The vignette of the first Special Delivery stamp features a uniformed Post Office Department employee sprinting with letter in hand, eager to hand over a unique dispatch. As an icon, the image harkens to ancient Greece and Rome, which had the world's earliest postal systems. Those systems engaged runners to carry both written and oral messages.
This 1885 American Bank Note stamp bears the words, "Secures immediate delivery at a special delivery office," which suggests the early service's limitation to post offices in communities over four thousand people or of specific designation. The varieties of this first design of the Special Delivery stamp are the most sought after by collectors of all the Special Delivery stamps ever issued.
When the Special Delivery service was expanded to all post offices in 1886, a new stamp was designed. Identical to the 1885 issue in most ways, the new stamp included a revised statement—"Secures immediate delivery at any post office." The Post Office Department delayed its issuance until 1888, however, so that supplies of the first issue could be exhausted. Because it was printed in blue ink, the 1888 Special Delivery Issue was constantly confused with the similarly colored 1-cent Columbian issue. Letters bearing the stamp were classed as 'regular' mail and never received Special Delivery services. When the third variation of the messenger design was issued in January 1893, the 1888 design was printed in orange. This resolved the confusion. The orange stamp was used until January 1894, when the Bureau of Engraving and Printing assumed all responsibilities for producing U.S. stamps.
When the Bureau released its own Special Delivery stamps in October 1894, they were printed in blue ink and were identical in design to the 1888 issue save for a line under the words "TEN CENTS." The Bureau's 1895 Issue was watermarked but was otherwise identical to the 1894 issue.