Unraveling the mystery of mail

Published July 30, 2007 (prices updated for 2014)
Postage used to be a mystery to me. If an envelope was thin and felt light enough, I knew it required only a first-class stamp. But if it felt heavy, my opinion of heavy being a rough guess, and probably required more postage, I had no idea what postage was required, and I usually added another first-class stamp, which, I later learned, was too much postage. I solved the mystery with two items: a brochure and a scale.
The United States Postal Service publishes in a brochure and lists on its website its postage rates, and a little study and a little math will suffice to mail just about any letter or card as long as they’re not too heavy or too big. Only four prices need be remembered for first-class mail, listed on the back of the blue USPS brochure. An envelope size 10 or smaller and weighing 1 ounce or less takes the first-class 49-cent stamp. Each additional ounce over 1 ounce up to 3.5 ounces costs 21 cents per ounce — a 2-ounce letter costs 70 cents and a 3-ounce, 91 cents; and 3.1 to 3.5, $1.12. Envelopes heavier than 3.5 ounces require the large-envelope rate, which starts at 98 cents for the first ounce and adds 21 cents per ounce up to 13 ounces. A 3-ounce large envelope, for example costs $1.40. A postcard costs 34 cents.
Four stamp denominations will satisfy first-class mailing requirements: 49 cents, 21 cents, 34 cents and 98 cents. I always keep an abundant supply of each, and I take the postcard stamps when on vacation, eliminating the need to find a post office in a strange town, although that can be an interesting quest that slows you down and affords a look at a new place.
A 16-ounce scale deciphers the weight mystery. IDL Corp. makes postal scales in different sizes and prices that come with removable faceplates bearing the first-class postage rates per ounce for regular size envelopes. The faceplate can be replaced when postal rates change, but I find it easier to calculate the math, I don’t need to find a new plate when the rates rise, and the math is good for my brain.
USPS offers combination stamps for frequent extra-ounce mailing: 70-cent stamps for 2-ounce letters and the 91-cent stamp for 3-ounce letters. A price list is available at http://pe.usps.com/text/dmm300/Notice123.htm.
These stamps and many more can be ordered from USPS, either through its catalog, “USA Philatelic,” or online, which I find ironic. The catalog offers a marvelously diverse miscellany of commemorative and definitive stamps, such as the basic American flag in booklet form or commemorative folios such as the Settlement of Jamestown that include a booklet and sheet of triangular stamps, inspired by the shape of the fort, on which the Susan Constant, Godspeed and Discovery sail into Chesapeake Bay. “USA Philatelic” makes it easy to spend a king’s ransom on stamp sets so beautiful you hesitate to use them, it comes in the mail by free subscription, and shipping is minimal. Subscriptions can be had by calling 800-782-6724 or by taking a sojourn to http://www.usps.com. Past stamps are described and illustrated in “The Postal Service Guide to U.S. Stamps,” this year in its 41st edition, also available through the catalog or online.
Understanding postal rates encourages me to write and send letters, a small envelope engaging my love of writing with pen on paper and encapsulating United States history on a miniature piece of art that can travel to my brother-in-law in Alaska or my friend in Nebraska for less than the price of a good mandolin pick.

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