The Officials section has for the most part dealt with Official Stamps — not surprising, considering the Society has three Gold Medalists concentrating on different aspects of that field. However, this section has also covered the Special Printings, penalty envelopes, penalty franks, postage dues, as well as postal stationery and revenues. Additionally, U.S. possessions could also appear under the “et al.” flag, as well as anything else which doesn’t fit under one of the USPCS established and designated sections.

U.S. Official Stamps 1873 – 1884

After years of abuse, Congress finally abolished the franking privilege in 1873 and authorized special official stamps to be prepared for the Executive Office and its subordinate departments. In less than three months, the Continental Bank Note Company hastily adapted the designs of the regular issues then in use to produce 90 different stamps by July 4, by far the most elaborate series of official stamps ever conceived by any government. Two supplemental 24¢ values for Treasury and Agriculture were issued later that year. Stamped envelopes were also prepared for the Post Office and War departments. The stamp agent in New York sent the Post Office stamps directly to postmasters across the country, but the other departments requisitioned their stamps on a quarterly basis and then distributed them to the field offices. Official stamps were valid only on government mail and were never sold to the public, so collectors found assembling this long series a challenge. They could however purchase the special printings of 1875, which were ungummed and overprinted “Specimen” to discourage postal use.

3¢ Executive (O12). Cancelled by quartered cork, “Washington D.C. January 13th” circular datestamp on “Executive Mansion” official imprint cover to Trenton N.J. (Siegel, Sale 1026, Lot 1904, 2012)

The original projected needs for many of these stamps were severely overestimated. Still, between 1873 and 1877, official stamps accounted for 4.3% of the total postage sold in this country. Their use was drastically curtailed by the introduction of penalty franks in 1877. Some departments converted over immediately, while others used both stamps and penalty envelopes during the transitional period. After 1879, when Continental consolidated with the American Bank Note Company, further printings on soft porous paper were needed of only 25 values. Over the years, the use of penalty envelopes gradually expanded, and on July 5, 1884 the use of official stamps was finally abolished. Surplus stamps were supposed to be returned to the Post Office Department for destruction, but not all departments complied, and these remainders are the main source of unused stamps in collector hands today.

At the turn of the century, these official stamps or “departmentals” were avidly collected, but interest seems to have waned after they were moved in the Scott catalogue to the back-of-the-book. Covers have always presented the greatest collecting challenge, since due to the nature of their contents, they were not often saved for sentimental reasons. In recent years, however, there has been a renaissance of interest in official stamps, and there exists a small but dedicated core of specialist collectors. Four members of the Classics Society are actively exhibiting this field and have won grand awards in national competition. Robert L. Markovits won the grand award in the Champion of Champions competition at Stampshow in 2000 with the most powerful collection of officials stamps and covers ever assembled. Some collectors pursue all aspects of the field, while others concentrate on a single department or a specific aspect such as cancellations, plate varieties, special printings, or official stationery. Sharing of information among these specialists has made it possible to undertake important research projects, the fruits of which have been published in the “Officials et al.” section of the Chronicle. Compared to other exhaustively-researched fields of classic U. S. philately, this is virgin territory, with new discoveries being made all the time. For those who pursue a specialty within the field of U. S. Official stamps, patience is required, because important items appear on the market only sporadically. Yet compared to other areas of classic U. S. philately, this is still a relatively affordable field. Veteran specialists are happy to share their knowledge of and enthusiasm for these fascinating and misunderstood stamps.

Helpful Links

Siegel Encyclopedia (Officials)
U.S. Official Mail Stamps: officially gone? by Kathleen Wunderly