National Stamp Collecting Month: Writing Letters

Bermuda - Scott #1105 (2015)
Bermuda – Scott #1105 (2015)

October is a more stamp-oriented month than most. Not only is it marked as National Stamp Collecting Month in the United States and the Philippines but October 9 is the anniversary of the Universal Postal Union, established in Bern, Switzerland, in 1874.. That date is celebrated as World Post Day and the week during which it occurs is International Letter Writing Week. A Stamp A Day covered all of these in some detail in a post two years ago so today’s article takes a look at the act of actually writing letters. I, for one, cannot remember the last time I wrote a physical letter and sent it through the post. I’ve been an avid postcard-writer over the past few years, although I haven’t written many this year at all.

A letter defined as “one person’s written message to another pertaining to some matter of common concern” and having several different types, principally formal letters and informal letters (the same with most types of communication). Letters contribute to the protection and conservation of literacy. They have been sent since antiquity and are mentioned in the Iliad. Both Herodotus and Thucydides mention letters in their histories.

Hand-written letter by Cesare Borgia to Isabelle d'Este, signed
Hand-written letter by Cesare Borgia to Isabelle d’Este, signed “Cesar”, the Spanish version of his name, circa 1500 and 1504. Published in The Life of Cesare Borgia by Rafael Sabatini (1912).

Historically, letters have existed from the time of ancient India, ancient Egypt and Sumer, through Rome, Greece and China, up to the present day. During the seventeenth and eighteenth century, letters were used to self-educate. Letters were a way to practice critical reading, self-expressive writing, polemical writing and also exchange ideas with like-minded others. For some people, letters were seen as a written performance. For others, it was not only seen as a performance but also as a way of communication and a method of gaining feedback. Letters make up several of the books of the Bible. Archives of correspondence, whether for personal, diplomatic, or business reasons, serve as primary sources for historians. At certain times, the writing of letters was thought to be an art form and a genre of literature, for instance in Byzantine epistolography.

In the ancient world, letters were written on a various different materials, including metal, lead, wax-coated wooden tablets, pottery fragments, animal skin, and papyrus. From Ovid, we learn that Acontius used an apple for his letter to Cydippe.

Letter from George Clinton, first governor of New York, to his friend Thomas Jefferson, in regard to the transfer of land in Montauk, Long Island, New York to the United States of America. The Second United States Congress under president George Washington subsequently appropriated $20,000 on March 2, 1793 to build a lighthouse in Montauk. Dated February 21, 1793, written from New York, the letter is docketed on verso by Thomas Jefferson, Secretary of State:
Letter from George Clinton, first governor of New York, to his friend Thomas Jefferson, in regard to the transfer of land in Montauk, Long Island, New York to the United States of America. The Second United States Congress under president George Washington subsequently appropriated $20,000 on March 2, 1793 to build a lighthouse in Montauk. Dated February 21, 1793, written from New York, the letter is docketed on verso by Thomas Jefferson, Secretary of State: “Clinton Govr. N. York Feb 21, 93 recd. Feb 25.” From the collection of Stony Brook University Libraries, Stony Brook, New York.

As communication technology has diversified, posted letters have become less important as a routine form of communication. For example, the development of the telegraph drastically shortened the time taken to send a communication, by sending it between distant points as an electrical signal. At the telegraph office closest to the destination, the signal was converted back into writing on paper and delivered to the recipient. The next step was the telex which avoided the need for local delivery. Then followed the fax (facsimile) machine: a letter could be transferred electrically from the sender to the receiver through the telephone network as an image. Today, the internet, by means of email, plays a large part in written communications; however, these email communications are not generally referred to as letters but rather as e-mail (or email) messages, messages or simply emails or e-mails, with only the term “letter” generally being reserved for communications on paper.

Due to the timelessness and universality of letter writing, there is a wealth of letters and instructional materials (for example, manuals, as in the medieval ars dictaminis) on letter writing throughout history. The study of letter writing usually involves both the study of rhetoric and grammar.

The Letter, oil on canvas painting attributed to Augusto Tominz (1818–1883) - date and signature at bottom right: TOMINZ 1873.
The Letter, oil on canvas painting attributed to Augusto Tominz (1818–1883) – date and signature at bottom right: TOMINZ 1873.

In philatelic terminology a letter sheet, often written lettersheet, is an item of postal stationery issued by a postal authority. It is a sheet of paper that can be folded, usually sealed (most often with sealing wax in the 18th and 19th centuries), and mailed without the use of an envelope. Letter sheets derive from the form in which written correspondence was made up before the mid-19th century — letters were written on one or more sheets of paper that were folded and sealed in such a way that the address could be written on the outside.

The term lettersheet has been used to describe the unstamped folded sheet letters used before envelopes became popular. Envelopes were not used much before the second half of the 19th century, because most countries’ postal rates calculated for the extra sheet of paper that made up the envelope, thereby increasing the cost of mailing when an envelope was used.

Pre-paid lettersheets issued by postal operators are postal stationery because they bear imprinted stamps, or indicia that indicate pre-payment, as opposed to adhesive stamps that are only printed by postal authorities. Lettersheets that require stamps to be applied have also been produced by private firms that usually have no authority for a pre-paid indicia, so postage must be paid by normal means at normal postage rates. Most country’s postal authorities have issued true lettersheets at some stage; however, most have discontinued their use, except in the form of an aerogram, due to the popularity of envelopes.

An opened lettersheet sent in 1628 from Generalissimo Wallenstein to his chancellor concerning the continuation of the salary of his deceased builder to his sons. The outside of the lettersheet shows folds, address, and the seal of Wallenstein. The letter was written on the obverse side.
An opened lettersheet sent in 1628 from Generalissimo Wallenstein to his chancellor concerning the continuation of the salary of his deceased builder to his sons. The outside of the lettersheet shows folds, address, and the seal of Wallenstein. The letter was written on the obverse side. Previously owned by the Bibliotheca Gymnasii Altonani, Hamburg, Germany.

The first postal stationery item issued by a government is thought to be the AQ lettersheet issued in 1608 and showing the coat of arms of Venice. In 1790, Luxembourg produced a 25-centime lettersheet. British newspaper publishers printed colorful stamps on paper supplied by the government between 1712–1870 and Australia produced lettersheets two years before the Mulready lettersheets were issued in 1840. During this period envelopes were rarely used. New South Wales issued prepaid lettersheets in 1838 with uninked embossed stamps (making them difficult to see) to prepay postage within the town of Sydney.

Prepaid lettersheets were introduced in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland at the same time as the first postage stamps were available for use on May 6, 1840. Part of Rowland Hill’s postal reforms were the introduction of prepaid lettersheets and envelopes designed by the artist William Mulready, whose name is always associated with these first lettersheets and envelopes. In the same way that the first postage stamps were issued in two values (Penny Black and Two Penny Blue) both the lettersheets and envelopes were issued in one penny and two penny values in the same black and blue colors as the same value postage stamps.

A 1-penny Mulready envelope sent from Hamilton, England on November 2, 1840, with a red Maltese cross cancellation.
A 1-penny Mulready envelope sent from Hamilton, England on November 2, 1840, with a red Maltese cross cancellation.

The design incorporated Britannia at the center top with a shield and a reclining lion surrounded on either side by a representation of the continents of Asia and North America with people reading their mail in the two lower corners. Rowland Hill expected the lettersheets to be more popular than the postage stamps but the postage stamp prevailed. Many caricatures were produced by stationery manufacturers whose livelihood was threatened by the new lettersheet. Only six days after their introduction, on May 12, Hill wrote in his journal:

I fear we shall have to substitute some other stamp for that design by Mulready … the public have shown their disregard and even distaste for beauty.

Within two months a decision had been made to replace the Mulready designed stationery and essentially they were a folly.

During the American Civil War, in August 1861, two different size lettersheets were issued by the United States which both had the same three cents imprinted stamp design. A small pink indicium on a light blue note lettersheet (205 x 296 mm) was for ladies correspondence and a larger size (256 x 405 mm) was designed for soldiers, ostensibly as a convenient writing paper without the added burden of securing stamps. The suggested use, though practical, did not materialize and they were withdrawn from sales in April 1864.

Despite the abortive attempt to popularize lettersheets in 1861, two cent lettersheets with a picture of President Ulysses Grant were issued on August 18, 1886. They were last produced in 1894, but slow sales of lettersheets continued until 1902. The U.S. has not produced any since, other than air letter sheets or aerograms which became available in 1947 and were likewise discontinued in 2006.

The Secret Message, oil on canvas painting by François Boucher (1703–1770) in 1767 (painting is signed and dated). Currently at the Herzog Anton Ulrich-Museum, Braunschweig, Lower Saxony, Germany.
The Secret Message, oil on canvas painting by François Boucher (1703–1770) in 1767 (painting is signed and dated). Currently at the Herzog Anton Ulrich-Museum, Braunschweig, Lower Saxony, Germany.

Traditional envelopes are made from sheets of paper cut to one of three shapes: a rhombus, a short-arm cross or a kite. These shapes allow for the creation of the envelope structure by folding the sheet sides around a central rectangular area. In this manner, a rectangle-faced enclosure is formed with an arrangement of four flaps on the reverse side.

When the folding sequence is such that the last flap to be closed is on a short side it is referred to in commercial envelope manufacture as a pocket — a format frequently employed in the packaging of small quantities of seeds. Although in principle the flaps can be held in place by securing the topmost flap at a single point (for example with a wax seal), generally they are pasted or gummed together at the overlaps. They are most commonly used for enclosing and sending mail (letters) through a prepaid-postage postal system.

During the U.S. Civil War those in the Confederate States Army occasionally used envelopes made from wallpaper, due to financial hardship.

The most famous paper-making machine was the Fourdrinier machine. The process involves taking processed pulp stock and converting it to a continuous web which is gathered as a reel. Subsequently, the reel is guillotined edge to edge to create a large number of properly rectangular sheets because ever since the invention of Gutenberg’s press paper has been closely associated with printing.

News From My Lad, oil on canvas painting by James Campbell (1828 - 1893), painted between 1858 ad 1859. Currently at Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool, England.
News From My Lad, oil on canvas painting by James Campbell (1828 – 1893), painted between 1858 ad 1859. Currently at Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool, England.

Letters are a way to connect with someone not through the internet. Despite email, letters are still popular, particularly in business and for official communications. Letters have the following advantages over email:

  • No special device is needed to receive a letter, just a postal address, and the letter can be read immediately on receipt.
  • An advertising mailing can reach every address in a particular area.
  • A letter provides immediate, and in principle permanent, physical record of communication, without the need for printing. Letters, especially those with a signature and/or on an organization’s own notepaper, are more difficult to falsify than is an email and thus provide much better evidence of the contents of the communication.
  • A letter in the sender’s own handwriting is more personal than an email.
  • If required, small physical objects can be enclosed in the envelope with the letter.
  • Letters are unable to transmit malware or other harmful files that can be transmitted by email.
  • Letter writing leads to the mastery of the technique of good writing.
  • Letter writing can provide an extension of the face-to-face therapeutic encounter.
An accumulation of handwritten letters from Russia.
An accumulation of handwritten letters from the Soviet Union.

At the end of the 20th century, in 1998, the digital printing revolution delivered another benefit for small businesses when the United States Postal Service became the first postal authority to approve the introduction of a system of applying to an envelope in the printer bin of a PC sheet printer a digital frank or stamp delivered via the Internet. With this innovative alternative to an adhesive-backed postage stamp as the basis for an Electronic Stamp Distribution (ESD) service, a business envelope could be produced in-house, addressed and customized with advertising information on the face, and ready to be mailed.

The advent and adoption of information-based indicia (IBI) (commonly referred to as digitally-encoded electronic stamps or digital indicia) by the U.S. Postal Service in 1998 caused widespread consternation in the franking machine industry, as their equipment was effectively rendered obsolescent and resulted in a flurry of lawsuits involving Pitney Bowes among others.

The advent of e-mail in the late 1990s appeared to offer a substantial threat to the postal service. By 2008, letter-post service operators were reporting significantly smaller volumes of letter-post, specifically stamped envelopes, which they attributed mainly to replacement by e-mail. Although a corresponding reduction in the volume of envelopes required would have been expected, no such decrease was reported as widely as the reduction in letter-post volumes.

In the UPU Monument (Weltpostdenkmal) in Bern, Switzerland,, bronze and granite, by René de Saint-Marceaux, the five continents join to transmit messages around the globe.
In the UPU Monument (Weltpostdenkmal) in Bern, Switzerland,, bronze and granite, by René de Saint-Marceaux, the five continents join to transmit messages around the globe.

The Universal Postal Union encourages governments and organizations around the world to promote World Post Day and International Letter Writing Week. In 1971, it launched the annual International Letter-Writing Competition for Young People in order to promote literacy in children and teenagers. Since then, millions of young people all over the world have participated at national and international levels.

Letter writing helps to develop skills in composition and the ability to express thoughts clearly. The UPU’s contest also makes young people aware of the important role postal services play in our world. Each year, the UPU International Bureau announces a theme. Participating countries then organize the competition at the national level with support from its postal service and often with the support of education authorities. All entries must be submitted through the national postal service. Each country chooses a national winner and submits this entry to the international round, held by the UPU. An international jury, chosen by the UPU International Bureau, judges the letters and selects the winners and entries worthy of a special mention.

The theme selected for the 2018 competition is: “Imagine you are a letter travelling through time. What message do you wish to convey to your readers?” The deadline for entries was May 5, 2018.

Bermuda - Scott #1104-1108 (2015) first day cover
Bermuda – Scott #1104-1108 (2015) first day cover

On October 15, 2015, the British Overseas Territory of Bermuda — a group of islands located in the North Atlantic Ocean — released a set of five stamps (Scott #1104-1108) marking the 150th anniversary of Bermudan stamps bearing the portrait of Queen Victoria (earlier stamps had been created in 1848 — the “Perot provisionals” — but did not include an image of any kind). The entire set shows the evolution of letter writing from using a quill on parchment, a nib pen on paper, a typewriter, a personal computer, all the way to the current use of a smartphone to send a text message or email. The first five general issue postage stamps of Bermuda are also portrayed on the stamps: Scott #1, the 1-penny rose red originally issued on September 25, 1865, appears on the 50-cent Bermudan stamp released in 2015 (Scott #1104); Scott #2, 2-penny blue from March 14, 1866, is pictured on Scott #1105, denominated at 1.15 Bermudan dollars; the 3-pence buff Scott #3 as released on March 10, 1873, is on the $1.20 value (Scott #1106); Scott #1107 at $1.35 bears an image of Scott #4, a 6-pence stamp in brown lilac  issued on September 25, 1866; and the 1-shilling green (Scott #6) from September 25, 1866 is portrayed on the $1.65 2015 denomination (Scott #1108).

All five stamps of the 2015 set were printed using offset lithography on unwatermarked paper and perforated 14. The originals from 1865-1873 were printed by Thomas de la Rue & Co. Ltd. using typography on paper watermarked with a crown CC, perforated 14.

Bermuda had been uninhabited when the British established a settlement in 1612. In its isolated location, the colony originally depended on packet ships for mail, connecting via St. Thomas, New York City, or Halifax at different periods. A packet agent managed external mails from 1818, with packet handstamps known from 1820. The Bermuda Gazette operated a domestic mail service from 1784, later taken over by the local government. In 1859, both internal and external mail service became the colony’s responsibility, with the chief postmaster being based at St. George’s.

Bermuda - Scott #150 (1953) depicting a Perot provisional stamp of 1848.
Bermuda – Scott #150 (1953) depicting a Perot provisional stamp of 1848.

Bermuda’s first postage stamps were produced locally in 1848 by Hamilton postmaster William B. Perot, consisting of the words HAMILTON BERMUDA in a circle, with the year and Perot’s signature in the middle. Known as the Perot provisionals, they are among the great rarities of philately. A crown-in-circle design used at St. George’s in 1860, also rare, is attributed to postmaster James H. Thies.

General stamp issues began in 1865, with a set of three (1 penny, 6 pence and 1 shilling), each with a different design based on the profile of Queen Victoria and supplemented with 2-penny and 3-pence values in 1866 and 1873. In 1902, Edward VII was not honored with a depiction on new stamps; instead the issue depicted a Bermudian dry dock, and remained in use throughout his reign. These were the first stamps in the British Empire that did not depict the monarch’s head.

The unusual practice continued, at least in part, with George V of the United Kingdom, with the low values of the issue of 1910 depicting the seal of the colony (a caravel), while the higher values (2 shillings and up) were large-format designs featuring the king’s profile. For more about Bermuda and her stamps, please see the “stamp issuers” article from September 2016.

Flag of Bermuda
Flag of Bermuda
Coat of arms of Bermuda
Coat of arms of Bermuda
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