Tuesday, May 9, 2017

The Secret Language of Postage Stamps

I collect stamps, but not in a philatelic way.
— Katie Bolinger
Recently one of my favorite card artist (she goes beyond a maker), Sandy Allnock, posted a photo on Instagram of a piece of mail she received with the postage stamp upside down. She was unaware that that meant "I love you" so I clued her in. I remember learning this years ago when I accidentally put stamps on upside down on a stack of bills and a friend had a mini freak out saying I was telling those companies I loved them. 

I wondered if there were more hidden meanings in the way stamps are placed on mail and did some research. Boy did I learn a lot. So I thought I would share this wealth of knowledge with you. 

Cheapskates and Lovers

Before postage stamps were used it was the recipient who paid for the delivery of a letter. If the outside of the envelope could convey the message without being opened the letter would often be refused and the postage never paid. If you are old enough to remember pay phones this is the equivalent of placing a collect call and talking really loud and fast on the other line so no one had to pay for the call.
With the introduction of cheaper postage and the pre-paid postage stamp in 1840 in England, this practice generally died out. In the late 1800's, the introduction of the postcard with a message that could be read by anyone, the idea of the special marks was given a new lease of life in the form of secret messages in the way that the stamp was placed on the card. Who wants their parents knowing what their beau is saying?
The interest and use of this new language spread rapidly, and after the turn of the century, the rules of the language of stamps received their particular chapter in the etiquette books along with the languages of flowers, handkerchiefs, and fans. In many countries, the acquisition of this language was assisted by special manuals, such as Cupid's code by George Bury for the transmission of secret messages by means of the language of postage stamps (Ashford, Middlesex, circa 1899). (1) 

Stamp Positions and Meaning

Here are some of the interpretations of the stamp language as reported by the Philatelic Database. (2)

Upside down, top left corner = I love you
Crosswise on top left corner = My heart is another’s
Centre of envelope, at top = Yes
Center of envelope, at bottom = No
Straight up and down, any position = Goodbye sweetheart
Upside down, top right corner = Write no more
At right angle, top right corner = Do you love me?
At right angle, top left corner = I hate you
Upright top right corner = I desire your friendship
Upright in line with surname = Accept my love
Upside down in line with surname = I am engaged
At right angle in line with the surname = I long to see you
Centered on right edge = Write immediately!

Why are postage stamps always in the upper right corner?

“Placement was less important in the days when all stamps were hand-cancelled individually by postal clerks. With the introduction of high-speed canceling machines starting in about the 1890s, the placement of stamps in the upper-right corner became more important to be as efficient as possible," according to Daniel Piazza, Chief Curator of Philately at the Smithsonian National Postal Museum. It's believed that placement coincided with the dominant hand—the right—of most mail handlers. (3)

Postage stamp design evolution

The early postage stamps in the US generally bore the face or bust of an American president or another historically important statesman. However, once the Post Office realized during the 1890s that it could increase revenues by selling stamps as "collectibles," it began issuing commemorative stamps, first in connection with important national expositions, later for the anniversaries of significant American historical events. (4)

Modern stamps celebrate all kinds of things from holidays to superheroes that you can use to add an extra layer of meaning to your correspondence. When a girlfriend gets a card of encouragement with a wonder woman stamp on it, she knows you think she is a badass. If you're planning a wedding you are going to get the latest "love" stamps to put on those invitations. 

If you are looking to add another level of meaning to your snail mail correspondence try turning the postage on its head.

Happy Crafting,

(1) IPDA "The Language of Stamps" http://www.ipdastamps.org/languageofstamps.html
(2) Cochrane, William (May 1, 2013) "The Language of Stamps" retrieved from The Philatelic Database, http://www.philatelicdatabase.com/nostalgia/the-language-of-stamps/
(3) Rossen, Jake (May 25, 2016) "Why do we put stamps in the upper-right corner?" retrieved from Mental Floss, http://mentalfloss.com/article/80165/why-do-we-put-stamps-upper-right-corner 
(4) "Postage stamps and postal history of the United States" retrieved from Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Postage_stamps_and_postal_history_of_the_United_States 

Other interesting articles not cited:
• Urbina, Ian (August 15, 2005) "From Love to Longing to Protest, It's All in the Tilt of the Postage" retrieved from The New York Times, https://mobile.nytimes.com/2005/08/15/us/from-love-to-longing-to-protest-its-all-in-the-tilt-of-the-postage.html
• Smithsonian National Postal Museum, https://postalmuseum.si.edu/index.html

No comments: