On March 3, 1851, Congress passed a postal reform act that reduced the five-cent letter rate to three cents for pre-paid letters (the general practice at that time was to send mail 'collect'). At that time, only the 5-cent and 10-cent denominations were available at the time, so a 3-cent stamp was required to accommodate the rate reduction. Since it paid the basic letter rate, the 3-cent stamp is the most common stamp found in the 1851-1857 Issue.
Issued on July 1, 1851, the 3-cent stamp features a central portrait of George Washington in profile, facing left. It was engraved and printed from steel plates of two hundred stamps. For the next decade, Toppan, Carpenter, Casilear & Co., a private engraving company located in Philadelphia, printed the stamp in varying shades of orange and red. Minor design changes appeared over those years.
Between July 1, 1851, and December 31, 1855, prepayment of postage could be made either in cash or with stamps. On January 1, 1856, the Post Office Department eliminated the ‘cash option’, thus mandating use of stamps. The option to send letters ‘collect’ (at the 5-cent rate) had been abolished on April 1, 1855. These changes precipitated increased use of the 3-cent stamp.
There are three basic types of the 3-cent stamp, determined by the outer frame line surrounding the rectangular stamp design. These are called Type I, Type II, and Type IIa. Type I was used until perforations were introduced in 1857, and Types II and IIa were created to accommodate the perforations.