Before the Penny Black Revisited (Second Series)

By Ken Lawrence < >

Posted on the Philatelic.Com and Funstamps lists, and on the rec.collecting.stamps
and rec.collecting.postal-history Usenet newsgroups
Copyright 1996-2000 by Ken Lawrence. All rights reserved


Before the Penny Black Revisited - Part 1 (1996.12.29)

One year ago, over the period of the 1995-96 Christmas and New Year holiday season, I posted a series of nine articles, one per day on both the rec.collecting.stamps Usenet newsgroup and the STAMPS listserv, titled Before the Penny Black, which reflected my first major attempt at electronic publishing. Although I had been on-line for barely six weeks when I began this adventure, the subject of pre-1840 examples of postage stamps and stationery proved popular, and evoked a discussion that continued for weeks afterward.

In that sense especially, Before the Penny Black experienced a success in Internet stamp storytelling that has not been exceeded. Today we have a proliferation of stamp information sites that did not exist last year, including new mailing lists, chat groups, and newsgroups; hundreds of World Wide Web sites; and one so-called e-zine devoted to philately. Despite this growth, and the presence of thousands more collectors in these forums, the overall quality of the medium has deteriorated, in my opinion.

In the Web Watcher column of Adobe Magazine for January/February 1997, Glenn Fleishman wrote, "Back in the good old days, when there were only a few hundred thousand folks on the Internet, mailing lists were pretty darn useful and controllable. . . . The same was true of Usenet newsgroups . . . . [but] There are now so many groups, and so many thousands of posts per day that contain little or no new information or queries, that the groups are essentially unusable for anyone but a new user with a heavy information habit or someone new to a particular subject."

Fleishman articulated what many on-line stamp collectors seem to feel. The increased level and proportion of "noise," has provoked acrimony for and against established institutions, such as Phil Guptill's Stamp Trader List; for and against Internet discussions of contemporary subjects, such as the APS election campaign; and for and against proposals for innovation, such as further subdivision of our main newsgroup. Yet nearly everyone seems committed to the medium. Despite new style and subject restrictions imposed on the STAMPS list by owner Geert Marien, the number of subscribers has remained steady. . . . but Greg Deeter's unrestricted Philatelic.Com list has more than twice as many participants, and David Tilton's lists, broken down by subject, also are thriving.

My personal belief is that periodic bursts of quality in posting will assure a healthy future for Internet philately. Thus the series I posted a year ago -- which included information that has never been collected by any single printed stamp publication -- holds even greater importance to me now than it did when I began the experiment. The series did include mistakes, and omitted one of the more important postage stamp precursors, so I have good reason to review, correct, and expand on my previous posts. That will be my project for the next few days of this year's holiday season.

Some of our Internet specialists might help out by posting instructions for retrieving archived versions of last year's articles, to assist those who missed Before the Penny Black when I first posted the series, but who would like to read the original text.


Before the Penny Black Revisited - Part 2 (1996.12.29)

A summary of postage stamp forerunners
In last year's Before the Penny Black series of articles, mail was 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 were defined as printed tokens that denoted the franking privilege or prepayment of postage.

Part I described the earliest postage stamp of which I have a reference, 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. Letters were wrapped with a slip of paper bearing the inscription (in translation) "post-paid______day of_________1653."

Part II followed with M. De Chamouset's local post in Paris, which charged 2 sols for a single Paris city letter, "prepaid by stamps similar to those now in use." The French government took over the service and 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." My source had misrecorded the date as 1658. That was a century off; French expert John Lievsay sent this correction: "Piarron de Chamousset (different spelling), date of authorization given as 1758" in one source, and "dates of private operation as 1760-63" in another.

Part III mentioned an early frank, which 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.

Part IV discussed Sardinia's cavallini: "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." These are regarded by postal historians as taxed revenue paper, compensating the ruler, not the carrier, for revenue lost to the private carriage of mail.

Part V was the most extensive report in the series, about the 1831 typeset 40-lepta black 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. Today, the Vlastos catalog lists it as a charity stamp.

Part VI alluded (tongue in cheek) to Scandanavian feather mail of the 18th and early 19th century, implying "that the letter should 'fly' to its destination," as pioneer air mail. But the main subject was Curry Gabriel Treffenberg, a former Swedish army colonel, who in 1823 urged the Assembly of Swedish Nobles to issue postage stamps. His proposal won significant support, but the government rejected the idea.

Part VII presented the claim of Laurenz Koschier (also spelled Laurent Kochir and Lovrenca Kosira) to have been the true inventor of the adhesive stamp. Koschier was an Austrian civil servant who submitted his proposals for postage stamps to the Austro-Hungarian General Imperial Chamber and the Ministry of Finance in 1836.

Part VIII was devoted to Rowland Hill's most famous rival claimant, Scottish bookseller and printer James Chalmers. For a time, both the Encyclopedia Britannica and the Dictionary of National Biography recognized Chalmers as the true inventor, based on the adhesive stamps he had made experimentally in 1834.

Part IX summed up the previous articles, and responded to numerous points that had been posted in response to them.

Unfortunately, I missed one major forerunner in last year's series, so that will be the subject of my next segment. After that, we shall review an early but disputed claimant that I omitted last year, and further evidence on one of the others.


Before the Penny Black Revisited - Part 3 (1996.12.30)

The 1838 embossed lettersheets of Sydney
In 1838, New South Wales issued prepaid lettersheets. The principal source on these is The Postal History of New South Wales 1788-1901, edited by John S. White.

"The use of embossed stamps to prepay postage within the town of Sydney was announced on 3 November 1838 . . . " The official announcement in the Sydney Gazette stated that they "may be obtained at the General Post-Office on payment of one shilling and three pence per dozen, including all charges for payment and delivery."

The authors stated, "These letter sheets suffered from three drawbacks, viz., they could be obtained only at the GPO; the embossing was a time consuming process, having to be done in a letter press; and people often folded the letter sheets incorrectly, with the embossing folded out of sight, resulting in the addressee having to pay full postage. . . "

"The circular stamp was approximately 29mm in diameter. The Hanoverian Coat of arms embodied in the design is that of William IV and is an anachronism as Queen Victoria had succeeded to the throne in 1837 on the death of William IV. The die was engraved by William Wilson of Sydney. . ."

"A survey has been made of all the covers which could be traced, comprising 36 covers dated between 1 October 1842 and 20 May 1850. In addition there is a piece dated 29 November 1839."

In calling this source to my attention, Hans Karman wrote, "There are more than the reported covers in existence. My own copy does not appear on the list, and a few have turned up in auction catalogues that are not on the list. Nevertheless, they are scarce. As far as is known, all have a crowned FREE frank applied, not because they were free, but to avoid further charges to the addressee, since the embossing is hard to see."

Michael Laurence referred me to The V.P. Manwood Collection of New South Wales 1838-1860, sold at auction by Robert A. Siegel Auction Galleries on November 8, 1995, shortly before I began my series of articles. The first five lots in the sale were examples of the NSW lettersheets. These included the earliest example, the November 29, 1839, piece and the earliest and second earliest entires, plus two unused entires.

Writing in the December 1995 Stamp News, Glen Stephens reported on that sale: "It can now be revealed that the owner of this 'VP Manwood' NSW collection was in fact, well-known dealer Dale Forster of the USA. . . I understand Manwood was the surname of his grandfather who commenced the collection. . . ."

A client of Stephens purchased four of the lots by telephone bid, "costing him a cool $US10,000. The only lot he did not buy, a small piece cut from a lettersheet, with earliest known date of use for a pre-paid philatelic stamp or impression sold for $US4,500+10 per cent. In my humble opinion, that was the standout bargain of the entire 'Manwood' collection."


Before the Penny Black Revisited - Part 4 (1996.12.31)

Postal stationery from Venice, 1608
In response to last year's Before the Penny Black Series, Giorgio Chianetta called my attention to a type of postal stationery that pushes the first stamp ancestor's date back another half century prior to the de Velayer's penny post of Paris. Giorgio wrote that AQ sheets were "introduced by the Republic of Venice in 1608. For years those items have been quoted as postal stuff (postal stationery), but the common opinion now is that they were introduced 'in order to raise funds and to finance the works of the Lagoon following the many floods of nearby rivers - hence these sheets are rather revenue items than postal ones.' [from Vito Salierno, Il Nuovo Corriere Filatelico, #19, Oct/1978]."

John F. Rider provided background in the July 1967 issue of the Postal History Journal. "Early in the 17th century, reported to have been in 1604, the Venetian government decreed that communications sent to about 25 government agencies in Venice (excluding the very highest) and between government officials would be subject to a special tax of 4 soldi per letter. . . . The duties collected then were to be paid periodically (some say monthly, others say quarterly) to the Office of the Water Commission. This office created early in the 14th century was responsible for maintenance of the lagoons and flood control. . . ."

"The practice was not too successful with the result that in November 1608 the government decreed the printing of special postal stationery known as 'Taglio.' . . ."

"Each 'Taglio' carried a symbolization of the Winged Lion of St. Mark with the letter 'A' on one side and the letter 'Q' on the other, these two letters being an abridgment of the word 'Acqua' designating the authority which had originally requested the implementation of the program." No postal markings are known on AQ sheets.

Rider illustrated a September 4, 1609, usage of an AQ lettersheet. David Lidman's Treasury pictures an unused AQ sheet.


Before the Penny Black Revisited - Part 5 (1997.01.01)

The vindication of Laurenz Koschier?
As my original series reported one year ago, Laurenz Koschier, an Austrian civil servant, submitted his proposals for postage stamps to the Austro-Hungarian General Imperial Chamber and the Ministry of Finance in 1836. He envisioned stamps in the form of decals, to prevent removal, cleaning, and reuse; in 1839 he urged that stamp booklets be issued. In 1874, documents he presented to the Universal Postal Union Congress not only proved his claim of 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.

If the Austrian government had adopted Koschier's proposal, Hill's later invention would merit a mere footnote in our history books. But it did not. However, a sensational discovery in 1950 might elevate Koschier's place in history if the community of stamp collectors ever gives it fair consideration without prejudice -- a February 1839 Austrian folded letter franked with a 1-kreuzer adhesive stamp.

The stamp is simply lithographed in four colors -- red, blue, gray, and black. The central design is a large colorless figure 1, with a break near the top that makes it appear capped, a thick extended top serif, and forked feet. The digit is flanked left and right by crosses (the symbol for kreuzer), and beneath them, the letter O to the right and P to the left, presumably standing for Austria Post. It is tied to the cover by diagonal crisscrossed pen strokes and a circular negative P black ink handstamp.

The letter was sent from Spittal to Klagenfurt, mailed on February 20, 1839, with a February 21 arrival mark. The 4-kreuzer postage was prepaid, indicated in manuscript and marked "Franco." The 1-kreuzer "levy stamp" (Hebemaerke) is presumed to have prepaid the delivery fee in effect since 1810. The stamp's creator was Ferdinand Egarter, postmaster of Spittal. Laurenz Koschier was Chief Postmaster of the district that included Spittal.

The letter is addressed to Miss Konstanzia Egarter in Klagenfurt, sent by her mother, and with a postscript by her father, the Spittal postmaster. Although the stamp is a postmaster provisional, not a national issue, it breathes life into Koschier's legend that merits humble respect and acknowledgment, not scorn and opprobrium, from historians of our hobby -- IF it is genuine.


Before the Penny Black Revisited - Part 6 (1997.01.02)

Is the Spittal postmaster provisional genuine?
The Spital cover came to light in 1950, after an article in Kaernter Tagespresse discussed Carinthian postmarks and asked owners of any old letters with suitable cancellations to send them to the author, Ingo Waste, president of the Klagenfurt Stamp Collector's Association, for study.

The letter with the Spital stamp was presented to Waste in response to that solicitation. It had been used as a bookmark in a prayer book owned by Mrs. Maria Fauner. She had given the book to the wife of Sepp Gmeiner, an engineer and assistant to Professor Porsche, the automobile designer. Examination by a man named Rudesch suggested that the letter might have substantial value. Gmeiner then allowed Waste, the expert in Carinthian postal history, to study it.

Ingo Waste was a corresponding member of the Paris Aerophilatelic Society, which may explain why photostat copies of the Spital cover made their way to experts in France, and from there to the United States, during the two-year period that followed the discovery but before it was made public. Finally, On May 11, 1952, Waste published his claim in the Klagenfurt Volkszeitung: "The oldest stamp in the world has been discovered. A letter with a stamp from Spital to Klagenfurt, dated February 20, 1839, with the arrival mark of Klagenfurt of the 21st February, lies before me."

Word quickly spread through Austrian newspapers, and then to other countries. The New York Times reported it on June 15. A committee of Austrian historians, officials, and philatelic experts convened at Millstat, Carinthia, on June 29, 1952, where the letter was displayed in public for the first time. That group declared the letter, and the stamp on it, to be genuine and contemporary with each other.

Immediately afterward followed reports that branded the cover a fake. Edwin Mueller's article in the July 5, 1952, issue of Stamps magazine, dripping with sarcasm from paragraph one, was the most comprehensive, and led Britain's Stamp Collecting magazine gleefully to echo Mueller's opinion in the headline, "AUSTRIAN 'FIRST STAMP' CLAIM IS A HOAX."

Mueller's Mercury Stamp Company, home to the Flierl Expert Committee, was in those days venerated as the most authoritative source of philatelic expertise in North America, so his report initially commanded respect. But Mueller had never seen the actual cover, and he misconstrued several elements that he had interpreted from a photostatic copy.

Austrian experts swiftly refuted Mueller's argument. Karl Weihs, editor of the Oesterreichische Briefmarken Zeitung, observed that Mueller had confused two separate letters in his analysis, and thus perverted a solid piece of evidence in its favor. "In addition to the Spital letter of Feb. 20 a second (without stamp) of March 1 exists. This latter item contains the postscript 'The 1 kr. levy stamp is not successful.' Both letters were written by the wife of Postmaster Egarter to their daughter, Konstanza, in Klagenfurt . . . The postscript apparently came from (Egarter's daughter) Lina, as the signature is abbreviated to 'd. Li' (Yours, Li[na]). As she told her sister something about the levy stamp . . . the whole matter must have been interesting news for Konstanza who had then been in Klagenfurt for some time."

Next, a British dealer brought the cover to London, where it was offered for sale at a reported price of 65,000 pounds. It was examined by a British Philatelic Association panel of experts, who did not comment on the genuineness of the letter or the postmarks, but satisfied Penny Black advocates by declaring "that the stamp is not a genuine postage stamp - and that at least part of the design has been painted and/or added to after the date at which the stamp is supposed to have been issued."

Translations quoted here were published by Edgar Lewy in the bulletin of the Austrian Stamp Club of Great Britain. Lewy had been skeptical of the original reports, but persuaded by Weihs's reply to Mueller that the Spital letter and stamp were authentic. After the BPA opinion, he wrote in exasperation, "So we are back at the beginning!"

The patriotic motives of the two expert groups are clear, but I think the Austrians had the best of it, since the BPA group did not address the historical or postal-historical evidence, and nibbled only at the fringe of the letter's makeup in finding fault with it.

I have been unable to discover the Spital stamp's subsequent fate. A brief but tantalizing article in the September 1991 issue of Cronica Filatelica said that the Austrian government had purchased the cover for 3 million schillings, but did not give a date of the transaction, nor the letter's current home. Can a reader enlighten us on this?


Before the Penny Black Revisited - Part 7 (1997.01.03)

Recapitulation and discussion
Stories of unprecedented events are irresistible to most writers. Stamp hobbyists habitually seek the first, last, and only collectibles in categories that interest them. Marrying these two human compulsions may predispose stamp writers to be the least discerning of all when they repeat established legends, such as the 1840 British invention of postage stamps and postal stationery, or when they pursue reports of allegedly new, singular milestones. If last year's series and this sequel have a moral, it is to resist relying on lore as history.

For example, I never doubted that Switzerland's 2 ½-rappen Basel Dove adhesive of 1845 (a cantonal, not a federal issue) was the world's first multicolor postage stamp. But earlier this week I learned that the 1-kreuzer Numeral 1839 postmaster provisional of Spital was lithographed in four colors.

This is not simply a debate for historians. It has contemporary meaning as well. Is a postage stamp, as Webster's Third states, "an adhesive stamp or an imprinted stamp on a piece of postal stationery"? If the subject of our shared interest includes both categories, then the stamps scheduled to be issued by the United States at the Pacific 97 world stamp exhibition are not our country's first triangular issue despite a spate of uncontradicted reports that hail them to be that.

Stamp imprint indicia of the 2-cent FIPEX postal card of 1956, Scott UX44; the 8-cent Jet Liner air mail stamped envelope of 1965, Scott UC37 (untagged) and 1967, Scott UC37a (tagged); the 10-cent Jet Liner air mail stamped envelope of 1968, Scott UC40; the revalued 8-cent plus 2-cent envelope of 1968, Scott UC41; and the revalued 10-cent plus (1-cent) envelope of 1971, Scott UC45, all consist of triangles, and certainly would be included in any collection of triangular stamps.

In researching the stories for this series, I have read allusions to other early claimants to the title "world's first postage stamp" from South Africa and Russia, but I have not yet discovered the references. If an Internet reader could enlighten us about these forerunners, I would be grateful. Perhaps the saga of the World's First Postage Stamp is an epic that has no real ending, and cannot be collected to completion. If so, it mirrors the aspects of our hobby that we all know best.


Before the Penny Black Revisited - Part 8 (1997.01.04)

Discussion and acknowledgments
I am grateful to Pete Weiss for posting instructions on how to retrieve last year's Before the Penny Black series from the STAMPS list archive. Unfortunately, electronic storage has not yet been perfected, so many characters and words have been lost, but I think the general sense has been preserved. I regret that this year's sequel has not appeared on the STAMPS list, but it has appeared on the Philatelic.Com and Funstamps lists, and on the rec.collecting.stamps and rec.collecting.postal-history Usenet newsgroups.

I am grateful to Toke Norby for posting instructions on how to retrieve last year's series from the rec.collecting.stamps archive. I have not attempted this trick myself, so I don't know whether similar losses have occurred there. Toke's series on Perfins a few months ago is a model of Free Internet literature that I have striven to emulate.

Reader responses to the original series fulfilled my expectations of our interactive medium. The sequel has not. To my surprise, this year's Before the Penny Black Revisited series has evoked virtually no commentary in reply, elaboration, or rebuttal, although the readership is presumed to be manyfold larger than last year's, whose robust posts and e-mails continued long after that series had ended. Is it possible that I have beaten this subject to death? Was everyone but me aware of these fascinating forerunners before I posted their stories? Doesn't anyone have more, or a different point of view?

Or are we still in the process of fashioning our on-line culture, in an environment that is heavily burdened with commercial prospecting and casual look-ins, but does not yet have a tradition of depth and substance?

In the only sidebar discussion yet posted to this series, Peter Dolman observed the etymology of the English word stamp having descended from the term for postal marking to the token of prepayment for carriage and delivery. Most authorities trace that connotative transfer to Rowland Hill's usage in his proposal that led to the Penny Black.

One could do a similar study of postmark forerunners. I had been taught that the Bishop's mark was the original, but David Lidman's Treasury pictures an embossed seal of the Cursores Mediolanum (Milan Couriers) from about 1458, which is "considered by some postal historians to be the world's first postmark." Can anyone beat that? Does some collector possess a cuneiform tablet that bears a Babylonian courier's mark? Here might lie another fruitful line of study.


Before the Penny Black Revisited - Part 9 (1997.01.05)

One year ago I concluded my nine-part series with these words:

"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."

A similar point should be registered in regard to historiography. Addressing Steve Suffet's playfully nitpicking point, I would agree with him on the facts. I should have written more carefully, of "The Stamp Act, for instance, [the first in a series of Crown actions] which gave impetus to the rebellious North American colonists [and which eventually] provoked the Boston Tea Party. . ."

However, anyone who reads any work of history as revealed truth is making a mistake. History, like all intellectual activity, is a collective process of constant refinement, involving research, discovery, analysis, criticism, debate, correction, and revision. It never ends.

In contrast, every individual work of history must reach a close, as this one now does. Thank you all for riding along on what has been, for me, a pleasant journey through cyberphilatelia on an appropriate vehicle as we debarked the past year and alit in this one.

Ken Lawrence


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