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Imprints among men Envelopes, lettersheets and cards with their postage pre-paid have a longer history than the adhesive stamp. Here are the 10 key landmarks in postal stationery


he phrase ‘postal stationery’ embraces a wide range of differing types of philatelic material, but with one key feature in common: a stamp-like imprint indicating that postage has been pre-paid. Many collectors pay little attention to it, concentrating instead on the development of the gummed postage stamp. In many cases, they fail to appreciate that postal stationery actually predates the adhesive stamp by several years! The first of its kind was an imprinted envelope. Over the next 95 years this was followed, step by step, by seven further variants. In order of appearance, these are lettersheets, wrappers, cards, joined cards for reply, lettercards, registered envelopes and aerogrammes. The first appearances of each of these eight types, plus the debuts of the two most important commemorative types, together can be said to form the 10 major landmarks in the history of postal stationery.



First imprinted envelope, 1838

THE AUTHOR Peter van Gelder is a British Commonwealth collector with a special interest in historical exhibitions, jubilees and events. Some of the illustrations supporting this feature were provided by G Barker, H-G Meissner and W Menuz

If you thought the world’s first postage stamp was Britain’s Penny Black in May 1840, think again. In truth, it was an embossed impression on the first postal stationery, issued in New South Wales 18 months earlier, in November 1838! The man behind this was James Raymond, the colony’s Postmaster General. And it was valid for use in and around Sydney, in the area covered by the Sydney Penny Post. It comprised a wrapper-like envelope – a sheet of paper for folding around and thus enclosing a letter – with a colourless embossed stamp based on the arms of King William IV, who had died the previous year. Initially it cost 2d, but there was a discount price of 1s 3d if you bought a dozen. In 1841 these prices were reduced to 1d per envelope, or 8s per 100. In a scheme started in 1841, members of the public could bring their own sheets of paper or envelopes into the post office for impressing with the stamp, the charge for this service being 1s 8d for 25. This was yet another landmark for the colony: the first ever stamped-to-private-order stationery. By 1848, sales of these envelopes had reached about 300 per week, but this rate of use fell away from 1850, when New South Wales issued its first adhesive stamps.

RIGHT: New South Wales’ envelopes carried a colourless embossed stamp, illustrated here in black

First lettersheet, 1840

In May 1840, accompanying the introduction of the Penny Black, imprinted lettersheets went on sale at post offices in Great Britain. Messages could be written directly on to these, which were then folded and sealed, thus obviating the need for an envelope (although envelopes in a similar design were also available). They came to be known as Mulreadys, after the elaborate design on the front by William Mulready, which was much derided and caricatured. Although it was also notable for giving us the first postal stationery to carry advertisements, the Mulready was more or less booed off stage. In January 1841, it was succeeded by the plain and simple Penny Pink envelopes, which would stay in use for the remaining 60 years of Queen Victoria’s reign. RIGHT: Mulready posted to Canterbury, cancelled with a red Maltese cross


First newspaper wrapper, 1860

In 1860, a few months before the outbreak of the American Civil War, the United States issued the world’s first newspaper wrapper with a stamp imprint. Printed by George F Nesbitt & Co, it was an answer to the problem of how to fit a newspaper into an envelope. The 1c blue imprinted stamp was the same as that used for the imprinted envelopes in use at the time, with an oval design featuring a silhouette of the head of Benjamin Franklin and the words ‘One Cent’ and ‘US Postage’. RIGHT: Early US wrapper

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On October 1, 1869, Austria invented a new type of postal stationery, the postal card with an imprinted stamp showing the head of the Emperor Franz Josef I. Here was a simple, convenient and even postally cheaper way to send brief messages, and it proved such an enormous success that it was quickly taken up by country after country. Within a mere 15 months, Württemberg, Great Britain, Switzerland, Belgium and Holland had started issuing postal cards too, and they went on to sell in their millions.


First joined postal cards, 1872

The postal card proved such a success that, little more than two years after its inception, the concept was taken a step further in Germany. February 1872 saw the release by Württemberg of stamped cards joined in pairs, and intended to be posted in that way when a reply was needed. A message and address could be written as usual on the first card. The recipient could then detach the second card and use it to send his answer. For the sender, these had the twin advantages of encouraging a prompt response and being polite enough to pay for it! A 1-kreuzer + 1-kreuzer pair was valid for destinations within Württemberg only, with its octagonal green stamps bearing the numeral ‘1’. A 3kr + 3kr pair with carmine stamps was also available for higher postage rates.

ABOVE: Early Austrian postal card with its 1-kreuzer imprinted stamp


First commemorative envelope, 1876

The notion of giving stamps a commemorative role was established towards the end of the 19th century. But the very first undoubtedly commemorative issue was not of adhesive stamps but of postal stationery envelopes. The USA issued these in 1876 to mark its Centennial, bearing a 3c imprinted stamp available either in red or green. The design, with a distinctive shield-like shape, showed a ridden horse to represent letter carrying in 1776 and a locomotive and trucks to indicate progress made in the mail service in the 100 years since then.

ABOVE: The USA’s pioneering commemorative stamp imprint, made available in both red and green, is illustrated here in black

ABOVE & RIGHT: Outward and return parts of Württemberg’s joined postal cards


First lettercard, 1882 An innovation from Belgium in 1882 was the lettercard, which was designed to overcome the one notable drawback of the postal card: its lack of privacy. It enabled your message to be sealed up, thereby hiding it from the prying eyes of office staff, postal workers, servants and even the recipient’s family! The design of the imprinted stamp, the 10c reddish purple showing King Leopold II, was identical to that of the adhesive stamp of the day.



First postal card, 1869

LEFT: Belgian lettercard of the first issue

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First commemorative card, 1888

New South Wales, the birthplace of postal stationery, made another big impact on its history almost exactly 50 years later by issuing the first commemorative postcard in August 1888. To celebrate the centenary of the colony, it bore an imprinted version of the 1d lilac ‘View of Sydney’ adhesive stamp, with its ‘One Hundred Years’ inscription, which had been issued one month before. Another notable feature was the decorative feature of a waratah plant on the left side.

ABOVE: Commemorative card posted at Bathurst in 1889

9 ABOVE: Registered envelope used by the Public School Savings Bank in 1889


First prepaid registered envelope, 1888

Just two months after the commemorative card, in October, New South Wales issued the firstever registered envelope stamped for prepayment of postage. Some postal authorities had issued envelopes for registered post prior to this, but on those the imprinted stamp paid the insurance fee only. On the NSW covers, no extra adhesive stamp had to be affixed to cover the postage itself. The imprinted 6d violet stamp showed Queen Victoria and included the initials ‘O’ and ‘S’ in the top corners, indicating that the envelopes were for use on official service.

First aerogramme, 1933

The last major member of the postal stationery family, the aerogramme, did not arrive until as late as 1933, in Iraq. Conceived and brought into being by Douglas Gunbley, who was Inspector General of Posts & Telegraphs in Iraq, this was essentially a lightweight version of the lettersheet, specially designed for the airmail use; the use of the word ‘card’ in its heading is thoroughly misleading! The imprinted 15-fils blue stamp showed King Faisal I, who was monarch of Iraq from 1921 to 1933. Chiefly from the 1950s onwards, aerogrammes have since been issued by umpteen countries, becoming the modern workhorses of postal stationery.

RIGHT: Iraq’s pioneering aerogramme

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the 10 key landmarks in postal stationery  

the 10 key landmarks in postal stationery