3-cent stamp, never really gone, comes back

THE BALTIMORE SUN

In 1958, the Baltimore Colts licked the New York Giants for the National Football League title, and Americans licked the 3-cent stamp for the last time as full first-class postage. Or so they thought.

Now, 36 years later, the U.S. Postal Service has resurrected the stamp for a limited run.

On Jan. 1, at 12:01 a.m., the cost of sending a first-class letter jumps to 32 cents.

What happens to the millions of 29-cent stamps left in our desks? A slew of 3-cent stamps -- two billion in all -- have been issued to make up the difference.

Considering the proud history of 3-cent stamps, the new design is nothing to write home about, collectors say. A dove holds an olive twig above the inscription, "The 'G' Rate make-up stamp."

Not even a numeral. Just the bird with a branch in its beak.

Though bland, it's "better than some make-up stamps of the past," says Joseph Foley, 58, of Riva, a retired business executive and past president of both the Baltimore and American philatelic societies who has been collecting stamps since he was 10.

"Remember the last make-up stamp in 1990?" he says. "It had so many instructions written on it, that stamp looked like a packing label. It was weird."

The heyday for 3-cent stamps came during the first half of this century, when letters carried detailed portraits ranging from George Washington to George S. Patton. First-class letters required 3-cent stamps from 1917 to 1919, and from 1932 to 1958.

The three-center saw America through two world wars and the Great Depression, but its origins are rooted in the 19th century, says Norman Katz, 68, of Randallstown, a lawyer who has been saving stamps for about 60 years and is active in philatelic organizations.

His collection includes several 3-cent stamps printed in 1851. That issue, a side view of George Washington on a brown background, was the first three-center printed in the U.S. Today, those stamps are worth $40 to $1,300, depending on condition, says Mr. Katz.

Though stamps were issued long before the Civil War, there was no single, official first-class rate until 1863 -- when it was set at 3 cents.

The rarest three-center, an 1867 rose-colored likeness of George Washington, is worth $45,000 in mint condition. But most old 3-cent stamps bring under $50, says Mr. Katz. "Everyone has them; they were printed by the millions.

"Some stamps from the 1940s and 1950s don't even bring face value," he says. "They were oblong in shape and bigger than normal. Businesses stopped buying them because the stamps took too long to lick, but the government kept minting them anyway. Now they're everywhere."

Through the years, says Mr. Katz, the Postal Service has printed more than 150 different 3-cent stamps commemorating everything from Thomas Edison to the Everglades National Park; and from Betsy Ross to the B&O; Railroad.

Thomas Jefferson enjoyed the longest run, from 1938 to 1954, when he was replaced by a purple-hued Statue of Liberty.

Maryland fared well on 3-cent stamps. A 1948 issue featured Francis Scott Key; in 1949, the Postal Service released a stamp ** commemorating the city of Annapolis' Tercentennial. Edgar Allan Poe appeared that same year.

Three-cent stamps also played to current events. A 1932 release showed a sprinter in the starting blocks at the 10th Olympiad; a 1942 stamp featured a bald eagle, its wings forming a "V" for victory.

In 1958, postage increased by a penny, ending the 26-year reign of the 3-cent stamp. For most of three decades, it had been first class all the way. No other stamp can boast such a lengthy run; postage rates have increased 12 times since then.

The 3-cent stamp faded away but never disappeared.

For a while after 1958, envelopes could be sent with 3-cent postage but had to be left unsealed and were not considered first class mail.

And, periodically, the Postal Service has printed a limited supply of decorative 3-cent stamps.

A 1987 issue featured a Conestoga wagon; a 1993 stamp honored the Eastern bluebird.

Now the Postal Service is releasing two billion doves.

Those make-up stamps went on sale Dec. 13, along with a generic stamp of "Old Glory" that will serve as 32-cent postage until March 1995, when fancier designs will start to appear.

A stamp with Marilyn Monroe is expected to take some of the sting out of the rate increase; conservatives are awaiting the Richard Nixon stamp in the fall.

Mr. Nixon was vice president when a first-class letter could be mailed for 3 cents. If that boggles your mind, says Mr. Foley, consider this:

"The last time there was a 3-cent rate for first-class mail, Elvis Presley was in the Army." Now he's on a first-class stamp.

POSTAL RATE CHANGES

Postage for a first-class letter has changed 17 times -- 15 increases and two decreases -- since the rate was first set, at 3 cents, in 1863 during the Civil War.

In 1981, there were two increases.

Over the years, rates for postcards, various forms of speeded-up mail and business mail also have increased -- and will again in 1995.

Here are the rates for first-class letters, with the year in which each rate took effect:

* 1883 .. .. .. ..2 cents

* 1917 .. .. .. ..3 cents

* 1919 .. .. .. ..2 cents

* 1932 .. .. .. ..3 cents

* 1958 .. .. .. ..4 cents

* 1963 .. .. .. ..5 cents

* 1968 .. .. .. ..6 cents

* 1971 .. .. .. ..8 cents

* 1974 .. .. .. .10 cents

* 1975 .. .. .. .13 cents

* 1978 .. .. .. .15 cents

* 1981 .. .. .. .18 cents

* 1981 .. .. .. .20 cents

* 1985 .. .. .. .22 cents

* 1988 .. .. .. .25 cents

* 1991 .. .. .. .29 cents

* 1995 .. .. .. .32 cents

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