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Postage Stamps: The Marginal Notes of History

Since Sir Rowland Hill evolved the Penny Post in 1839, C.W. Hill describes how postage stamps all over the world have come to play a part in recording their countries’ history.

The adhesive postage stamp, which has been Rowland Hill’s most enduring monument since the penny letter-rate became a war casualty in 1918, was little more than an afterthought in his original scheme of uniform penny postage. In his pamphlet, Post Office Reform; Its Importance and Practicability, published in January 1837, Hill suggested that postage should be prepaid in cash at the receiving offices.

Recognizing the obvious drawbacks of this, he later amplified his suggestion by proposing that the Post Office should sell wrappers, envelopes and letter-sheets on which an imprinted stamp would signify that postage had been prepaid.

To overcome another difficulty, that messengers and servants bringing letters to be posted at the receiving offices might be illiterate and unable to address the necessary envelopes, Hill proposed the sale of labels “just large enough to bear the stamp, and covered at the back with a glutinous wash, which the bringer might, by applying a little moisture, attach to the back of the letter.”

In the event, the wrappers and envelopes, with their ludicrous allegorical design by William Mulready, R.A., were laughed out of existence and the adhesive labels came to be universally popular.

When one considers that small rectangular labels, bearing the Royal Cypher, had been used by the Stamp Office since 1701 to collect the revenue on vellum, parchment and paper, and that others were used in the payment of duty on hats, powder, patent medicines and other commodities, it is surprising that the Lords of the Treasury should have felt obliged to appeal to “artists, men of science and the public in general” for suggestions “as to the manner in which the stamp may be best brought into use.”

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