Postage Stamps: A Brief History

There is a history to everything.

Even the lunch sandwich you had. It was prepared, consumed, and will be remembered warmly. Consider the history of something as simple as a sandwich, or something as complex as communication, which has existed for as long as humans.

Put yourself in the shoes of a cave dweller half a million years ago. Something spectacular has occurred — you’ve just discovered fire — and you’d like to tell a buddy in Australia or Canada about it. You take your phone out to take a selfie, but… oh, no! Selfies aren’t anything that has been invented. Phones, friends from other countries, and even places called “Canada” and “Australia” don’t exist.

It’s difficult to grasp how much the human world has changed since primitive times, when survival depended on finding food, shelter, and warmth. Various inventions and discoveries have dramatically transformed the globe we live on, but some of the most significant include communications: the recording of knowledge in various formats and sharing it with others.

People could now travel around the world in days, hours, or even minutes thanks to advancements in transportation technology such as railroads, cars, and jet engines. Communication technologies such as the telephone, radio, and fiber optics, on the other hand, have shrunk the same world to the point where a beam of light may span in less than a second. More fundamentally, most modes of communication, from the alphabet to the Internet, allow us to share thoughts, ideas, and history in both space and time: with friends who are living today and even those who have never been born yet. What happened when ancient communications technology became the driving force behind modern civilization? Let’s have a look at it more closely!

1. Writing as a Profitable Business

​​At least 9,500 years ago, in Mesopotamia, writing began with the use of clay tokens, which were baked clay lumps with dots or lines etched in them to represent quantities of products. A courier may deliver tokens to a vendor in exchange for a certain number of bushels of grain or jars of olive oil, and the merchant would return the tokens along with the commodities to the buyer. Consider it a bill of lading from the Bronze Age.

The Uruk-period Mesopotamian trade network had grown so large by 3500–3100 BCE that they wrapped their clay tokens in thin sheets of clay and baked them. The purpose of these Mesopotamian envelopes, known as bullae, was to prevent fraud by ensuring that the seller received the exact amount of goods. The tokens were eventually phased out in favor of a tablet with markings, and writing took off.

2. Postal Service

About 2400 BCE, the first documented usage of a postal system — state-sponsored, designated couriers trusted to convey messages — occurred in Egypt, when Pharaohs used couriers to send decrees throughout the state’s realm. The earliest surviving piece of mail was discovered in the Oxyrhynchus papyri collection and dates back to 255 BCE.

Most empires, including the Persian empire in the Fertile Crescent (500–220 BCE), the Han dynasty in China (306 BCE–221 CE), the Islamic Empire (622–1923 CE) in Arabia, the Inca empire in Peru (1250–1550 CE), and the Mughal empire in India (1650–1857 CE), used the same type of courier service to administer taxes and keep up to date on far-flung reaches. Furthermore, since the Silk Road’s inception in the 3rd century BCE, there have likely been state-sponsored messages sent via the Silk Road between traders from various dynasties.

Cloth, animal skins, and vegetable components were used as the earliest envelopes to protect such communications from prying eyes. Paper envelopes were invented in China in the 2nd century BCE, where paper was invented. Chih poh, or paper envelopes, were used to keep money.

3. Rowland Hill is the inventor of self-adhesive stamps.

Sir Rowland Hill, an English schoolmaster, devised the adhesive postage stamp in 1837, for which he was knighted. In 1840, the first stamp in the world was released in England, thanks to his efforts. Roland Hill was also the first to establish consistent postage prices based on weight rather than size. Hill’s stamps made it conceivable and practicable to pay for mail postage in advance.

In February 1837, Hill was summoned to give testimony before the Commission for Post Office Enquiry. He read from the letter he wrote to the Chancellor during his testimony, including a remark that a paid postage notation might be made “…by utilizing a piece of paper just large enough to bear the stamp and covered at the back with a sticky wash…” This is the first time a clear description of a modern adhesive postage stamp has been published.

Hill’s concepts for postal stamps and charging paid-postage based on weight were quickly implemented and adopted in a number of countries around the world.

Rowland Hill and the postal reforms he instituted in the United Kingdom are commemorated on a number of commemorative postage stamps.

Great Britain’s Penny Post was the first to issue a postal stamp. The British Penny Black stamp was first issued on May 6, 1840. The profile of Queen Victoria’s head was engraved on the Penny Black, and it stayed on all British stamps for the next 60 years.

4. First Catalog by Mail

Aaron Montgomery Ward (1843–1913) published the first mail order catalog in 1872, offering items largely to rural farmers who couldn’t get to the big cities for business. Ward began his Chicago-based company with just $2,400. The first catalog was a single 8-by-12-inch sheet of paper with a price list and ordering instructions for the products for sale. After that, the catalogs became graphic books. The first Montgomery Ward store opened in Plymouth, Indiana in 1926. The company was relaunched as an e-commerce company in 2004.

5. The World’s First Postal Sorter

Maurice Levy, a Canadian electronics scientist, developed an automatic postal sorter that could handle 200,000 letters per hour in 1957.

Levy had been hired by the Canadian Post Office Department to design and supervise the construction of a new electronic, computer-controlled, automatic mail sortation system for the country. In 1953, a hand-made model sorter was tested at the Canadian Postal Service’s headquarters in Ottawa. It worked, and in 1956, Canadian manufacturers created a prototype coding and sortation machine capable of processing all of the mail generated by the City of Ottawa at the time. It could handle 30,000 letters per hour of mail with a missort factor of fewer than one letter in 10,000.




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