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Sunday, June 20, 2010

Phila-Trivia: Postage Before 1840

While it is common knowledge that in 1840, Rowland Hill created the first postage stamp, Great Britain's "Penny Black," and that William Mulready created the first postal stationery, most stamp collectors are unaware that earlier attempts were made which resulted in some notable forerunners.

The earliest item similar to a postage stamp was created and used by a Frenchman, M. De Velayer, in 1653, during the reign of Louis XIV. He set up mail boxes and delivered any letters placed in them if they used envelopes that only he sold. Letters were wrapped with a slip of paper bearing the inscription (in translation) "post-paid______day of_________1653." An enemy of De Velayer's put live mice into the letter boxes and ruined his business. Unfortunately, none of De Velayer's "postage strips" are known to remain.
De Velayer's mail box
In 1818, Sardinia issued stationery which may have been used postally, and which bore imprinted images of a nude horseback rider blowing a trumpet. There were three values - 15, 25, and 50 centesimi - and the letter paper was sold at post-offices and by tobacco vendors. Use of the stationery was discontinued in 1836, due to a change in postal regulations. There is some debate regarding whether the amounts charged for the stationery actually paid for postage, as some argue that the Sardinia sheets were sold to raise taxes.
Sardinian stationery of 1818
In the early 1800s, some Swedish letter writers attached feathers to their covers with red wax seals, in order to imply that the letter should "fly to its destination." Obviously, these feathers bore only a slight resemblance to stamps in form and function, but they are interesting, nonetheless. A few Swedish "feather covers" still exist, and occasionally are sold at stamp auctions.

A Swedish "Feather Letter"

                                                        A 40 lepta Black stamp was issued in Greece in 1831. Covers exist bearing the stamp; however, there is some dispute over whether it was an actual postage stamp, or a charity label issued to raise funds for Greek refugees from Crete. A March 13, 1831, government decree requested that every citizen contribute 40 lepta or more for the welfare of recently arrived emigres from Turkish-controlled Crete to the liberated mainland, and ordered that billets be issued to donors. It is possible that these "stamps served to reward or document donations.
1831 Greek Postage Stamp or Charity Label (block of 4)

It is clear that Rowland Hill built on early innovations of the previous two centuries. These had failed mostly because initially, postal services served only a wealthy, literate elite. The issuance of postage stamps and the organization of a large and complex postal system coincided with the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, which rendered the establishment of an efficient and inexpensive mail service for the general public both necessary and progressive.


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