Postal History

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Postal History

“Transport of the mails, transport of the human voice, transport of flickering pictures—in this century as in others our highest accomplishments still have the single aim of bringing men together.” - Antoine de Saint-Exupery

In the age of email and chat, the art of the letter and the art of postage are seemingly antiquated. Is the postage stamp a dead technology? Will we see, through the changes wrought by email, the kinds of revolutions in communications networks that have been created over the history of postage stamps?

Postal history is a fascinating look at one of the basic processes by which a society organizes itself. Without postal organizations, stamps, messengers, mail and communications networks, a city, country or government cannot hope to function long term or over long distances. The act of providing for networked communications within a populace is an act of governance, and so, the creation of the stamp and the organization of a postal system is an act of the state. A stamp, no matter what the aesthetic or monetary attachments that is has, is fundamentally a creation of the state.

Network communications have a long history in human society. Private couriers have been documented from as early as 3000 B.C. and the networks have expanded to include newspapers, telephones, home mail delivery, and digital communications.

The first mail systems were developed in 2400 BC in Egypt and originated as a means for pharaohs to diffuse decrees to their populace. Mail routes took over existing routes that had sent the same information in oral form to the citizenry. But the first real mail system is usually attributed to ancient Persia (present day Iran), though the exact date of its development is in question (with the dates under consideration ranging widely from 1700 BC to 521 BC). The Persian system may have had a dual purpose – delivering mail and collecting taxes. The system used pre-positioned men and horses to complete routes, and Herodotus, describing the route, said that there were enough men and animals that “these are stayed neither by snow nor rain nor darkness from accomplishing their appointed course with all speed.” Sound familiar?

Similar systems developed in India under the Mauryans (322-185 BC), China during the Han Dynasty (206-220 BC), and Rome during the time of Augustus Caesar (62 BC-AD 14) when the routes included light carriages and slower ox carts. Other societies used homing pigeons and private mail systems belonging to religious orders. Mail has been carried by every kind of transportation, from dogsled to balloon to mule. But as society became increasingly connected and technologically advanced in Europe, mail systems became better organized as well. 1505 saw the establishment of a mail system in the Holy Roman Empire and following the abolition of the Empire the system, known as Thurn and Tassis, continued to run as a private enterprise until 1806 when it was absorbed into the German Empire’s postal system.

The 1800’s saw the real birth of what we think of as modern and systematized postal systems, where governments issue stamps that are purchased by senders, affixed to a letter or package and sent through a route system managed and maintained by the state, to a recipient that receives the package in their own home. Though we think of the postage stamp as a quintessential component of the modern mail system, they were not initially part of the machinery of mail delivery. In fact, stamps were originally used by governments to collect money. These were often called revenue stamps, tax stamps or fiscal stamps and were a type of adhesive label used to collect taxes or fees on various items. Governments have issued such stamps for alcohol and tobacco, documents, playing cards and hunting licenses. While they may look like postage stamps they were not meant to be used on mail and didn’t receive postal cancellations.

Stamp duty was used throughout the 18th century and was so successful that it even continues today through a series of Stamp Acts. The attempted enforcement of the Stamp Act 1765 in the original 13 colonies in America led to the colonists cry of no taxation without representation, one of the disagreements between England and the colonies that led to the American War of Independence.

Before the postage stamp was used as part of government systems for delivering the mail, the post was sent using pre-adhesive mail, also called pre-stamp mail. These kinds of mail are also referred to as stampless covers, since envelopes were not popularized until after the introduction of postage stamps. Senders simply covered their letter, sealed the cover, and addressed the outside. Recipients were expected to pay for the letter on delivery. The system began to change with the issuance of the Penny Black, the world's first official adhesive postage stamp, by the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland on May 1, 1840. However, although postage stamps became available in America in 1847, mailers had the option of sending their letters and having the recipients pay the postage until 1855, when prepayment became compulsory. Previously, if the addressees refused to accept the letter -- and they often did -- the Post Office's labor and delivery costs were never recovered.

Though mail delivery became more organized and standardized with these modernizations, the systems still suffered from a certain unreliability throughout the 19th century.

In response to the slowness of the mail delivery in the western U.S. the Pony Express was developed in 1860. In March of that year, William H. Russell, an American transportation pioneer, advertised in newspapers as follows: "Wanted: Young, skinny, wiry fellows not over 18. Must be expert riders willing to risk death daily. Orphans preferred." And men did apply.

The men first started riding on April 3, 1860, serving parts of Missouri, Kansas, Nebraska, Colorado, Wyoming, Utah, Nevada, and California. Riders covered an average of 75-100 miles a day, often changing horses with their saddles and mail bags in one leap. The Pony Express remained in operation until October 24, 1861, when the transcontinental telegraph line was completed. Though the Pony Express lasted for only seventeen months, its romance has endured in the public’s imagination.

Modernization, standardization, increased access, and above all, improved transportation has created the international postal service we know today. Mail is now paid for by the sender, arrives at the recipient’s home or business address, letters can be sent to any country on the planet. And even as this fast, cheap and practiced system has become taken for granted, we have been busy replacing it with email and private companies that transport our large packages like UPS and FedEx. Is there a future for the government run postal system? ∑ Some terms to use in researching the history of postage: Postal History, before stamps, adhesive pre-paid postage, the Penny Black, the birth of philately, History of United States postage stamps, modern postage stamps.

Postal History Definition

The study of the history of the international mail posts, documents, and objects, including all types of mail. In collecting terms, postal history typically denotes envelope covers. In the United States, state postal history collecting is popular. Postal history studies can take many forms, including stamps on cover, marcophily (postal markings), registered mail, transportation types (zeppelin mail, etc).

General U.S. Postal History Resources

National Postal Museum

The National Postal Museum offers exhibits tracing the history of the postal system in the United States. It houses more than 13 million postal-related items — mostly stamps, but also postal stationery, greeting cards, covers and letters, mailboxes, postal vehicles, handstamps, metering machines, patent models, uniforms, badges, and other objects related to postal history and philately.


The online database of the National Postal Museum, Arago, was named in honor of the French physicist, astronomer and politician, François Arago. The site features special histories told through selected assemblages of museum objects and exceptional private collections, sections on philately and postal operations and the ability for users to create digital “collections” of their own.

United States Postal History from USPS

The United States Postal Service is an independent establishment of the Executive Branch of the United States Government responsible for providing postal service in the United States. The USPS offers a historical timeline of its operations on its website.

Unites States Postal History from Wikipedia

United States Covers by Jim Forte

A resource for collectors of United States and worldwide postal history. The site offers over 108,000 covers for sale, focusing on United States town cancels, United States and worldwide 20th century postal history and worldwide military postal history. Also includes a database of the dates of operation of all U.S. Post Offices.

Postage stamps and postal history of the United States of America from Wikipedia

A survey of the postage stamps and postal history of the U.S., including early postal history, first stamps, and modern stamps.

United States Stamp Society

The United States Stamp Society is a non-profit, volunteer-run association of collectors who promote the study of the philatelic output of the Bureau of Engraving and Printing and of postage and revenue stamped paper. Once concerned exclusively with the production of the Bureau of Engraving and Printing, the USSS has expanded its coverage to include all United States issues, both classic and modern, regardless of printer.

American Philatelic Research Library Article Index

The American Philatelic Research Library is the largest public philatelic library in the United States. Its holdings include many of philately's classic periodicals, and it receives more than 400 current periodicals from around the world. The society also operates an articles database for research purposes.

American Philatelic Research Library Book Catalog

The American Philatelic Research Library also operates an interactive catalogue of the book titles owned by the American Philatelic Research Library

Pony Express Museum

The Pony Express Museum stands as a tribute to the legend and legacy of the Pony Express and its enduring era. Modern, interactive and educational exhibits depict the need, creation, operation and termination of the famous mail service that lasted from April 1860 to October 1861.

Railway Mail Service Library

The Railway Mail Service Library has artifacts, mail route schedules, schemes of mail distribution, and publications relating to the Railway Mail Service/Postal Transportation Service.

Military Postal History Society

The Military Postal History Society was founded in 1937 to focus largely on the postal history of the American Expeditionary Forces in World War I. The group changed its name in 1991 to better reflect the study of the postal aspects of all wars and military actions of all nations, including soldier campaign covers, prisoner-of-war mail, naval mail, picture postcards of a military nature, field post offices, propaganda labels and leaflets, V-mail, censored mail and similar related material.

Illinois Postal History Society

The Illinois Postal History Society holds regular meetings at COMPEX (late May) and CHICAGOPEX (November), and publishes a quarterly journal called Illinois Postal Historian.

Gay & Lesbian History on Stamps Club

The GLHSC is a philatelic organization with members that collect gay, lesbian, bi, and transgender people on stamps or who are GLBT that happen to collect stamps. The club also publishes a journal known as Lambda Philatelic.

International Postal History

Universal Postal Union history

Established in 1874, the Universal Postal Union (UPU), headquartered in Berne, Switzerland, is the primary international forum for cooperation between postal-sector players and helps to ensure a truly universal network of postal services. The Union also helps promote worldwide postal awareness with World Post Day on October 9. operates a Web site that includes country, topical and specialist resources, including a directory of information pages for individual countries’ postal operations

General Postal History from Wikipedia

A general entry detailing the broad definition of postal history:

A useful entry on the global history of mail delivery, from ancient Egypt to modern times:

A history of stamps:

A timeline of significant dates in postal history from the 1600’s:

Roy and his wife Debbie Lingens are full-time stamp and postal history dealers. The operate a series of stamp- and philately-related Web sites, including one dedicated to key moments in history documented in stamps.

The International Society of Worldwide Stamp Collectors

The International Society of Worldwide Stamp Collectors serves the interests of all worldwide collectors. It publishes a bi-weekly newsletter, “The Circuit,” with classified ads from members and dealers who cater to worldwide collectors.

Postal History Publications

James E. Lee's Philately

James Lee is a well respected and long-established dealer of essays & proofs, philatelic literature, and postal history. He publishes a quarterly newsletter, called James E. Lee's Philately.

Military Postal History

The MPHS is a group of collectors with a mutual interest in military mail – the envelopes that were used to send letters by or to soldiers, sailors, airmen, etc., usually during some sort of conflict.

La Posta: A Journal of American Postal History

Published for over 35 years, the bi-monthly magazine La Posta: A Journal of American Postal History, contains informative research by the leading students of U. S. postal history, including articles, collecting tips, classified ads and auctions.

Encyclopedia of United States Stamps and Stamp Collecting

The Encyclopedia of United States Stamps and Stamp Collecting covers the full scope of United States stamps and stamp collecting. Beginning with an introduction to letters mailed before the introduction of postage stamps, it also covers the many stamps issued from their inception through the stamps of the early 21st century.

Cartographic Resources

Perry-Castañeda Library of University of Texas

One of the 15 libraries that make up the University of Texas library system, the Perry- Castañeda Library features an extensive online collection of maps and cartography resources.

History Resources

General History Resources

Library of Congress

This is an outstanding and invaluable site for American history and general studies. It contains primary and secondary documents, exhibits, map collections, prints and photographs, sound recordings and motion pictures.

The online version of The History Channel, features extensive resources on U.S. and world history, including speeches, discussions, newsletters and interactive features.

Best of History Web Sites

Best of History Web Sites is an award-winning portal that contains annotated links to over 1,000 history web sites as well as links to hundreds of lesson plans, teaching guides, activities and more.

Digital History

A collection of hundreds of primary and secondary sources detailing key areas of U.S. history, operated as a collaboration between the University of Houston, the Chicago Historical Society, The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History and other institutions.

Princeton University Library Selected History Resources

An online collection of dozens of history Web sites and online resources worldwide, covering U.S., European and worldwide history.

Postal History Activities

Study a mailpiece. Where was it sent from? Where was it sent to? Is the post office identifiable? What type of markings does it have? What rate is paid fro which service?
Find a verbose listing for a postal history item in an auction catalog. What does it say about the item?
View a state-related postal history exhibit. What does it say about the displyed items?