U. S. Postal Rates During the First World War

postal history item showing First World War rates in the U.S.

These images illustrate the usages I've seen of the rates imposed in the U. S. during the First World War.

Many are of civilian origin, rather than from military personnel within the United States. November 2, 1917 marks the first day of the new 'war' rates. First-class letters increased from 2 cents to 3 cents, a 50% jump.

The stock of 2-cent stamps was large, but 3-cent stamps were hard to find.

For this reason, collectors often find covers and cards carrying older stamps. People must have dug deeply into their desks (and postmasters must have looked long and hard through their stamp drawers) to meet the new rates.

We see 'old' stamps used during this time period, stamps that had not seen the light of day for several years.

Interestingly, overseas rates did not change, as well as extra charges, such as Special Delivery and Registration. In addition, rates to foreign countries (set by postal treaty) also did not change.

Special rates were established for mailings overseas to the War zone, with first-class letters to soldiers being the same 3 cents as a letter across the country.

You will also see a special 'local' rate demonstrated here. If a first-class letter was addressed to a recipient within the same Post Office area, it was considered 'local', and only cost 2 cents. However, any letter sent out of the local Post Office area required the extra cent postage. Failure to handle this rate caused a 'postage due' charge, particularly on items that were forwarded out of the local Post Office area.

Quite rare, but very collectible, are usages of Parcel Post during this era, as U. S. revenue stamps were required on parcels to pay the 'tax' in addition to the postage.

Note that the 3-cent stamps issued before the rate increases are not seen commonly on mail from the War era. After the rate increase, the BEP and Post Office worked very hard to issue billions of stamps with this value.

I will use the Scott (tm) numbering system to identify the stamps illustrated here (the numbering is the sole property of Scott Publishing).


Illegal Use of Postage Due Stamp to Make Up War Rate -- This cover appears to have been accepted by the Post Office. This item is canceled in April of 1918 well after everyone knew that it would cost 3 cents to send a letter. Apparently the sender decided that the "postage due" stamp was worth one cent.

Parcel Post Tag with Revenue Stamp -- Part of the war rate taxes included a tax on Parcel Post packages. This tag has not only the required parcel rate (unchanged for the War period), but has the required added revenue stamp to pay the extra tax. According to the rules, the tax could only be paid with revenue stamps, not postage stamps. This rule applied as well to packages mailed overseas to the war zones. This example is quite interesting, as it indicates that the parcel contained 16 pounds of peanuts, mailed within the state of Washington. Parcel labels and wrappers from the First World War period are difficult to find, and are often priced highly by dealers, especially if they carry Parcel Post stamps (first used in 1913).

War Rate Stamp Use After Rates Removed -- The war rates for postcards and letters were active until July 1, 1919. (Some of the taxes on mail, such as Parcel Post were rescinded later than that.) This is an example of a 2-cent coil stamp (Scott #492) used on a postcard July 7, 1919, after the rate was changed back to the pre-war system. The postcard would have been fine with only a 1-cent stamp. The postcard is cancelled by the American flag machine of Olympia, Washington.

Revenue Stamp Used as Postage Due on Postal Card -- These 'penny' postal cards were created and used in vast numbers by businesses, as soon as they were invented in the 19th century. Thus, after the war rates were imposed, many businesses had large stocks of them. With the postcard rate increased to 2 cents, they were supposed to add postage to these cards, but this example shows the failure to do that. The Post Office imposed a postage due of 1 cent, but instead of using a regular stamp (postage due type or regular postage), they used a 1-cent revenue stamp.

Patriotic Advertisement Cover ('Support the President') -- This was a 3rd class advertisement mailing, as indicated by the 1-cent rate, and the 'mute' machine cancel. The machine cancel had the month, day, and time removed, as appropriate for 3rd class usage, but still shows the year (1918). This is not specifically a war rate, as 3rd class rates were unchanged. However, it is an interesting patriotic imprint, which not only includes the wording 'Support the President', but also a rebus for 'Rosenfeld', who I assume was the sender and creator of this item.

Commercial Mail Sent to Mexico with Foreign Exchange Handstamps -- This cover was censored during the First World War. It was mailed from a life insurance company in New York to a recipient in Mexico. After some time, it was returned to the sender. One of the markings on the cover shows that it was processed through the export control branch of the government. Their job was to monitor all currency transactions that went out of the U.S. The stamp is cancelled by a Universal machine of New York City. There are some markings on the reverse: 'Censor mark from the US' and 'Mexican transit markings'. The front shows a "pointing hand" marking to indicate the return of the letter to the sender.

Foreign Rate Using Postal Envelope and 2-Cent Stamp, with Customs Markings -- A 2-cent stamp was added to the 3-cent postal envelope to cover the rate to Suriname (South America). This was a business letter, possibly containing valuables or cash. Thus, it was handled by U. S. Customs, and bears their handstamp markings. During the First World War, there were strict controls placed on international commerce, and foreign mail often shows various handstamp markings indicating these controls.

Mixed Franking, Cross-Border from Mexico -- This cover has postage from both Mexico and the U. S. The 3-cent stamp was applied to handle the war rate postage after the letter was transported (probably by hand) across the border. The Mexican stamp carried the letter within Mexico. (Notice the lack of censorship, probably due to the letter being hand-carried.)

First World War Mail from Guam -- This cover was mailed on Guam in 1918. Mail from this outpost of the United States during the War is quite rare. Note the return address: "U.S.S. Barracks". That ship was the station ship for the military at Guam. Note also that the cover is marked, in a different ink, as "Via Cable Ship Pacific". The back of the cover is quite a surprise, as it has censor tape (not visible from the front), and a handstamp marking of the United States postal facility in Shanghai, China. It appears that this letter, along with the rest of the mail, was transported from Guam, and handed over from the ship in Shanghai a month later. From there, it made its way to the destination. Note that the rate is the same 3 cents as for a domestic letter.

New Three Cent Rate Supplied by Parcel Post Stamp -- This is, I think, a unique item. It was sent after the price increase in early November, 1917. This stamp was issued in 1912-13, so this is rather late usage. It was probably mailed by a soldier at Camp Custer, Michigan, which was a major training facility for the Army in WW I. The stamp is cancelled by a Universal machine of the Custer Branch, Battle Creek, Michigan. Note that Parcel Post stamps were legal to use on first-class letters, but usages after 1914 are very uncommon. See this webpage on Parcel Post stamps for more information.

Mail to Mexico, No Rate Difference (Censored) -- This cover was mailed from Berkeley, California in 1919 to Mexico. The cover is cancelled by the Universal machine of Berkeley. The 3 cent rate applied to this destination. This item was sent in 1919. While the War officially terminated on 11/11/1918, the war rates, and censorship of foreign mail, stayed in effect in the U.S. beyond those dates.

Overseas Mail, No Rate Difference (Censored) -- This cover was mailed from Santa Barbara, California in 1918 to Ceylon. The sender is Loughead Aircraft, which later became the very successful Lockheed companies. The British authorities censored mail heading toward the UK or possessions, so this was censored in Colombo, Ceylon. The cover is also cancelled by the American Flag machine of Santa Barbara. The 5 cent rate applied to this overseas mail, no different than the rate before the War.

Local Rate on Cover Sent to a RFD -- This item is franked with two cents postage, because it was addressed "locally". In this case, RFD mail was handled by the same Post Office. 'RFD' in the United States meant "Rural Free Delivery", a way of getting mail service for people on farms away from cities. Rural carriers picked up the mail at the Post Office, and then drove around the rural area, often by horse and wagon, delivering the mail and packages. Ultimately this letter was returned to the writer, as the addressee could not be found. So there is a "pointing hand" rubber stamp. Of additional interest to the collector, the cover is cancelled by a Columbia machine cancellation. This item was sent in 1919. While the War officially terminated on 11/11/1918, the war rates stayed in effect in the U.S. until mid-1919.

Postcard Cancelled on the First Day of the War Rate -- The United States increased postage rates on November 2, 1917. This postcard has the correct franking on the first day of usage. It is from a soldier who is, or is soon to arrive, at Camp Taylor, Lousiville, Kentucky. The card is cancelled by a Universal machine of the main post office of Louisville. (Some postal history dealers charge a premium for 'first day' usages of War Rates, but I believe that these items are not particularly uncommon.)

Regular First Class Rate from Puerto Rico -- Many collectors of U.S. postal history may be unaware that postage to and from Puerto Rico has been the same, and used the same stamps, as mail within the 48 states for many years. This cover, while a bit ratty, shows the War Rate (three cents for a first-class letter) used from Puerto Rico to Washington, DC. The cover is cancelled by a Universal machine of San Juan.

Mailed to Local Address, but Forwarded; Causing Postage Due -- This local rate letter was addressed within Providence, Rhode Island, but was forwarded out of the local area. This caused it to become 'postage due' and it was assessed one cent. This cover was originally cancelled by a Universal machine of Providence, Rhode Island. All further handling was marked by various handstamps.

Postage Due, Addressee Not Local -- This letter was sent from the main Post Office in St. Louis, Missouri to a small village nearby (Florissant, later a suburb). In this case, however, it was not "local", so did not qualify for the special 2 cent war rate in 1918. Therefore, it was assessed one cent postage due. The stamp is cancelled by an International machine of St. Louis, Mo, that shows a slogan killer advertising the 3rd Liberty Loan drive of the United States in the First World War.

Old Stamp (Scott #411) -- Civilian business postcard. This is a very uncommon use of the flat plate coil stamp, perforated 8 1/2 horizontally (Scott #411). Note that this is a typical first class postcard rate. This stamp was issued in 1912, and superceded by 1914. This card is dated in 1918.

Use of 'Old' Stamp, Contents: Dental Bill (Scott #462) -- Civilian cover from a dentist, containing their bill. The cover was mailed in 1918, but the stamps are the one cent sheet stamp, perf 10, issued in 1916. These perforated 10 stamps (Scott #462), were in more common use before the war. The contents are interesting to us today, because the dentist bill totaled $74 (a lot of money in 1918). After inflation, the current amount (2010) would be over $1,000 U.S.

Early War-Rate Cover Using 3 Cent Coil (Scott #489) -- Civilian cover using an 'old' stamp; that is, a stamp issued before the new War Rates came into effect in 1917. This is a coil stamp, perforated 10 horizontally (Scott #489). Note that this is a typical first class rate. It was mailed in late 1918, long after the old stocks of 3-cent stamps would have been used up. Another interesting feature of this cover, is that it was mailed to a hotel. The hotel added the room number to the front of the envelope.

Early War-Rate Cover Using 3 Cent Coil (Scott #493) -- Civilian cover using an 'old' stamp; that is, a stamp issued before the new War Rates came into effect in 1917. This is a coil stamp, perforated 10 vertically (Scott #493). Note that this is a typical first class rate. It was mailed, however, very soon after the November 1st one cent rate increase.

Local Rate Using a Washington Coil Stamp (Scott #492) -- Civilian cover using an "old" stamp; that is, a stamp issued before the new War Rates came into effect in 1917. This is a coil stamp, perforated 10 vertically (Scott #492). Note that this is a "local" rate. It was mailed at the main post office, and addressed to someone serviced by that post office. (Note the word "city" for the destination). Thus, it qualified for a one cent discount, 2 cents rather than 3.

Use of Reply Postal Card with Added Stamp -- This is a usage of a reply postal card during the First World War. An additional 1-cent stamp was added to make the 2-cent rate of the time. Note that the card is cancelled by the American flag machine of the Stock Yards Station, Kansas City, Mo. Reply postal cards were sold as a pair. The mailer (usually a business) left the cards intact and sent out their request for information, or often, advertising. The receiver tore the cards apart, and mailed back the already stamped reply. If they did not want to respond, the sender lost the cost of the postage. On the back of this card is a request for a donation from a country club. They want the golfers to take part in a tournament to raise funds for war charity work. The member who returned this card did not play in the tournament, but did donate.

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Updated 7/24/20, 2:50 PM