The world’s first postal stationery

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Ireland-born artist William Mulready was the first person to illustrate postal stationery. Postal stationery is classed as a document on which the proof of advance payment is shown by the placing of a stamp or a postmark. The piece shown – a stamped, foldable letter card, appeared at the same time as the first postage stamps in 1840 in Great Britain.

The value of the folding letter was one penny. In the unfolded form one could read in large letters: POSTAGE.
When folded the letter displayed at the bottom: “POSTAGE ONE PENNY” in a font that is not on my computer. Why a penny?

In 1840, the so-called uniform postal rate in effect for the entire territory of the former Great Britain was one penny. Before that there were all kinds of postal services with their own postal tariffs and duties. Postal services which certainly were not cheap and also not reliable.

There was however a general postal service, but it was very expensive. Politicians in Britain wanted to bring about a complete reorganisation of the postal sector and in 1837 teacher, inventor and social reformer Rowland Hill published and circulated the pamphlet ‘Post Office Reform: Its Importance and Practicability’. During the 1830s there were growing calls for postal reform and Hill’s pamphlet proved influential, ultimately leading to the introduction of the world’s first postage stamp, the Penny Black, in 1840.

His main idea was to use a fixed-rate price based on weight: a penny for every half an ounce, without taking into account distance, or the number of sheets of paper per item.

Envelopes hardly existed and most mailers used sheets of paper that were folded to the size of the current standard envelope. These folded sheets were then sealed and the address provided. The rates were based on the number of sheets of paper and the distance from the sender to the addressee. The recipient had to pay the postage.

Rowland Hill proposed to sell pre-paid sheets of paper, pre-printed ‘Postage One Penny’ and with gummed edges – so the sheet could be folded and stuck. They could be purchased by the public via a post office. This would be easier for the sender, the postal service and the receiver.

A Parliamentary Committee took note of the ideas of Rowland Hill and elaborated further. The results were published in an Act of Parliament in August 1839.
Hill was then invited by the Ministry of Finance, not by The Post Office, to give his ideas further shape.  In “The Times” newspaper a competition was announced to find the best design for a pre-paid postal sheet with gummed edges.

Prizes of £200 and £100 for the best two designs were offered by the Minister of Finance. More than 2,600 entries were received and three additional prizes of £100 were awarded. Among the ideas produced were the use of sheets of paper with a watermark, embossed stamp marks and images with such adornments that would be difficult to make . There were also some suggestions for ‘stamped wrappers’.
The Minister felt it better to choose a winner from the ‘stamped sheet’ ideas because he expected little from the prepaid, gummed labels.

William Mulready

William Mulready was the winner of the first prize of £200 and was commissioned to create a design for a stamped sheet of paper and John Thompson was commissioned to design the engraving in steel. The names of the designer, W. Mulready and engraver John Thompson, were incorporated into the design. Other things had to be printed on the sheets, such as postal rates and instructions.

Printers Clowes & Sons produced the sheets and they went on sale in post offices on May 1, 1840. There were two varieties, the penny black and the two pence blue. But using a  stamp alone was much more popular and by 1844 the prepaid folding letter sheet had already been taken out of circulation. It was to be years later that the prepaid folding letter and prepaid envelope would return to favour. For collectors of postal stationery used Mulready folding letters are a bit of a holy grail and quite valuable. But there are forgeries, so be careful!!

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