Notes from the Past

Fight Over Newspaper Stamps, 1897

The government stirred up a first-class row in 1897 over the philatelic traffic in Newspaper stamps and the fact that many of the preceding issues were in the hands of collectors.  Newspaper stamps had always been restricted and were not to be sold to the public though some postmasters violated the regulations.  The stamps were very popular with collectors.

Newspaper stamps had been in issue since 1865, and in 1875 the Continental Bank Note Co. had furnished a set ranging from 2¢ to $60.  A 1¢ value was added in 1885 by the American Bank Note Co.  In 1894 the stamp printing contract was given to the Bureau of Engraving and Printing.  The American Bank Note Co., who had previously held the contract and had been printing the Newspaper stamps, made a special printing in limited quantities of all values which was turned over to the Bureau to serve as color samples.  Some of these were imperforate and part of them eventually got into philatelic channels.  Subsequently most of the imperforates that reached the trade were privately perforated and advertised for sale.

The matter came to the attention of the government.  A seizure was made and legal action instituted on the grounds that such stamps could not legitimately be bought and sold by philatelists, and stamps that philatelic possession of Newspaper stamps was in defiance of law.  The stamp trade and collectors banded together, raising a fund to defend the suit.

The action came to trial in April, 1898, before a judge and jury, but the government had a poor case and soon lost it.  The judge took it away from the jury's consideration and directed a verdict for the defendants pointing out that the Post Office Department, in 1875, offered all values (the "Special Printings") to anyone interested, that the government received and retained the purchase money, thus waiving all irregularities and ratifying the sale, that foreign governments, members of the Universal Postal Union, regularly received sets of the stamps that ultimately gravitated into the stamp trade, and finally, that the Postal Regulation that supposedly prohibited the sale of Newspaper stamps was illegal in that it was inconsistent with Federal Law, if not, indeed, unconstitutional.

Instantly, dealers who, evidently, had been hiding their stocks, began to advertise the stamps again, and no doubt in view of the litigation there was a good sale for them.  A year later, in 1899, the Post Office Department, after the use of Newspaper stamps had been discontinued, and in a complete reversal of their former attitude, placed on sale, sets of the 1895 stamps, from the 1¢ to the $100 value (including reprints), at $5 per set.

- George B. Sloane
Sloan's Column
August 14, 1954
Posted July 15, 2000

Editor's Note:  Can you imagine the chagrin of the collectors who had bought the Newspaper stamps at face value after the judge's ruling when the Post Office Department offered complete sets for $5?

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