When government agencies have to communicate with each other, they don’t use the Postal Service like the rest of us do. Instead, a private system allows these agencies to exchange correspondence at a discounted rate.
This system is called Official Mail or Penalty Mail. Unlike other kinds of mail, sending something through this system doesn’t require prepayment of postage. So, what kind of stamps does Official Mail use? I’ve looked into it, and here’s what I found out!
What Are Official Mail Stamps?
Official Mail stamps are postage stamps used for intragovernmental communications that allow government agencies to communicate without prepayment for postage as of 2024. Such stamps were not for sale at Post Offices and carried a $300 fine for unauthorized private use. However, USPS officially discontinued these stamps in 2013, favoring Official Mail envelopes.
If you’d like to learn about the history of Official Mail stamps and find out why USPS discontinued them, keep reading!
What Is Official Mail?
Before discussing Official Mail stamps, let’s talk about Official Mail.
Official Mail (also known as Penalty Mail) is mail sent by US government agencies. That said, these agencies used it to communicate about business related to the US government.
Further, government officials could send this type of mail without prepayment of postage.
However, agencies that use Official Mail must reimburse the United States Postal Service the equivalent amount of postage and fees for the mail they receive.
In the United States, government departments use penalty envelopes and metered mail for most communications, so Official Mail stamps are not widespread.
What Are Official Mail Stamps?
Official Mail stamps were postage stamps used for intragovernmental communication.
Also, Official Mail stamps were referred to as “Officials” because their use was strictly limited to government mail. That said, such stamps were never available at any Post Office.
First introduced in 1873, Official Mail stamps were distributed to each government department (Executive Branch, departments of Agriculture, Interior, Justice, Navy, and Post Office).
Further, the stamps had the government department name inscribed on them instead of the usual US Postage marking. Also, each department had its own color stamp.
However, these stamps became unnecessary starting in 1877 because a congressional act permitted government departments to provide their own envelopes endorsed “Official Business.”
With that, the government discontinued Official Mail stamps in 1879 but still used the remaining supply until it was exhausted.
Moreover, both the stamps and the envelopes were abolished in 1884. However, Official Mail stamps were used for four years between 1910-1914 as part of the postal savings program.
In 1983, Official Mail stamps were reintroduced in an effort to help improve government postage use accountability.
But, while metered postage was the favored way of sending governmental mail, Official Mail stamps were designed for agencies with a volume of mail too small to make metered postage cost-effective.
That said, Official Mail stamps were used until 2013, when USPS discontinued them.
Can I Use Official Mail Stamps?
If you manage to get your hands on an Official Mail stamp, do not use it because civilians cannot use US Official Mail stamps.
Instead, Official Mail stamps are reserved for government use only.
Further, unauthorized use of these stamps carries a $300 fine, as dictated by the stamp’s text (“Penalty for Private Use $300”).
Who Can Use Official Mail Stamps?
USPS had pretty strict rules for who could use Official Mail stamps. For example, some groups that were permitted to use these stamps included:
- Officers of the Executive and Judicial branches of the government
- The Legislative Counsel for the House of Representatives
- The Senate, the Superintendent of Documents, and the Joint Committee on Printing when it mails correspondence on the Congressional Directory
In addition to the agencies listed above, several agencies were allowed to use Official Mail stamps on a provisional basis, including:
- the USDA
- Employment security offices
- Vice President-elect
What Do Official Mail Stamps Look Like?
In 1983, the first year Official Mail stamps were reintroduced, all of the stamps shared a common design.
That said, this design featured a stylized white eagle on a medium blue rectangle. Then, above the rectangle was the text “Official Mail USA” in red lettering.
Also, a panel below the eagle has “USA” written in blue lettering and the stamp’s denomination. Below that, in smaller red type, are the words “Penalty for Private Use $300.”
Additionally, some denominations have the year printed in black in the lower-left corner.
How Much Are Official Mail Stamps Worth?
Official Mail stamps were produced in denominations ranging from $0.20 to $1.
With that, these denominations seem to have some impact on the value of Official Mail stamps today. For example, a $0.39 stamp sells for $1.25, while a $1 stamp sells for $6.
As with many stamps, older Official Mail stamps sell for more than newer stamps.
Also, it’s the case that many of these stamps are worth considerably more in used condition than in mint condition.
Moreover, government departments used penalty envelopes and metered mail more often than stamps. Thus, finding a used stamp is pretty rare.
Can I Buy Official Mail Stamps?
Although not permitted for private use, you can purchase Official Mail stamps as collector’s items.
Official Mail stamps were one part of the United States’ official mail system, including penalty metered mail, penalty permit imprint mail, penalty Periodicals imprint mail, and penalty reply mail.
With that, these forms of Official Mail were used more often than Official Mail stamps and thus have stood the test of time.
So, while government officials don’t use Official Mail stamps anymore, collectors will happily scoop them as an exciting addition to their collection.