Before the Penny Black (First Series)

By Ken Lawrence < >

Posted on the rec.collecting.stamps Usenet newsgroup and the STAMPS listserver
Copyright 1995-2000 by Ken Lawrence. All rights reserved


Before the Penny Black - Part 1 (1995.12.24)

A recent discussion on the rec.collecting.stamps newsgroup concerned The World's First Postage Stamp, the Great Britain 1-penny (1d) black Queen Victoria stamp of 1840. In one of my postings I alluded in passing to earlier claimants for the title, which I shall explore in this series.

For purposes of this essay, mail is defined as written communication carried from one predetermined place (post or post office) to another on scheduled rounds at uniform rates by a disinterested third party (the postal system), and stamps are printed tokens that denote the franking privilege or prepayment of postage.

I have taken these examples from secondary sources published many years ago, which provided scant documentation, so I cannot verify their historical accuracy. If anyone has additional documentation, I would be pleased to know the reference(s). The authors may well have been the Pat Hersts of their day, more interested in story-telling than scholarship.

The earliest postage stamp of which I have a reference was created and used by M. De Velayer in 1653. During the reign of Louis XIV, De Velayer established a private penny post in Paris, with letters deposited in collection boxes on street corners around the city. I assume this means that letter postage was 1 denier, the smallest denomination French [European] coin before the revolution.

Letters were wrapped with a slip of paper bearing the inscription (in translation) "post-paid______day of_________1653."

De Velayer also published and delivered business circulars. According to my reference, a March 1883 article in the Granite State Philatelist, "One of these notes is still preserved in Paris and is one of the oldest penny post letters extant, and a curious example of a pre-paying envelope."

Does anyone know whether that wonderful relic has survived the subsequent 112 years of war and pestilence?

According to the pseudonymous 1883 author, De Velayer's post was described in an 1838 pamphlet by M. Piron of Paris.


Before the Penny Black - Part 2 (1995.12.25)

M. De Valayer's 1653 penny post quickly disappeared, but five years later, M. De Chamouset made a new attempt. De Chamouset charged 2 sols for a single Paris city letter which, the shy 1883 Granite State Philatelist author wrote, "were prepaid by stamps similar to those now in use."

The French government took over the service, paid De Chamouset a pension, "but so few and poor were the arrangements made by the government that the stamps were seldom used and were soon entirely forgotten."

No earlier source was provided for this tale. Can anyone verify or refute it? If the letters or stamps survive, why are they not part of our hobby lore? If they do not, how did someone learn of their existence 230 years afterward?


Before the Penny Black - Part 3 (1995.12.26)

The third example of an early postage stamp followed a December 7, 1716, royal decree of Spain, giving the crown's secretary the privilege of using a seal impressed in ink, bearing the royal arms of Castile and Leon, on letters addressed to other authorities, entitling them to free carriage and delivery.

This claim blurs the distinctions between a frank, a postal marking, and an adhesive stamp, but including it on the list has the virtue of filling in the development of an idea, rather than presenting it as the pure product of Rowland Hill's imagination more than a century later.


Before the Penny Black - Part 4 (1995.12.27)

The fourth example of an early postage stamp, drawn from the 1883 writer "X.Y.Z." in the Granite State Philatelist cited previously, and from our own generation's David Lidman, is this:

"On the 7th of November, 1818, the emission of stamped postal paper was announced in Sardinia. The paper could be procured at post-offices and from vendors of tobacco who received a commission upon their sales. There were three values, 15, 25 and 50 centesimi all bearing the same device. The stamps were in the shape of an octagon bearing a horse at full speed, on whose back was mounted a nude boy blowing a trumpet (possibly meant for a post horn?) and under the steed, C. 50. (50 centesimi.) In March, 1836, they were finally withdrawn owing to a modification in the postal laws." So wrote the 19th century postal historian.

According to Lidman's Treasury of Stamps, the Sardinian stamped lettersheets first "were imprinted in ink with round, oval, and octagonal devices, each of which contained a horse bearing a cherub-like rider blowing a post horn". Later these devices were embossed on ornately watermarked sheets called cavallini (from cavallo, horse). The embossed version of the 50-centesimi stamp is pictured in the book.

"Purists argue," wrote Lidman," that the Sardinia sheets were only taxes, for no postal service was provided." I wonder why the chilly little fellow was blowing a posthorn (clear from the picture), if not to signal arrival of the mail, and why he was on horseback -- neither being associated in the popular mind with tax collectors.


Before the Penny Black - Part 5 (1995.12.28)

The fifth example of an early postage stamp is the 40-lepta typeset black 1831 adhesive stamp of Greece, recognized in two varieties according to the number of ornamental pearls in the frame and the diameter of the period after the denomination of value, and in a third variety with one pearl unmatched to the rest, printed in imperforate sheets.

These are well documented, and known to have been used at Athens, Piraeus, Chalkis, Koroni, Dadion, Tripolis, Areopolis, and Amphissa. At least four covers bearing these stamps have been documented, and a handful of others reported. The stamps on cover are canceled with lines in red pencil or crayon.

One example of this stamp, on a June 17, 1848, cover, was shown in Count de Fayolle's exhibit of Greece at the 1913 Paris Philatelic Exhibition.

The earliest known cover is postmarked December 25, 1840, which adds a flash of timeliness to this holiday season series, but is what makes the claim for priority controversial. Whatever its status as an adhesive postage stamp -- local, carrier, provisional, special delivery, or postage due -- if it was not issued and used as a token of postage payment until after May 1840, it did not precede the Penny Black.

However, in 1933 a British stamp dealer, P.L. Pemberton, obtained a large unused irregular block (part sheet) of nine, reconstructed from two pieces, which he trumpeted as proof of its 1831 origin in a Philatelic Journal of Great Britain series, "The First Adhesive Postage Stamp."

"This 'find' disposes of claims either of Rowland Hill or Patrick Chalmers to the invention of the adhesive stamp. It was in 1837 that the idea first germinated in England, and at that time, as it now appears, Greece had already perfected it."

Pemberton displayed the block at the October 18, 1933, meeting of the Royal Philatelic Society, so that the distinguished leaders of the stamp hobby could observe his evidence, the manuscript ink notation on the gum side of the stamps: "On the back is an inscription of which the translation is ' . . . Apaliras _2: May 1831 -- The Governor.' and signed in a different handwriting -- 'G. Glarakis.'" (A large piece of the fragile block had broken away, making it uncertain whether the date was the 2nd, 12th, or 22nd of May.)

Archival records showed that Glakaris had been appointed governor of Poros on August 19, 1830. Glakaris was a medical doctor, philosopher, and statesman who eventually became prime minister of Greece. Poros is an island that commands a view of Athens, which played a strategic part in the Greek War of Independence, and was the location of the printing works. Pemberton believed that the governor had supervised the printing, and had endorsed the sheet before sending it to his superiors in Athens for approval.

For Pemberton, this established the stamps as government issues, not private carriers' stamps. In reply to theories that these were postage due labels, he answered that their rarity weakened that theory. Since nearly all mail was sent collect, the few that are known on cover would better agree with the theory that they denoted prepayment. P.C. Korteweg of the Netherlands was the first author to conclude that these were special delivery stamps.

C.P. Constantinides, a naval commander and leader of the Hellenic Philatelic Society believed that the stamps were receipts for donations to a fund for Greek refugees from Crete. He quoted a March 13, 1831, government decree that asked every citizen to contribute 40 lepta or more for the welfare of these recently arrived emigres from Turkish-controlled Crete to the liberated mainland, and ordered that billets be issued to donors.

Today, the Vlastos catalog uses the 1831 date, so Pemberton's discovery seems to have stood the test of time. But Vlastos lists it as a charity stamp, which seems to confirm Constantinides opinion as the catalog editor's policy for listing the stamp's recognized status.


Before the Penny Black - Part 6 (1995.12.29)

Sweden's role in the early development of postage stamps is rarely recognized. One lovely item from that country is the pioneer airmail to beat all pioneer airmails, an 1804 "feather cover" pictured in David Lidman's Treasury. A black feather fastened to the letter by a red wax seal certainly is intriguing as a stamp forerunner. Lidman wrote that its purpose was to imply "that the letter should 'fly' to its destination."

Less debatable is that Curry Gabriel Treffenberg, a former Swedish army colonel, in 1823 urged the Assembly of Swedish Nobles to issue postage stamps. His proposal won significant support, but the government rejected the idea. Had it been accepted, Great Britain and Rowland Hill would be much less important to stamp collecting and postal history.

Treffenberg wanted a postal wrapper "the size of a sheet of writing paper . . . strong but not coarse, and in it a ring-shaped design readily discernible for hampering counterfeiting; also some light-colored nuance should be applied to it."

Also, "in the center of the sheet there should be two stamps side by side, occupying together an area of six square inches; one stamp deeply pressed [embossed] into the paper, and the other printed with ink. Both are to contain, besides some appropriate emblem difficult to imitate, the value of the sheet. An assortment of denominations should be according to requirements."

According to Lidman, the lettersheet was to be folded with the stamps on the outside, and the sender would have written a portion of the address over them, serving as a cancellation to prevent reuse.


Before the Penny Black - Part 7 (1995.12.30)

The next inventor of postage stamps was Laurenz Koschier, an Austrian civil servant, who submitted his proposals for postage stamps to the Austro-Hungarian General Imperial Chamber and the Ministry of Finance. His 1836 recommendation envisioned stamps in the form of decals, to prevent removal, cleaning, and reuse, and in 1839 he urged that stamp booklets be issued.

Kenneth Wood wrote that Koschier's proposal for "letter tax stamps" represents "the most serious rival to Sir Rowland Hill for the honor of having proposed the adhesive postage stamp."

Unfortunately for Koschier, the Austrian government rejected the proposal. But in 1874, he presented documents to the Universal Postal Union Congress that not only documented his invention, but also charged that a British business traveler, G. Galway, had discussed the idea with him and then passed it on to Rowland Hill.

In 1948, Yugoslavia honored Koschier on a set of four definitive stamps and an airmail stamp. The stamps spelled his name Kosir, and the se-tenant labels attached to the 15-dinar airmail stamps, which proclaimed him the true inventor of the postage stamp, spelled his name Laurent Kochir and Lovrenca Kosira.

In 1979, when many countries worldwide were commemorating Rowland Hill, Austria pictured Koschier on its annual Europa stamp, issued to coincide with his death centennial.


Before the Penny Black - Part 8 (1995.12.31)

The final claimant as inventor of the postage stamp, and probably the best-known rival to Rowland Hill, was Scottish bookseller and printer James Chalmers. For a time, both the Encyclopedia Britannica and the Dictionary of National Biography recognized him as the true inventor, based on the adhesive stamps he had made experimentally in 1834, attested by his son and employees in this print shop.

However, Chalmers' letter that proposed a stamped slip "rubbed over the back with a strong solution of gum" appeared in the April 5, 1838, Post Circular, more than a year after Rowland Hill's proposal had been published. Chalmers added that postmasters would "put the post office town stamp across the slip."

Whether or not the advocates who support Chalmers are correct in attributing priority to his invention, the canceled essays he submitted to the Treasury Competition in 1840 more closely resembled later postage than the Penny Black does, and reflected his deeper insight into the overlapping requirements of security and mail processing.

Full color reproductions of Chalmers' interesting circular stamp essays, canceled with the straight two-line handstamp "USED. DUNDEE,/ Oct. 7, 39." may be seen in The Stanley Gibbons Book of Stamps and Stamp Collecting by James Watson.

In my opinion, the judges who failed to award Chalmers a share of the prize money in the stamp design competition revealed their own short-sightedness. If Chalmers had done no more than to join postmarks and cancellations into a unified concept, he would merit higher standing than history has bestowed upon him.


Before the Penny Black - Part 9 - Discussion and Epilogue (1996.01.01)

Ideas do not fall from the sky. They develop in response to stimulation from the world around us, and are nurtured by a process that involves human effort and interaction -- experimentation, debate, political choice, and sometimes (as charged by Laurenz Koschier) plagiarism.

It is a mistake to view Rowland Hill and William Mulready as isolated inventive geniuses. That is a fairy tale view of the past. Here I have tried to present, in a popular and ephemeral format, a more responsible historian's view, which I hope has been engaging and entertaining nonetheless.

Mulready and Hill were carrying forward traditions that had been tested and were under way, in fits and (mostly false) starts for the previous two centuries in Europe, as postal services that originally served only the elite, conducted by the House of Thurn and Taxis, were gradually appropriated by the entire people.

In May of 1840, when Great Britain issued the one-penny and two-pence stamps, stamped envelopes, and lettersheets that those men had designed, standing on the shoulders of many who had come before, they represented a leap forward for worldwide communication -- a success story for which they are justly celebrated. But their ancestors deserve greater respect than they receive.

* * *

I want to thank all of you who have been patient with me as I strung these beads one day at a time. I appreciate the encouraging compliments, some posted and some by direct e-mail, from Mary V. Frazier, One Philatelist, Robert G. Brito, and John.

As Mary suggested, I hope others will follow this lead. Despite Philatelist One's criticism of serialization, if you work as I do, you are probably likelier to post what you can do easily at one sitting than what you postpone because it requires too much time. (In my opinion, since each of my segments told a separate story, posting each one independently also enhanced its power to entertain and educate -- but I'm biased.)

* * *

Others have added wonderful material to my first draft. Christoph Ozdoba informed us that we can see examples of the early Sardinian "cavallini" (horse and rider stamps), and the original documents providing for their introduction and use, at the Swiss PTT museum in Berne. Frank Sheeran pointed out (as I too have experienced) that tobacco shops throughout Italy still sell stamps, and are usually more convenient than post offices. Giorgio Chianetta added that they sell various state monopoly items -- tobacco, cigarettes, matches, postage stamps, and fiscal stamps -- on which the authorization for their 3 to 5 percent discount probably dates to the postal regulations of the Sardinia kingdom, all of which helps bring the early history to life.

Jay Carrigan added clarification to the three Yugoslav spellings of Laurenz Koschier's name: Koschier is German, Kochir is French, and Kosir (hook over s) is Croatian (declined as Kosira, which Jay believes is the genitive case); Laurent and Lovrenc are linguistic equivalents of Lawrence. Which makes this an interesting fact: Although Koschier served in the Austro-Hungarian civil service throughout the empire, including the Balkan provinces, he spelled his name just the one way.


Repost: Before the Penny Black - Part 9 - Discussion and Epilogue (1996.01.01 - same as above)


Third Attempt: Before the Penny Black - Part 9 - Discussion and Epilogue (1996.01.01)

This time I'll post only the parts that were dropped from my two previous attempts. I don't understand why the STAMPS listserver works fine, but the r.c.s. and r.c.p-h newsgroup don't. I checked to make sure the entire text was included in the postings before I sent them.

Picking up near the end:
Martti Tolvanen commented that "feather letters" were well known in early Finnish history (since the 1760s), as well as Swedish. "They could have 1 to 3 feathers to indicate the degree of urgency (and are of course frequently forged nowadays by fusing feathers in the wax of an ordinary old letter). But still, talking about pioneer air mail, I think mail pigeons were used centuries earlier:-)." The Columbia Enyclopedia says that pigeon communication dates to the time of Noah, so I stand corrected. The first air mail was delivered to the ark.

* * *

In a commentary on Part 1 of this series, Jim Roberts contested my assumption that the De Velayer's penny post in Paris charged 1 denier in 1653.

Jim wrote, "I suspect the postal rate was considerably more than 1 denier, though, since that was an exceptionally low denomination in the 17th century. The "silver dollar" of that era (the ecu) was valued at 720 deniers, while the comparable English coin (the crown) contained only 60 pennies. So the denier equalled about 1/3 of an English farthing."

Evidently he is correct. David Lidman gave a more complete account than the 1883 article I relied on originally:

"Prepaid letter sheets were instituted in Paris in 1653 by Jean-Jacques Renouard de Villayer under privilege granted by Louis XIV. This service provided billets de port paye (prepaid postage tickets), which were wrappers for enclosing letters which were then deposited in mailboxes set up around the city. These mailboxes were cleared three times a day, the letters delivered to the central post office, the billets removed (so they could not be used again), and the letters sent on their way. The billets must have been carefully destroyed, for no examples of the Villayer wrappers are known to exist today."

Lidman added the words of a 17th century poem by Jean Loret about the Paris petite post, translated by Richard M. Graf, which gave the cost of mailing a letter as "only one sou."

According to Lidman, the service was popular with Parisians, but failed because the boxes became receptacles for refuse and homes for rats.

So, in a perfect conclusion to this series as we celebrate the 1996 New Year, Year of the Rat, think of every postage stamp's earliest ancestor in its remote evolutionary past as having provided a warm and welcome home for this coming year's furry mascot. Most stamp collectors have realized all along that we are the keepers of other people's trash.

Ken Lawrence


Before the Penny Black Revisited Part 1-9


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