I actually had to ask that at the local post office, but I had a good excuse.
Sometime on one of my trips back to America, (I think it was the E-Trade interview in San Francisco in 2006), I bought stamps without any numerical value on them. These weren’t the “Forever” stamps, but rather one that was issued because the Postal Service wasn’t sure what they were going to charge, and they had to print something ahead of time.
Back when I was a kid, they did this through stamps denominated “A”, “B”, “C”, etc., and I’m not so sure what was wrong with that. If I were the post office head, I’d have had everything nickel-rounded a long time ago. Then, if prices go up, they go up 5 cents. You sell a bunch of 5 and 10 cent stamps, and people put on the postage they need. No need for stamps with no price on them.
So the problem with the blank stamp was two-fold: I didn’t know what it was worth, and I didn’t know what I had to buy to add to it to make first-class postage.
I had a general idea, though: for most of my life, the cost to mail a letter has been somewhere around my age.
When I was six years old, it cost 6 cents to mail a letter. When I was 8, yes, 8 cents. Ten, 10 cents. Thirteen, yes. Fifteen, yes. Twenty, yes. Twenty-two even. That was 1987. Twenty five, twenty nine, thirty-two I think. Thirty seven; that was 2002. It was often spot on, and usually no more than a penny or two difference in the other years, since obviously postage hasn’t gone up a penny a year. I think the last price hike, to 44 cents, happened when I was 44.
I made a graph of this once in Excel, and even tried to figure out what year (1964, 1965, 1966, etc.) was the best fit to the pattern. If I remember right, it was in fact either 1965 or 1967.
It is hard to convince young people that something like a stamp used to cost a small number like six or eight. But it did. Price inflation is something like 5 times since the early 1970’s, and 7 times since the mid 1960’s. That’s why an American pocket full of change is relatively worthless—we never reformed our coinage.
It’s just a fluke that my age and the price of a stamp tracked so well in the last 40 years. The high inflation of the 1970’s tapered off to a much more moderate level in the ’80’s, and to a point where we get these couple penny increases every couple years. Total coincidence, but I have always thought that it was kind of neat.