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The Straight Dope 

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My mail is deluged with worthless credit card solicitations and pleas for donations, all bearing telltale stamps of odd denomination: "Tractor 7.1 cents nonprofit," "Oilwagon 10.1 cents bulk rate," "Railroad Mail Car 21 cents presorted," etc. These stamps are almost never cancelled. Can I reuse them for my own (nobler) epistles, provided they add up to 29 cents? --Gary Schwartz, Chapel Hill, North Carolina

Not legally, as you probably guessed. The whole point of such stamps is that they don't require cancellation. Eliminating a step in handling saves the postal service money, which it passes along to mailers in the form of rate discounts. Thus the odd denominations. Skipping the stamp altogether and printing bulk-rate-postage-paid marks ("indicia") on the envelopes theoretically saves the senders even more money (no labor to stick stamps), but some bulk mailers prefer stamped letters on the theory that they're less likely to get thrown away unread.

What's to prevent you from reusing the stamps? Couple things. One, bulk-rate stamps are used on bulk mail--that is, a big presorted heap o' letters delivered directly to the PO accompanied by the necessary form. If your solitary letter shows up in a collection box that's a pretty good clue it's not legit. Two, stamps intended for first-class mail have a phosphorescent ink on them to help orient the letter properly for cancellation. If the canceling machine doesn't detect any phosphorescent ink (most of the stamps you mention don't have it), the letter is kicked out for special handling, at which point your little dodge may be discovered.

Granted, it probably won't be. Given a volume of 550 million pieces of mail per day, it's likely most of your illicit missives will get through. Reused metered mail--e.g., clasp envelopes that don't show obvious signs of having been opened and readdressed--is even less likely to be detected; postage meters use phosphorescent ink and it's perfectly OK to drop a single metered item in the mailbox.

Most mail without proper postage is simply returned. If you cheated in quantity and conspicuously encouraged your friends to do the same, the feds might decide to charge you with conspiracy and fraud. But the real deterrent is that most people have what's known as a life. You'd have to be pretty desperate for entertainment to take any deep satisfaction in cheating the government out of 29 cents.

Living as I do within spitting distance of our nation's capital, I know that congresspersons can mail pieces of allegedly official business in "franked" envelopes, which require no postage. I never thought about the terminology until I noticed that when you pay by check at some supermarkets, the electronic register tells the cashier to "Insert Document to be Franked." My question: why "frank"? Who is Frank? It seems obvious there's a connection between the two instances of the term, although I've learned that anything the government does that seems obvious probably isn't. --John Sieverts, Alexandria, Virginia

This one's twisted. Prepare yourself. (1) The basic meaning of frank is free, as in frank discussion. This comes from the Franks, as in Charlemagne King of. The Franks were the only people in the vicinity with full freedom, and their name became synonymous therewith. The Slavs, on the other hand, were the regional doormats, and their name eventually evolved into "slave." (2) Frank or franked mail = free mail. (3) Originally letters were signed individually in the place where the stamp was supposed to go, but when that got to be too much of a burden rubber stamps and later stamping machines were used. (4) Cash register companies evidently have now decided that frank means "to stamp with a machine." Thus does our language constantly evolve.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Slug Signorino.

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