Franking privileges—the ability to send mail by one's signature rather than by postage—date back to the seventeenth-century English House of Commons. The American Continental Congress adopted the practice in 1775 and the First Congress wrote it into law in 1789. In addition to senators and representatives, the president, cabinet secretaries, and certain executive branch officials also were granted the frank. In those days, every newspaper publisher could send one paper postage free to every other newspaper in the country.
Until the 1860s, members of Congress spent a great deal of time carefully inscribing their names on the upper right-hand corner of official letters and packages. One member boasted that if the envelopes were properly arranged, he could sign as many as 300 per hour. After the Civil War, senators and representatives reduced the tedium of this chore by having their signatures reproduced on rubber stamps.
Intended to improve the flow of information across a vast nation, the franking privilege lent itself to abuse and controversy. Stories circulated of members who routinely franked their laundry home and who gave their signatures to family and friends for personal use. Legend had it that one early nineteenth-century senator even attached a frank to his horse's bridle and sent the animal back to Pittsburgh. Critics accused incumbents of flooding the mails with government documents, speeches, and packages of seeds to improve their chances of reelection.
In 1869, the postmaster-general, whose department was running a large deficit, recommended that Congress and federal agencies switch to postage stamps. Responding to charges of governmental extravagance, the 1872 Republican Party platform carried a plank that demanded the frank's elimination. When Congress returned to session following the 1872 election, many senators decided to deliver on that campaign promise.
On January 31, 1873, the Senate voted to abolish the congressional franking privilege after rejecting a House-passed provision that would have provided special stamps for the free mailing of printed Senate and House documents.
Within two years, however, Congress began to make exceptions to this ban, including free mailing of the Congressional Record, seeds, and agricultural reports. Finally, in 1891, noting that its members were the only government officials required to pay postage, Congress restored full franking privileges. Since then, the franking of congressional mail has been subject to ongoing review and regulation.