The two stamps used by a Charleston educator in 1850 together cost 7 cents, about $2.15 in today's money.
Next month, their relative rarity could make them worth $20,000 or more.
On Oct. 3, a New York auction house will sell off what is considered one of the nation's greatest stamp collections — a collection that could go for more than $10 million and which includes a unique bit of South Carolina's postal past.
Specifically, it includes an envelope,or "cover," used by an educator in Charleston to mail a letter to state Sen. John. L. Manning in Columbia.
The envelope recalls a time when the postal service operated on two tiers, said Scott Trepel, president of the Robert A. Siegel Auction Galleries, Inc.
The letter's 5-cent stamp, the first issued by the U.S. Postal Service, was postage to carry it from Charleston to Columbia. The letter also contained a 2-cent Honour stamp, an extra fee that carried the letter to or from the post office, or between correspondents in Charleston.
“It is very rare because (the Honour stamp) is used in combination with the first United States stamp," Trepel said. "That makes it quite significant."
John Honour, superintendent of the Charleston Penny Post, advertised this added service in 1849.
It wasn't the catchiest ad: "Persons desirous of taking advantage of this convenient system can have their letters forwarded to any portion of the City or Neck, upon leaving their names and residences at the Post office; or what is better, and would insure greater promptitude by requiring their correspondents to direct to the street and number of the house."
Those two-tier systems ended nationally in 1863 in federal states. After the Civil War, it ended in Confederate states, as well.
The Charleston envelope to Manning has been auctioned off twice before, once in 1965 before Gross bought it 18 years ago. The auction house estimates that it could fetch $20,000 to $30,000 this time.
But it's far from the biggest prizes going under the gavel next month, as bond guru William Gross puts the first bits of his collection up for bid in New York. It's considered this nation's foremost 19th century stamp collection held in private hands, and many items are estimated to go for $200,000 or more.
Gross emerged as a serious stamp collector around 1992. Only about 3 percent of his collection is going up for sale on Oct. 3, but the 106 items make up about a quarter of its total value and could go for about $10 million, Trepel said.
The Oct. 3 auction will be eyed to see who assumes Gross's position as the nation's next great ascending stamp collector. It also will help raise the profile of philately —the study of stamps — particularly in the 19th century United States.
Before 1840, those receiving a letter had to pay postage. The first U.S. stamps weren't issued until 1847. Even the much heralded Pony Express was largely a private marketing gambit that lost money and ended after 19 months — thanks to a new telegraph line.
Daniel A. Piazza, chief curator of philately with the Smithsonian National Postal Museum, said Gross' most valuable stamp might be his 1868 1-cent Z-grill, mainly because only two are known to exist — the other is owned by the New York Public Library.
That stamp isn't being sold on Oct. 3. Instead, the true prize is an unused example of a blue Hawaiian Mercenary stamp that is expected to fetch between $500,000 and $750,000, according to the auction catalog.
Piazza said rarity is only one factor of a stamp's value. The other is how many people would like to own one. That's why the so-called "Inverted Jenny" stamp of 1918 is among the world's most valuable, reportedly fetching $1.1 million in a recent auction even though about 100 of them survive.
"No collector would describe that as rare, but many more than 100 people would like to own them," Piazza said.
The auction preview doesn't specifically mention the Charleston cover, and it remains to be seen how many people will be interested in bidding on it — or what it might ultimately fetch.
"To somebody who is interested in the history of local posts or people who collect Charleston postal history, as I know several people do, it's a key piece in somebody's collection," Piazza said. "Collecting is a highly individualized practice. There's no way to know who's out there collecting what at any one period of time. ... All you need is two people who really want an item."