Postage Stamps of the Fifties and Sixties

Author: David A. Norris

Collectibles are a great way to relive the Fifties and Sixties.

Anything from a carton of classic 45s to a batch of Mad magazines or a bunch of bubble gum cards can bring back fun memories of those decades. Consider, then, some of the little collectibles that may have passed through your hands almost unnoticed – postage stamps. Like most of us, stamps are a reflection of the changes that swept the country and the world as we went from the comfortable Fifties to the spinning and dizzying Sixties.

Stamps of the Fabulous Fifties

In 1950, letter postage in the US was three cents, as it had been since 1932. Postal cards cost two cents.


Do you remember these stamps? And, imagine needing a half-cent stamp!

Little purple three-cent stamps carried most of the letters of the 50s. The Thomas Jefferson stamp from a 1938 series continued in use until a new series, ranging from a one-half cent stamp to a five-dollar one, came out in 1954. A new three-cent purple stamp showing the Statue of Liberty took over on most letters until the letter postage rate was raised to four cents in 1958. Then, the 1954 four-cent stamp with Abraham Lincoln handled most letters.

In a time of three-cent postage, an 80-cent stamp issued in 1952 really stood out. The attractive stamp shows a four-engine plane flying over Hawaii’s Diamond Head. 80 cents paid the postage to fly a one-pound package from the postal zone including Hawaii to the US mainland. Hawaiian merchants asked for such a stamp, so they could mail live orchids to the mainland with one high-value stamp, instead of plastering the entire package with cheap little stamps.

This 1957 stamp was the first printed with the high-speed multicolor Giori Press.

A big change in US stamps came with the introduction of the Giori Press in 1957. This new high-speed press made printing multi-color engraved stamps practical. More and more, dark, monochromatic stamps gave way to ones with rainbow-bright color – just in time for the Sixties.

Stamps of the Swinging Sixties

Stamps of the Sixties were pretty quiet compared to the times, but they were much brighter and “modern-looking” than those of the Fifties. Some news events, notably the assassination of President Kennedy and several space launches, were reflected on the decade’s stamps.


The Vietnam War showed up only indirectly on stamps. A new $1.00 stamp was issued in 1968 to pay a special rate for parcels sent to and from overseas military post offices. Many were used to send packages to servicemen in Vietnam. Senders paid the regular cheap domestic parcel post rate, added a dollar airlift stamp, and got overseas airmail service; it was usually cheaper than sending the package by regular airmail.


America’s space program inspired several stamps. The first, a 1962 commemorative stamp to mark the successful return of the Mercury space capsule, appeared at post offices just hours after the safe return of astronaut John Glenn. Glenn was the first American to go into space, and the mission was so dangerous that the stamps were printed secretly, so that they could be held back in case of disaster. Security was so tight that the stamps were sent to US post offices in sealed packages. Only a few officials and printers knew what was inside the packages; postmasters were not even allowed to open them until given the okay when it was certain that Glenn was safely back on Earth.

The 1960s space stamps were topped off with a beautiful full-color airmail stamp marking Neil Armstrong’s first steps on the moon on July 20, 1969.

An unwelcome news trend elbowed its way into stamps during the Sixties: inflation. Postage rose to five cents in 1963, then to six cents in 1968.

One popular innovation of the 60s was the annual Christmas stamp. Beginning in 1962, new Christmas stamps were issued each year for holiday mail.


Error stamps are often quite valuable to collectors, but here’s one that everybody can afford. A batch of 1962 stamps memorializing UN Secretary General Dag Hammarskjöld was printed with the yellow background upside down. The US Post Office deliberately printed thousands more of them, to lower the value of the error stamps that got out by mistake.

P.S. -- Old stamps are usually worth more on their original envelopes. Most stamps of the Fifties and Sixties are very common, but they are at least more interesting and sometimes more valuable when saved on envelopes with postmarks (particularly military ones), slogan cancellations, and postal markings (such as “Return to Sender”).



















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