Saturday May 1, 2021’s Smile of the Day: The Postage Stamp
On this Day:
In 1840, the “Penny Black”, the world’s first adhesive postage stamp, was issued by Great Britain. But there are many who vie for the position of being the inventor of the postage stamp.
A postage stamp is a small piece of paper issued by a post office, postal administration, or other authorized vendors to customers who pay postage (the cost involved in moving, insuring, or registering mail), who then affix the stamp to the face or address-side of any item of mail—an envelope or other postal cover (e.g., packet, box, mailing cylinder)—that they wish to send. The item is then processed by the postal system, where a postmark or cancellation mark—in modern usage indicating date and point of origin of mailing—is applied to the stamp and its left and right sides to prevent its reuse. The item is then delivered to its addressee.
Always featuring the name of the issuing nation (with the exception of the United Kingdom), a denomination of its value, and often an illustration of persons, events, institutions, or natural realities that symbolize the nation’s traditions and values, every stamp is printed on a piece of usually rectangular, but sometimes triangular or otherwise shaped special custom-made paper whose back is either glazed with an adhesive gum or self-adhesive.
Because governments issue stamps of different denominations in unequal numbers and routinely discontinue some lines and introduce others, and because of their illustrations and association with the social and political realities of the time of their issue, they are often prized for their beauty and historical significance by stamp collectors whose study of their history and of mailing systems is called philately. Because collectors often buy stamps from an issuing agency with no intention to use them for postage, the revenues from such purchases and payments of postage can make them a source of net profit to that agency. On 1 May 1840, the Penny Black, the first adhesive postage stamp, was issued in the United Kingdom. Within three years postage stamps were introduced in Switzerland and Brazil, a little later in the United States, and by 1860, they were in 90 countries around the world. The first postage stamps did not need to show the issuing country, so no country name was included on them. Thus the United Kingdom remains the only country in the world to omit its name on postage stamps; the monarch’s image signifies the United Kingdom as the country of origin.
Throughout modern history, numerous methods were used to indicate that postage had been paid on a mailed item, so several different men have received credit for inventing the postage stamp.
In 1680, William Dockwra, an English merchant in London, and his partner Robert Murray established the London Penny Post, a mail system that delivered letters and small parcels inside the city of London for the sum of one penny. Confirmation of paid postage was indicated by the use of a hand stamp to frank the mailed item. Though this “stamp” was applied to the letter or parcel itself, rather than to a separate piece of paper, it is considered by many historians to be the world’s first postage stamp.
In 1835, the civil servant Lovrenc Košir from Ljubljana in Austria-Hungary (now Slovenia), suggested the use of “artificially affixed postal tax stamps” using “gepresste Papieroblate” (“pressed paper wafers”), but although civil bureaucrats considered the suggestion in detail, it was not adopted. The ‘Papieroblate’ were to produce stamps as paper decals so thin as to prevent their reuse.
In 1836, Robert Wallace, a Member of (British) Parliament, gave Sir Rowland Hill numerous books and documents about the postal service, which Hill described as a “half hundred weight of material”. After a detailed study, on 4 January 1837 Hill submitted a pamphlet entitled Post Office Reform: Its Importance and Practicability, marked “private and confidential”, and not released to the general public, to the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Thomas Spring Rice. The Chancellor summoned Hill to a meeting at which he suggested improvements and changes to be presented in a supplement, which Hill duly produced and submitted on 28 January 1837.
Summoned to give evidence before the Commission for Post Office Enquiry on 13 February 1837, Hill read from the letter he wrote to the Chancellor that included a statement saying that the notation of paid postage could be created… by using a bit of paper just large enough to bear the stamp, and covered at the back with a glutinous wash…” This would eventually become the first unambiguous description of a modern adhesive postage stamp (though the term “postage stamp” originated at a later date). Shortly afterward, Hill’s revision of the booklet, dated 22 February 1837, containing some 28,000 words, incorporating the supplement given to the Chancellor and statements he made to the commission, was published and made available to the general public. Hansard records that on 15 December 1837, Benjamin Hawes asked the Chancellor of the Exchequer “whether it was the intention of the Government to give effect to the recommendation of the Commissioners of the Post-office, contained in their ninth report relating to the reduction of the rates of postage, and the issuing of penny stamps?”
Hill’s ideas for postage stamps and charging paid-postage based on weight soon took hold, and were adopted in many countries throughout the world. With the new policy of charging by weight, using envelopes for mailing documents became the norm. Hill’s brother Edwin invented a prototype envelope-making machine that folded paper into envelopes quickly enough to match the pace of the growing demand for postage stamps.
Rowland Hill and the reforms he introduced to the United Kingdom postal system appear on several of its commemorative stamps.
In the 1881 book The Penny Postage Scheme of 1837, Scotsman Patrick Chalmers claimed that his father, James Chalmers, published an essay in August 1834 describing and advocating a postage stamp, but submitted no evidence of the essay’s existence. Nevertheless, until he died in 1891, Patrick Chalmers campaigned to have his father recognized as the inventor of the postage stamp.
The first independent evidence for Chalmers’ claim is an essay, dated 8 February 1838 and received by the Post Office on 17 February 1838, in which he proposed adhesive postage stamps to the General Post Office. In this approximately 800-word document concerning methods of indicating that postage had been paid on mail he states:
“Therefore, of Mr Hill’s plan of a uniform rate of postage… I conceive that the most simple and economical mode… would be by Slips… in the hope that Mr Hill’s plan may soon be carried into operation I would suggest that sheets of Stamped Slips should be prepared… then be rubbed over on the back with a strong solution of gum…”.
Chalmers’ original document is now in the United Kingdom’s National Postal Museum.
Since Chalmers used the same postage denominations that Hill had proposed in February 1837, it is clear that he was aware of Hill’s proposals, but whether he obtained a copy of Hill’s booklet or simply read about it in one or both of the two detailed accounts (25 March 1837 and 20 December 1837) published in The Times is unknown. Neither article mentioned “a bit of paper just large enough to bear the stamp”, so Chalmers could not have known that Hill had made such a proposal. This suggests that either Chalmers had previously read Hill’s booklet and was merely elaborating Hill’s idea, or he had independently developed the idea of the modern postage stamp.
James Chalmers organized petitions “for a low and uniform rate of postage”. The first such petition was presented in the House of Commons on 4 December 1837 (from Montrose). Further petitions organised by him were presented on 1 May 1838 (from Dunbar and Cupar), 14 May 1838 (from the county of Forfar), and 12 June 1839. At this same time, other groups organised petitions and presented them to Parliament. All petitions for consumer-oriented, low-cost, volume-based postal rates followed publication of Hill’s proposals.
Other claimants include or have included:
Dr John Gray of the British Museum
Samuel Forrester, a Scottish tax official
Charles Whiting, a London stationer
Samuel Roberts of Llanbrynmair, Wales
Francis Worrell Stevens, schoolmaster at Loughton
Ferdinand Egarter of Spittal, Austria
Curry Gabriel Treffenberg from Sweden.
During the 21st century, the amount of mail — and the use of postage stamps, accordingly — has reduced in the world because of electronic mail and other technological innovations. Iceland has already announced that it will not issue new stamps anymore because the sales have decreased and there are enough stamps in the stock (per Wikipedia).
First, a Story:
My mailman buddy tells jokes about undelivered letters. But no one seems to get them.
Second, a Song:
Whose Line Is It Anyway? is a short-form improvisational comedy show originating as a popular British radio programme, before moving to British television in 1988. Following the conclusion of the British run in 1999, ABC began airing an American version, which ran until 2007 and was later revived by The CW in 2013.
Each version of the show consists of a panel of four performers who create characters, scenes, and songs on the spot, in the style of short-form improvisation games, many taken from theatresports. Topics for the games are based on either audience suggestions or predetermined prompts from the host. Both the British and the American shows ostensibly take the form of a game show with the host arbitrarily assigning points and likewise choosing a winner at the end of each episode. However, the show lacks the true stakes and competition of a game show (by design). The “game show” format is simply part of the comedy.
Here is “Songs of the Postal Worker” in episode #011 from “Whose Line is it Anyway?” This is a great session of improv started by a suggestion from the audience of “Postal Worker”. I hope you enjoy this!
Thought for the Day:
“Be like a postage stamp. Stick to one thing until you get there.” – Josh Billings
Have a great day!
Dave & Colleen
© 2021 David J. Bilinsky and Colleen E. Bilinsky