
When the United States formally initiated the use of pre-paid postage stamps in 1847, the small engraving and printing firms of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, competed for the Post Office Department contract to design and produce the few stamp issues required by the fledgling postal system. Philadelphia, which had been the seat of the new government and the site of the Constitutional Convention, was also home to the U.S. Mint. The craftsmen who created coinage and bills were the same as those who produced stamps. And the imagery used on money—heads of state and federal symbols—had a natural application to this new product. For almost fifty years the Post Office Department would permanently assign an agent to Philadelphia to oversee the secure storage, use, and destruction of the nation's postage printing plates and the shipment of full sheets of stamps to I.S. Post Office Department headquarters in Washington, D.C., for dispersal to postmasters.
U.S. postal rates were initially set at five and ten cents. Public usage was predictably low until the 1850s, when two congressional acts not only dropped rates and increased mailing distances but also mandated prepayment of postage on domestic letters. The future of postage stamps was guaranteed. Special-use stamps would appear in the next decade to pay fees for the registration of valuable letters and the taxation of documents and proprietary articles (to glean revenue to pay for the Civil War). Thereafter, other types of stamps were issued for more types of postal services and federal revenue gathering.
With the growth of the stamp industry, the early single-person printing firms became multiple-partner/multiple-city firms. In the last quarter of the nineteenth century, these firms had merged to become the viable, multi-tasking giant, American Bank Note Company (ABNCo). With an accumulated library of stock frames and vignettes from earlier firms, ABNCo would adapt them to the needs and purses of new international client—countries of South America and Hawaii. In 1894 the Bureau of Engraving & Printing (part of the U.S. Department of the Treasury) began a long-standing, sole-source contract to produce stamps. Since the late 1960s, private firms have assumed more and more of the work.
With the exception of the colorful and seemingly exotic Exposition issues of 1893, 1898, 1901, 1907, and 1913, U.S. stamp imagery stayed in the static realm of 'dead white male leaders' until 1924. These stamps were meant to generate public excitement. The modern era of 'speculative stamps' (issued for the collectors' market) had begun in the United States and has never ended. Picturesque stamps with an unending variety of subject matter; size, shape, and packaging; multi-color inks culminating in new-age technologies like holograms are commonplace. Engraving has all but disappeared in favor high-production / lower-cost printing methods like lithography and photogravure.