The books of my own reference library were vague about when prepayment of postage for letter mail became mandatory in the U.S. Most said that it was sometime in 1855. None said when or whether use of postage stamps became mandatory, though the current USPS Domestic Mail Manual (DMM) states clearly:
Postage for single-piece and discount (presorted or automation) rate First-Class
Mail and Priority Mail must be paid with affixed postage or permit imprint as
specified in 2.0 through 5.0. ... The mailer is responsible for prompt payment of postage.
USPS DMM P100
I wrote the Linn's Stamp News Collectors' Forum to find out whether they or their readers could provide conclusive information on my questions about the dates, and they replied as follows:
According to "A Short History of the Mail Service" by Carl H. Scheele, prepayment of postage in the U.S. became mandatory on April 1, 1855. The use of postage stamps (subsequently amended to include postal stationery, meter stamps and mailing permits) to indicate prepayment was made compulsory Jan. 1, 1856.
"PAID" handstamps could legally be used for a period of nine months after prepayment became mandatory, from April 1, to Dec 3, 1855. Ignorance of the law requiring the use of postage stamps was widespread, and there are many examples of "PAID" or other markings indicating prepayment after the compulsory date for stamp usage.
Collectors Forum, Linn's, 12/31/2001
Later, in their Forum Update, Linn's printed the following additional information:
John Irwin of New Jersey pointed out several exceptions to the rule cited in Linn's answer to the question.
In the era of the Large Numeral postage due stamps (1879-90's), there were two categories of mail that could be sent unpaid, with postage due on delivery.
1. U.S. overseas mail to Universal Postal Union countries could be sent unpaid at double the rate, with postage due upon delivery.
2. Domestic drop letters (local letters mailed for post-office pickup) were not held for postage. They were charged the standard drop mail rate of 1¢ when they were picked up at the post office.
Forum Update, Linn's, 2/4/2002
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