Mysterious Wee Envelope

July 15, 1847 envelope July 15, 1847 envelope back

Before eBay was born, I occasionally bid by fax for assorted lots in long distance auctions. I don’t remember what I was trying to purchase, but in one grab bag of ephemera, I received this tiny envelope with elegant blue piping and a curved flap. Postmarked on July 15, 1847 in Bristol, it’s a testament to Victorian England’s postmen, who delivered it to Swansea the following day (exactly 167 years ago today).

Sent to Mr. John Morris on Gower Street, the envelope had long since lost whatever letter it contained. The seal on the back was also missing, as was the stamp. Or so I thought at first glance.

Penny BlackOn closer inspection, I saw that someone had penned the word “Paid” in the upper right corner where one usually affixed a stamp. This puzzles me. England introduced the world’s first postage stamp, the famous Penny Black, in 1840. Realizing that black was not the best color for a stamp  — how would you see the cancellation marks?  —  the post office switched to brick red stamps the following year. So the mystery is, if postage stamps had been used for the last seven years, why was the envelope simply inscribed Paid?

Sorry, I’m not going to answer that question because I simply don’t know, but if any reader does, I would appreciate a comment.

tiny envelopeThe other thing that strikes me is the envelope’s size, approximately that of a modern day business card. My wee envelope seems better scaled to an invitation to a doll’s tea party than to a letter mailed to Mr. Morris. Were many envelopes that small in the past? Note the size compared to modern day stamps.

Actually, the envelope is just the right size for my cat. And now that I think about it, Morris was the name of the ginger cat that starred in all those 9 Lives TV commercials…

tiny envelope with cat

British Blue

_MG_7633oAs iconically English as double-decker buses, red pillar boxes have been repositories for British mail since 1852, a mere dozen years after the country introduced the penny post with penny stamps. Usually round, but sometimes octagonal or squared, many original post boxes are still in use across the British Isles. And strangely, some of them are blue.

That’s right: blue!

The advent of air travel in the early 20th century meant not only people could be transported faster, but also the mail (see my review of the film Only Angels Have Wings). But flying the post was more expensive than transporting sacks of mail by train or ship, so customers paid a premium price for the service.

Pillar_Boxes_WindsorTo separate the “high flying” letters from the more grounded masses, the British government began installing a new set of pillar boxes painted Royal Air Force blue in 1930. These collected letters until the outbreak of World War II suspended air mail. After the war, UK citizens could post their air mail letters anywhere, with the postage amount and blue stickers distinguishing air from surface mail.

A few blue pillar boxes still survive as remnants from an age when air travel seemed more special even for letters.