Mind Candy

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The history of the postage stamp

Posted by mandyf on January 19, 2012

Many people forget or never learned about the history of the mail system. Even more people hold many false assumptions about the way the current system we use today ever began in the first place. For starters the postage stamp was an innovation that came from England, not the U.S. as many people believe, and there was a postal system long before there was a postage stamp. While it’s hard to imagine a mail system without stamps that was the reality for a very long time, and had the postage stamp not been invented the world would have been a much different place.

Back in the mid 1830’s a man named Rowland Hill watched a rather interesting transaction between a woman and her postal carrier. As the story was passed down, Hill watched the woman accept the envelope, examine it intensely for a minute or so perhaps, and then give it back to the carrier. In those days as with these, the letter was then returned to its sender. The difference with the system today however is the postal service delivered the letter in these cases twice in effect without ever getting paid for it. In those days letters were delivered C.O.D. (Cash on delivery) a system in which the recipient was to pay for the delivery of the letter, not the sender. As a result smart people that were often short on money devised codes they could use on the envelope to convey their messages for free.

The losers in this were the postal system and the people that actually paid to accept their mail. As the postal service had to make money somehow they charged rates so inflated that they are considered the highest ever in postal service history, a sum that amounted to about a days pay per letter! As a further result of this very few people used the postal system because it was just too darn expensive. In many more cases people had mail they wanted to accept but couldn’t because they just didn’t have the money.

Hill began working on a way to reform the system and over what is believed to be about two years according to his written notes he came up with a few ideas he put in his study called Post Office Reform: Its Performance and Practicability which was published in 1837. Hill wrote a rather scathing attack in which he not only addressed the supposedly secret world of envelope coding as a widespread corruption of the system, but how pricing was out of whack and plain old wasteful. He cited that a letter which traveled 15 miles cost four cents, on that traveled five hundred miles cost only fifteen cents. Not only was it inequitable, but it was inefficient because they measured distances door to door which meant that people were wasting tons of time taking and compiling measurements, adding them up, and then arriving at the delivery price.

Hill concluded that when all the waste and inefficiency was removed it only cost about 1 1/2 cents to deliver a single piece of mail. His first idea was to have a flat rate for delivery of parcels of various classes based on weight, and the second was to have the post office collect a fee for delivery in advance to stop envelope coding. Not everyone agreed with the idea at first however saying it was too revolutionary and that people would never agree to pay for delivery in advance with no assurance their letter would reach its destination. They also wondered how it could be proved that parcels were in fact paid for as well. Some even interjected their own weird ideas of how this would play out in a little case of putting words in Hills mouth.

The people at the top end of the Post Office listened however as they saw the answers to their prayers in his pamphlet. Rather than play devil’s advocate as so many common folk that perfected abusing the system did, they moved forward immediately with his ideas and first began using a standard rubber stamp to mark parcels paid. Another idea hill had was for the Post Office to sell pre-stamped envelopes that had a gum that would activate when moistened to seal closed. He thought this was going to be more popular than his idea of having pre-stamped bits of paper with a gummy back. To his surprise he was wrong, those “gummy bits of paper” as they were cheaper than the envelopes that were stamped caught on like wildfire. The reason the stamps caught on so quick was that people already had envelopes for the most part and wanted to use them rather than see them go to waste. By the time they used their supply they were hooked on stamps.

The idea worked and in one year the Post Office doubled its volume, and then quadrupled it in only ten years. People could finally afford to exchange information and the Post office was finally starting to make money. Who would have known a simple observation made by a common man would change the world with an idea so simple as a “gummy bit of paper?

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