It seems odd now, but in the early years of the republic, people were accustomed to mailing letters without stamps, with postage due at the other end. When a letter arrived, the addressee, rather than the addressor, had to pay the postage to collect the letter.
If the person at the other end refused to receive the missive, it became a "dead letter." As a matter of fact, there were a lot of them.
A stamped or prepaid letter was often interpreted as an insult to the recipient. If someone prepaid a letter, it automatically suggested that the recipient was too poor to pay for it himself.
"Paying for a letter was like receiving a collect call from China," according to Michael Laurence, editor of Linn's Stamp News.
A single-sheet letter from New York City to Buffalo cost 25 cents, a prohibitive amount when a laborer's day's wage was only about a dollar. If the envelope contained an enclosure or two, the price jumped to 75 cents.
The mail seemed a natural target for abuse. The records suggest that people sometimes harassed their enemies by sending them envelopes stuffed with blank pages.
Rowland Hill, a creative British reformer, is credited with the idea of sticking a stamp on a letter before sending it. One day he watched a housemaid receive a letter that she carefully scanned for a coded message from her lover, then refused the mail.
After that, Hill spoke loudly about the need to lower the postage rates and have the person sending the letter pay for it instead of the recipient.
Hill's argument made some sense to Cave Johnson, the U.S. postmaster in 1847. Johnson was worried about the deficit in his department. With great effort, he finally convinced Congress that a system of stamps would both increase postal revenues and make the mailing of private letters more convenient and more reliable.
Even though the Western world had had a postal service for over 2,000 years, and America's dates back to 1775, the first federal adhesive stamps were not issued until July 1, 1847.
Emblazoned on them were the auspicious images of Benjamin Franklin (5 cents -appropriate, since he was America's first postmaster general), and George Washington (10 cents), yet most people still didn't bother to use them.
In the first five years of stamps in America, less than 2 percent of the public actually put them on letters.
Even local postmasters took awhile to adjust to them.
N.L. Woodbury, a postmaster in Portland, Maine, mailed a stampless letter to the U.S. postmaster to ask him if the Franklin and Washington stamps were legitimate. Anyone would have been hard-pressed to convince a postmaster that the sale of stamps was destined to be a major source of revenue.
By 1855, Congress passed a law making the use of stamps compulsory, but free home delivery did not come into being until 1863, during the Civil War.
Home delivery encouraged the use of mailboxes, making long waits at the local post office a thing of the past. Historians say that mailboxes were especially beneficial to respectable women, most of whom shunned the post office as an uncomfortable male bastion and gathering place.
Letters, which had always been the province of the elite, suddenly became easily available to the general public. In short, they became democratic.
It would be easy to draw a comparison to the development of the telephone later in the century, and the current explosion of interest in the Internet.
There was one bad side: Regular use of stamps and low rates made it possible for opportunists to reach vast audiences with advertisements and handbills.
It was the unfortunate beginning of junk mail.
A major hobby was also born with the advent of stamps - stamp collecting - and today there are approximately 150,000 Americans who collect various stamps, many of which celebrate not only individuals, but major events and noble causes such as a country's independence.
Stamp lovers are not thrilled with today's developments - e-mail, TV, faxes, express mail and other means of stampless communication. "Snail mail" is not exactly an enviable nickname for a historic practice that improved com-mun-i-ca-tion so cheaply and so notably.
Even so, by 1993, the U.S. Postal Service had sold 517 million Elvis Presley stamps. In fact, the sale of single stamps in recent years could well rival the earnings of a Hollywood blockbuster.
Nothing the Postal Service has tried since Presley has had such amazing success, including Marilyn Monroe, Grace Kelly, James Dean or last year's popular but controversial Bugs Bunny.
Too bad a living person cannot appear on a stamp, or Leonardo DeCaprio might be the best subject for postal authorities to use to match Presley's record.
As great as his film achievements were, Alfred Hitchcock's image, next in line in the "Legends of Hollywood" series, is unlikely to go down in history as a big seller.
Post Presley, the Postal Service has embraced a number of other interesting choices, such as exotic dinosaur scenes, futuristic space explorers, Crayola crayons, teddy bears, toy trains and Erector sets, color paintings of Lon Chaney as the Phantom of the Opera, Bela Lugosi as Dracula, Lon Chaney Jr., as the Wolf Man and Boris Karloff as Frankenstein's monster, 20 "classic" airplanes and 15 "classic" dolls, aimed at aircraft buffs and doll col-lec-tors.
There were 20 stamps representing the best in American art, and stamps honoring such football coaching legends as Bear Bryant and Vince Lombardi.
The result has been a profit of $200 million to $300 million a year for the Postal Service. It's all part of an energetic new marketing strategy, suggesting that images of contemporary subjects and personalities drawn from popular culture will appeal to the public.
There are now more than 3,000 American stamps with many different pictures, but there are still 113 stamps with Franklin's picture and 276 that pay homage to Washington. The recent commemorative Franklin and Washington stamps sold 12,174,540 during the 11 days in which they were available.
Don't look for stamps to fade away any time soon.