The Post Horn

Norway - Scott #51 (1898)
Norway – Scott #51 (1898)

To most people, the post horn is an antique object rarely encountered. To most stamp collectors, it is a design element most often found gracing older stamps or within the modernized logos of many postal services around the world. If certain specialized philatelists, the post horn represents a lifetime of collecting pleasure. When I was a budding collector in rural Tennessee circa 1974-1975, I was given my mother’s childhood Scott Modern Stamp Album which was so full of Norwegian post horns that I quickly relegated them to my list of “boring stamps”. How wrong I was! For the Kingdom of Norway issued its first stamp portraying this object back on December 25, 1871; with very few minor variations, the design of that stamp is still being used today making it the longest-running stamp issue ever. When you have a perfect design, why change it?

What exactly is a post horn? It is a valveless cylindrical brass instrument with a cupped mouthpiece, similar to a modern day trumpet. Because the horns did not have valves, the sound of the horn could only be varied by changing the formation of the user’s mouth on the mouthpiece. Physically, most post horns were coiled, so that the long tube would be of a manageable size. This permitted a long channel for the sound, but allowed it to be stored in a reasonably small area. A few were straight or had very tight coil.

Post horn (19th century); exhibition in the Spandau citadel, Spandau, Germany. Photo taken on September 14, 2011.
Post horn (19th century); exhibition in the Spandau citadel, Spandau, Germany. Photo taken on September 14, 2011.

The instrument was used to signal the arrival or departure of a post rider or mail coach in a town or village. Over time, the post horn became a symbol of mail service and remains so to this day. Many postal administrations use a post horn or a symbolic representation of one as part of their company logo.

The post horn is sometimes confused with the coach horn, and even though the two types of horn served the same principal purpose, they differ in their physical appearance. The post horn has a cylindrical bore and was generally used on a coach pulled by two horses (technically referred to as “Tonga”); hence, it is sometimes also called the Tonga horn. The coach horn, on the other hand, has a conical bore and was used on a coach pulled by four horses (referred to as a “four-in-hand”). The post horn is no more than 32 inches in length, whereas the coach horn can be up to 36 inches long. The latter has more of a funnel-shaped bell, while the former’s bell is trumpet shaped. Post horns need not be straight but can be coiled — they have a smaller bore — and they are made entirely of brass.

Post horn at Rheinhessisches Postmuseum in Erbes-Büdesheim, Germany. Photo taken on January 13, 2006.
Post horn at Rheinhessisches Postmuseum in Erbes-Büdesheim, Germany. Photo taken on January 13, 2006.

A post horn will have a slide for tuning if intended for orchestral settings. The instrument is an example of a natural horn. The cornet was developed from the post horn through the addition of valves. Some uses of the post horn in modern-day culture can be found in folklore and screen plays. Due to the lack of tone controls, the post horn is not usually used as a musical instrument.

In the late 17th century, Johann Beer composed a Concerto à 4 in B♭, which paired a post horn with a corne de chasse as the two solo instruments, accompanied by violins and basso continuo. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart composed his Serenade No. 9, the “Post horn Serenade”, in 1779. Gustav Mahler and others incorporated the post horn into their orchestras for certain pieces. On such occasions, the orchestra’s horn player usually performs with the instrument. One example of post horn use in modern classical music is the famous off-stage solo in Mahler’s Third Symphony. Due to the scarcity of this instrument, however, music written for it is usually played on a trumpet, cornet or flugelhorn.

In 1844, the German cornet player Hermann Koenig[4] wrote Post Horn Gallop as a solo for post horn with orchestral accompaniment. In the 20th century, it became a popular piece for brass bands.

An imitation of the post horn’s fanfare was a common device in music describing, or referring to, the post coach or travel in general. Notable examples include Bach’s Capriccio on the departure of a beloved brother, which includes an “Aria di postiglione” and a “Fuga all’imitazione della cornetta di postiglione“, both containing the characteristic octave jump typical for the instrument. Handel’s Belshazzar includes, in the second act, a “Sinofonia” that uses a similar motif (subtitled Allegro postilions) depicting Belshazzar’s messengers leaving on a mission. A very similar movement is included in the third “Production” of Telemann’s Tafelmusik. Beethoven’s Les adieux piano sonata is centered on a horn-like motif, again signifying the departure of a loved-one. Schubert’s Winterreise includes the song “Die Post”, of which the piano part prominently features a horn signal motif.

During World War I, wooden post horns were used as a means of collecting war donations via a method called the Nail Men. People would donate and in exchange be allowed to hammer a nail into the horn, until the horn was completely covered. Since 1941 the post horn fanfare has been played, usually on bugle, at the beginning of home matches of Leicester City Football Club of Association Football in Britain.

Post Horns on stamps, a very small sampling

I’m not sure when the first postage stamp picturing a post horn appeared. The earliest that I have in my own collection was released by the Thurn und Taxis princely house in 1859. They have graced the stamps of many countries — familiar on the definitives of places like the German and Russian Empires, Austria-Hungary, and others in Europe and elsewhere. A straight post horn even appears on a United States stamp released in 1973 (Scott #1478).

Posten Norge (Norway Post) was founded on January 17, 1647, as Postvesenet (“the postal system”) by general post master Henrik Morian. It was established as a private company, and the King Christian IV granted Morian the postal concession for Norway; he became the first Norwegian postmaster followed by his wife, Anna, who served from 1648 to 1653. The first route was by sea from Christiania (now Oslo) to Copenhagen. Additional sea routes to Kristiansand, Starvanger, Bergen, Trondheim, and others followed. Originally, all mail was consolidated in Christiania before being sent out.

The sea routes utilized merchant shipping, but land routes were slower to develop, with the post being passed from farmstead to farmstead. Incentives for postal-route farmers included exemptions from county road work and military service, and in some cases reduction in taxes. The postal routes delivered the mail to the government offices, and there was no local mail delivery, so gradually private local posts grew up in the larger cities and towns.

Postvesenet was privately run until 1719, when the private concession was terminated and the Danish-Norwegian state took over the national postal service as a state monopoly. Local city postal services remained private, but in 1888 a new postal law was introduced which expanded the monopoly to the entire country. Although Norway came under rule of the Swedish king in 1815, the postal service remained independent of the Swedish post, and continued to gradually establish routes throughout the country.

Post rider with post horn.
Post rider with post horn.
Norwegian letter box. Photo taken on January 1, 2001.
Norwegian letter box. Photo taken on January 1, 2001.

The first postal marking was a cancellation introduced at Oslo in 1845. The first postage stamp was issued in 1855, and depicted the Coat of Arms of Norway. At the same time, numeral cancellations were used to indicate the post office using them, the numbers eventually reaching 383.

Between 1872 and 1875, Norway issued a set of definitive stamps featuring a post horn design. The stamps were designed by German architect Friedrich Wilhelm von Hanno (1826-82), who had moved to Christiania in 1850. The design was engraved by Philip Batz of Copenhagen. The stamp shows the country as NORGE, the Norwegian name for Norway, the Royal Crown of Norway, and a coiled post horn. The denomination of the stamp is printed inside the coil of the horn. The corners of the stamp are embellished with small wheels with attached wings, symbolizing speedy delivery of the mail. The first stamps in the series were letterpress printed in Oslo (Christiania) by P. Petersen, on paper with a post horn watermark. Initially, there were denominations (Scott #16-21) issued over the course of four years, 1872-1875.

The earliest known use of the first stamp in the series, the 3-skilling rose (Scott #18), was January 7, 1872, according to the Oslo Filatelistklubb’s Norgeskatalogen catalog of the postage stamps of Norway. Ian Angus (reportedly a pseudonym for James A. Mackay), writing in the January 1987 issue of Stamps, places the first day of sale for the 3sk rose even earlier, on December 25, 1871.

Just within the first six stamps, the Scott Classic Specialized Catalogue of Stamps and Covers 1840-1940 makes note of several color, printing and paper varieties, including one variety for the 1875 1-skilling yellow green stamp that includes a period inserted between the first two letters of the word EEN (the denomination “one”), so as to spell it as E.EN (Scott #16b).

Scott catalogue listings for the first 26 years of Norway's Post Horn series, 1872-1908.
Scott catalogue listings for the first 26 years of Norway’s Post Horn series, 1872-1908.

During the late 19th century, the design underwent some minor alterations, beginning after Norway joined the Scandinavian Monetary Union and the country’s stamps were revalued in ore and krone in 1877 (Scott #22-31). The inscription POSTFRIM — a shortened version of postfrimarke (postage stamp) was inserted in the bottom part of the central oval.

Additional engraving on the issue of 1882-1893 (Scott #35-45) resulted in different shading in the ring of the post horn. Later in 1893, yet another revision in the design resulted in the country name NORGE being inscribed in Roman letters with serifs rather than the previous sans-serif lettering (Scott #47-58). The 12-ore brown stamp of the 1882 series (Scott #42) became the first overprinted Post Horn stamp in 1888 when a 2o surcharge was applied (Scott #46). Angus/Mackay reported that the creation of this provisional stamp came about “to prepay the now greatly reduced local letter rate.”

Another small change in 1910, which the Scott catalog describes as a redrawn design, removed a spot of color in the ring of the post horn, directly below the crown (Scott #74-95), and revised the appearance of the numeral 3 on the 3-ore (Scott #76) and 30-ore (Scott #89=90) values. This redrawn version of the original design served as the staple for this series for more than 90 years. During that period, Post Horn stamps were printed by letterpress, photogravure (starting in 1937), intaglio (in 1962) and offset lithography (in 1997).

Following the 1940 invasion of Norway by Germany, the country’s stamps were overprinted with a large letter V (Scott #207-219), intended by the Nazi occupiers to signify their victory. Bruce Peterson, writing for the Smithsonian Institution’s Arago website, stated, “This overprint inspired the Norwegian resistance to use the ‘V’ for the phrase ‘Vi vill vinne’ (We will win), which was spread throughout occupied Norway and also featured on a stamp issued by the Norwegian exile government in 1944.”

Norway began to use phosphorescent paper for its postage stamps in 1968, and the first engraved issues of 1962 on ordinary paper (Scott #416-419) were reissued January 23, 1969, on phosphorescent paper.

In 2001, Norway Post commissioned the country’s “most prominent stamp designers,” Sverre Morken and Enzo Finger, to give the Post Horn design “a veritable facelift…The original motif — ingenious in its simplicity — was combined with a modern design and the resulting stamps were met with acclaim by stamp collectors all over the world,” Norway Post reported (Scott #1282A-1291). The Scott catalogue explains that the differences between the 1910 revision and the 2001 version can be seen in the vertical shading lines, the size and shading of the post horn, and in the corner wings.

Three more stamps were issued in 2010 with new denominations of 4-krone, 8-krone and 30-krone (Scott #1628-1630) The 30-krone stamp was printed with a silver frame, bringing special attention to its high face value. Between 2010 and 2014, one or two Post Horn stamps have been issued each year by Norway Post, all with higher denominations and silver frames: a 50-krone in 2011 (Scott #1661), a 40-krone in 2012 (Scott #1690), a 10-krone and 20-krone in 2013 (Scott #1723-1724).

On September 21, 2014, Posten Norge issued a 70-krone Post Horn self-adhesive definitive stamp. Roughly equivalent to $11.33 in United States dollars at the time of its release, the 70-krone value is the highest face value Post Horn stamp issued by Norway in the entire series, and the first to be initially issued as a self-adhesive.  It was designed and engraved by Enzo Finger and Sverre Morken, and offset printed by Joh. Enschede Security Print.

Despite the many varieties found in the Post Horn series that make it a terrific challenge for the stamp collector, those released in the 21st century still bear a very strong resemblance to the very first 3-skilling rose issue from so many years ago. Now that I have grown up, I find something soothing about such series of similarly designed stamps and no longer consider Norway’s Post Horn stamps even remotely boring.

Flag of Norway, 1844-1899

Postens Norge logo


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