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Postal files at the Smithsonian National Postal Museum Library (Beta)

Daniel A. Piazza
Assistant Curator of Philately
Smithsonian National Postal Museum

Introduction to the Stamp Design Files,
Third Assistant Postmaster General's Office


Historical Background

The Third Assistant Postmaster General's Office was created by Congress on 2 July 1836 to "provide more effectually for the settlement of the accounts" of the Post Office Department (POD)1. All of the Department's financial and accounting operations came under its charge, including collecting revenues from postmasters; paying the Department's contractors; and administering the dead letter office, registered mail service (introduced 1855), postal money orders (1864), and the postal savings system (1911)2.

Likewise, when postage stamps were introduced in 1847 they fell under the Third Assistant's jurisdiction as accountable paper. The quantity and variety of postal paper produced by the POD steadily increased—including stamped envelopes (introduced 1853), letter sheets and periodical wrappers (1861), and postal cards (1873)—and in 1874 a separate Division of Stamps was organized within the Third Assistant's Office to manage their production and distribution.

Van Tyne and Leland's 1907 Guide to the Archives of the Government of the United States in Washington described the record-keeping habits of the Stamp Division in detail3. Its holdings were described as consisting of stamp account ledgers (with a notation that many of the early volumes had been destroyed); letter books beginning in 1906 (the earlier books were in storage); and correspondence files dating to 1884. Most of the material in this collection is derived from these archives of the Stamp Division and its successor organizations4.


Scope and Content of the Collection

The files contains documents related to the design and production of U.S. regular stamp issues from Scott #1 (1847) to Scott #2532 (1991) as well as 'back of the book' issues (airmail, postage dues, postal savings, federal duck stamps, and postal stationery) for roughly the same period. The collection is organized into file jackets and oversized envelopes according to Scott Catalogue number.

However, only the folders from Scott #285-293 (the Trans-Mississippi series of 1898) through Scott #1549 (the 10¢ Retarded Children single of 1974) contain actual POD archival material. A typical file from this period includes letters from politicians, organizations, and individuals lobbying for the issuance of a particular stamp; internal POD and Bureau of Engraving and Printing (BEP) correspondence and memoranda regarding stamp design and production; preproduction materials such as source images, preliminary artwork and rejected designs; press announcements and clippings; and letters from the public reacting to the stamp's design or subject. The content and quantity of material differs from stamp issue to stamp issue.

The material pertaining to pre-1898 and post-1974 stamp issues was added to the collection by the Smithsonian Institution. The pre-1898 files consist almost entirely of glossy black-and-white photo enlargements of the stamps created by the Smithsonian, while the post-1974 files contain mainly press releases and photos released by the POD but collected by the Smithsonian. The Smithsonian also merged some of its own files into the 1898-1974 portion of the collection, especially curators' correspondence files related to stamp design. As a result, this is no longer a "pure" POD archival collection.


Additional Information

Third Assistant Postmasters General (1897-1949)
1897-1899John A. Merritt
1899-1907Edwin C. Madden
1907-1910Abraham L. Lawshe
1910-1913James J. Britt
1913-1921Alexander M. Dockery
1921-1923Warren Irving Glover
1923-1929Robert S. Regar
1929-1933Frederic A. Tilton
1933-1938Clinton B. Eilenberger
1938-1945Ramsey S. Black
1945-1949Joseph J. Lawler

Assistant Postmasters General, Bureau of Finance (1949-1964)
1950-1952Osborne A. Pearson
1952-1953William J. Bray
1953-1957Albert J. Robertson
1957-1961Hyde Gillette
1961-1964Ralph W. Nicholson

Assistant Postmasters General, Bureau of Finance and Administration
1964-1969Ralph W. Nicholson
1969-1971(?)James W. Hargrove


124th Congress, 5 Stat. 80, 2 July 1836.

2 Lamphere, George N. The United States Government: Its Organization and Practical Workings. (Philadelphia, J.B. Lippincott & Co., 1880, p. 240-241).

3 Van Tyne, Claude Halstead and Waldo Gifford Leland. Guide to the Archives of the Government of the United States in Washington. (Second edition, Washington, D.C.: Carnegie Institution, 1907). See especially pages 166-169.

4 In 1949, President Truman's Reorganization Plan No. 3 and its accompanying legislation abolished the Third Assistant Postmaster General's Office. Its functions were transferred to a Bureau of Finance headed by an official known simply as "Assistant Postmaster General" (no ordinal). This was redesignated as the Bureau of Finance and Administration in 1964 and finally done away with altogether as part of the postal reforms effected by the Postal Reorganization Act of 1970.