It seems people have been devising ways to communicate without words for centuries. A lot of us have heard of the language of flowers where the types and colors have different meanings. Or the language of fans where people could communicate across a room with the position of a fan.
Postage stamps are no different. When they came on the scene in the 1840s, people around the world developed codes to send additional meanings beyond their written words.
Prior to 1840, mail service was confusing, expensive, and less than reliable, which mostly served royalty and government. Postage was calculated by the mile, making the recipient pay the cost. However, the lack of a stamp didn’t stop secret messages. Small, well-placed marks on the address side of the letter could be all the recipient needed to know what the message within held.
As mail service became more accessible with up to three or more deliveries a day in some metropolitan areas, mail arrival was the event/s of the day. Everyone got excited, so it was impossible for a couple to covertly communicate without the whole household knowing—and the parents reading them.
How could a person solve this quandary? Include a secret message, of course. And how would they do that? With the introduction of the pre-paid postage stamp, one could be positioned to convey additional information. These could be as simple as “yes” or “no”, or more complex like “Be careful. We are being watched.”, “I need to see you”, “May I have your portrait?”, or “I’ve learned of your deceit.” One “how-to” booklet claimed 270,000 different missives could be encoded.
This means of postage communication became greatly popular in the 1890s and into the early twentieth century. Millions of booklets and postcards with these codes were printed and distributed. What business-minded person wouldn’t want to get a slice of that lucrative pie?
A problem arose that no standard code existed from region to region. Therefore, in one area, the position could mean “I can’t wait to see you.” while in another it meant “I just want to be friends.” Talk about mixed messages. The wrong tilt could mean “He has discovered everything!” or “Tomorrow at the same place.” Some even used two stamps; the various positions and angles of the pair in relationship to each other said a lot.
If you would like to see a vast array of these post cards from around the world deciphering these codes, go here: https://riowang.blogspot.com/2011/12/language-of-stamps.html
Apparently, codes became so complicated that stamps were put anywhere and everywhere on a piece of mail: front, back, top, bottom, center, and all places in between. It may have looked haphazard and careless, but these placements were deliberate. This seemingly randomness didn’t bode well for the post office when individuals would have to search an envelope or postcard to find the stamp. In light of this chaos, the top right corner was eventually designated for postage. However, that didn’t stop people from continuing to send additional messages via stamps. What they could say was merely more limited.
There’s no definitive way to know how much these coded-stamp communications were used in actual correspondence, but they were hinted at being used into the 1960s.
Another tidbit I found in my research had nothing to do with the secret codes but rather with an alternate use for postage stamps. During the Civil War, people hoarded coins, causing a shortage. This prompted the use of postage as currency. Due to their fragile nature, they didn’t fare well in hand-to-hand transactions. In 1862, John Gault solved this problem by creating a brass encasement. The stamp was wrapped around a circle of cardboard and put into the protective coin-like jacket. A thin film of mica (a silicate mineral) served as a window, allowing the stamp to be readily seen as well as protect it from damage. Cool!
What secret message might you be sending every time you adhered postage a little askew?
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THE DAUGHTER’S PREDICAMENT (Book2) *2020 Selah Awards Finalist & WRMA Finalist* – As Isabelle’s romance prospects are turning in her favor, a family scandal derails her dreams.
THE DAMSEL’S INTENT (Book3) *2021 Selah Awards Winner& WRMA Finalist*– Nicole heads down the mountain to fetch herself a husband. Can she learn to be enough of a lady to snag the handsome rancher?
THE DÉBUTANTE’S SECRET (Book4) –Complications arise when a fancy French lady, Geneviève, steps off the train and into Deputy Montana’s arms.
THE LADY’S MISSION (Book5) – Will Cordelia abandon her calling for love?