The History of Philately

The Spanish Royal Academy defines philately (which comes from the Greek words Philos, meaning friend, and Ateleia, meaning deliverance) as the "Art dealing with the knowledge of stamps and principally with postage stamps". However, Philately embraces not only stamps, but also the study, love and knowledge of all issues and material related to the postal services from the earliest known times in history.

The Postal Service in Pre-History

The earliest examples of posts consist of messages which date from before the birth of writing. There is a reference to 'post-boats' in the Book of Job that scholars are still arguing about, but there are other, incontrovertible references in the Bible.

In the Book of Nehemiah (II, 7), for example:
"Moreover I said unto the king, if it please the king, let letters be given to the governors beyond the river, that they may convey me over till I come into Judah. And a letter unto Asaph the keeper of the king's forest ... Then I came to the governors beyond the river, and gave them the king's letters".

These references are not the earliest known in history. Proof that letters were sent even earlier appears on the clay tablet's discovered towards the end of the 19th century at Tel el Amarna in Egypt and also in Cappadocia in Asia Minor.

Egyptian tablets have confirmed the existence of regular correspondence between the Pharaohs and the princes of Syria and between the kings of Assyria and Babylon. One example that has been found is from the king of the Mitanni (in upper Syria) to Amenophis IV, King of Egypt and contains his condolences on the death of the latter's father.
The Egyptians had a system of express messengers known as symmaci who operated in relays. These couriers travelled in the intricate network of canals throughout the Valley of the Nile, stretched out on narrow punts which they propelled with their feet!

Post in Historical Times

King Cyrus is regarded as the founder of the postal relay system. In his Histories Herodotus writes:
"Nothing is more expeditious than the method of transmitting messages invented and used by the Persians. Along each route, at regular intervals equal to one day's journey were relays of men and horses, housed in stations specially set up for the purpose. Snow. rain. cold or darkness could not prevent the messengers carrying on their work with the greatest speed".

The longest postal route in antiquity was one running from Sardis to Susa via Ancyra, Melitene, Arteba and Calonne. It crossed the deserts, linking one oasis with another, was 542 kilometres long and was marked by 111 stations. A messenger on horseback took five or six days to make the journey, but a traveller on foot took 90 days! Another route was established for the postal service between Persepolis and Susa and a third ran between Persepolis and Ecbatana.

The Roman Postal Service

Details of the Roman postal system, which developed over a long period, are well known to historians. The Roman road network extended all over the Mediterranean area. It was maintained with great care and constituted a solid basis for postal transport. The National Library of Vienna preserves the only known Roman road map. Although it is often inaccurate, the map is of immense interest for the light it sheds on the Roman postal system.

Copies of the regulations for personnel of the Roman posts have been preserved and these give us an idea of the number of people involved and of their different duties. The Prefect of the Praetorian Guard, who came directly under the Emperor was in charge of the administration of the postal service or cursus publicus. His inspectors, the curiosi, checked on the running of the posts and the strict application of the rules and regulations. In every province or district a prefect of transport (Praefectus vehiculorum) controlled the day-to-day organization of the service.

At the head of each station was a director (stationarius). He managed the slaves who carried out the work of stable boys, postillions, blacksmiths, ostlers and so on. The stationarius controlled the passports of the messengers and kept records of arrivals and departures. The tabellarii carried the despatches along the routes; individuals could vary their actual routes and their working hours were irregular. The postal vehicles were light, two-wheeled coaches drawn by two horses, carrying a load of about 200 kilos.

The cursus publicus continued to function for many centuries, until the fall of the Roman Empire. Features of the Roman Postal service lingered on until the 10th Century.

The Middle Ages

During the Middle Ages. Europe witnessed the development of many different types of postal system.

The Merchant's Posts

In Germany, butchers had to make frequent journeys by carriage to buy supplies of meat from outlying farm. For a long time they used to carry with them letters from one town to another. Eventually, the Guild of Butchers organized an actual postal administration under the name of the Butchers Post (Metzer Post). Organizing the post became an important part of a butcher's job.

In Italy, which occupied a position of paramount importance in commerce, the merchants also organised a postal service. This service operated primarily between Rome, Genoa, Venice, Lucca, Bologna, Pistoia, Asti, Florence, Milan and the key cities in France which held the most important trade fairs. Their was also regular correspondence with London and also with Papal Emissaries, especially in the 13th and 14th centuries.

University Posts

Universities in England, Italy and France established both national and international postal systems as early as the 13th century. These systems were designed to meet the needs of students studying away from their homes for long periods. Several also carried letters for private individuals. The services operated at a profit and continued until the 18th century when state operated postal systems replaced them.

The Monastic Posts

The 12th century saw the development of postal service between various monasteries throughout Europe.

The Posts in Asia in the Middle Ages

During the Middle Ages the Mongol Empire was like a magnet to the merchants of Venice and Genoa whose caravans brought home silks, spices, porcelain and carpets from the Far East.

Marco Polo, a Venetian who spent 17 years at the court of the son of Genghis Khan, wrote an account of how the Chinese postal service functioned. A large number of routes linked all the provinces to Peking. Along these roads 25,000 relay stations, known as yamb, were set up. There the messengers of the emperor were given hospitality and found excellent refreshment and fresh mounts. At each staging-post a room 'with beautiful drapes of silk', was placed at the disposal of the messengers. All together the stables of these relay stations are estimated to have held some 200,000 horses. On the shortest routes the messengers went on foot, wearing belts hung with little bells round their waists, so that people could hear them coming.

The postal service was reserved exclusively for the transmission of official despatches and very serious penalties were meted out to private individuals who flouted this regulation. Until 1879 the Chinese government did not permit a public postal service and even in 1914 a large area was served only by a messenger system.

In Japan a similar system of relays was maintained for the sole use of the emperor. The sale of rice from the fields belonging to the postal service provided the money for the maintenance of the couriers.

The Development of National Postal Services

National postal services were developed throughout Germany, Italy, Portugal. England, Switzerland and Russia from as early as the 15th century. The early European services were operated under the control of their monarchs, with services becoming available to the public gradually.

The Universal Postal Union

Now that the majority of the great countries were developing a national postal system and industrial and commercial growth was taking place, the need for international postal agreements emerged.

Each country began to negotiate for the exchange or the transmission of correspondence with its neighbours. This resulted in a multitude of treaties of the greatest complexity. In the 19th century, weights gradually became standardized, Britain and the United States used the ounce, while Germany and Austria used the zolloth and France and Belgium used grammes. Units of weight were different everywhere.

The Postmaster-General of the United States, backed up by his government, took the initiative in calling for a conference which met in Paris from May 11 to June 8 1863. Fifteen countries sent delegates to discuss the principal needs of international mail-handling. This conference did not manage to reach any practical conclusion but it shed light on the majority of the problems involved. Many of the bilateral agreements made after 1863 were inspired by the deliberations of the Paris Postal Conference.

At the invitation of the Swiss federal council, delegates from 22 countries met on 15 September 1874 at Berne. Among the nations represented were Egypt, Greece, Hungary, Luxembourg, Norway, Rumania, Russia, Serbia, Sweden and Turkey, as well as those which had previously met (but not Costa Rica). An agreement was reached on 9 October and was ratified at Berne on 5 May 1875. It took effect from 1 July 1875, except in France where ratifcation was delayed by parliament for six months.

British India was the first new country to apply for membership of the General Postal Union as it was then known and a limited congress decided on the admission of the French colonies, with effect from 1 July 1876. Brazil, the Spanish colonies and Dutch overseas territories followed soon after. One of the earliest activities of the Union was the publication, in three languages, of L'Union Postale.
The second congress, held at Paris in 1878 was attended by delegates from 38 countries and the name 'Universal Postal Union' dates from this time.

Payment for Postage

With the introduction of various postal services, different methods of payment for postage were established. Most involved a process of collecting payment form the addressee. While some systems did allow prepayment by the sender of an item - these were in the minority. Before stamps were invented, people used to write on large sheets of paper and fold them several times. Then they wrote on the outside of the sheet of paper the name and address of the person the letter was for. The more sheets of paper the letter was written on, the more the letter cost to deliver.

Laurenc Koschier, a Viennese accountant proposed the introduction of prepayment for postage by postage stamp to the Austrian Government in 1836. His idea was not accepted.
An example exists of a letter sent in 1839 from an Austrian village called Spittal by a woman to her daughter at Klagenfurt. The letter has on it the usual postmarks plus an adhesive label with the number '1' printed on it. The father of the letter's addressee (Konstanzia Egarter) was the Postmaster at Spittal. It appears he used postage stamps to show that people had paid him for letters posted at his Post Office.

Sir Rowland Hill

If the writer Coleridge is to be believed, in 1836 Rowland Hill, then aged 40, was walking through a Scottish village when he saw the postman offer a letter to a young countrywoman: she refused it on the grounds that the postage was too much to pay. Rowland Hill offered to pay it for her but the young woman declined with thanks. The postman went away, carrying the letter which, since it had not been delivered, would be returned to the sender.

Rowland Hill had watched what had gone on attentively, suspecting that the girl's refusal concealed a secret. Intrigued, he questioned her and taking him into her confidence she explained that her fiance lived in London and that they had arranged to correspond by means of signs on the back of the folded sheet of paper which took the place of a letter. Through these signs they were able to pass messages to each other without paying the postage, the correspondence being naturally limited to essentials.

A year later Rowland Hill published a pamphlet entitled Post Office Reform: Its Importance and Practicability. As soon as it appeared, this pamphlet became the talk of the town. Hill proposed that inland letters should be subject to a prepaid postage. The results of this reform were that on 6 May 1840 small pieces of paper with gum on one side and an effigy of the Queen Victoria on the other, were sold at post office counters for the very first time. The sale received very favourable public reaction. These were the stamps, penny blacks and two penny blues, for prepayment of postage.

The Growth of Philately

Stamp collecting has had a following ever since 1841, when the first person known to be interested in amassing stamps advertised in the columns of the The Times newspaper: 'a young lady being desirous of covering her dressing-room with cancelled postage stamps invites the assistance of strangers in her project'.

Philately, as we know it today, was born shortly after the creation of the postage stamp by Rowland Hill in 1840. The first known collector was Doctor Gray, an official at the British Museum, who placed an announcement in The Times in 1841, stating that he was looking for stamps. Following this, school children started to collect these stamps as a hobby. As the number of collectors grew, and it became more difficult to obtain certain issues, such as first issues from each country, interest grew in the hobby. By 1860 there were stamp collectors in society's most notable circles.

The ceaseless issue of new stamps led to their classification, and the first catalogue, by Potiquet, was published in France in 1861, soon followed by others. Later there appeared some interesting studies and publications on new issues including commentaries on philatelic events. The first of this type of publication appeared in December 1862, in Liverpool England, under the title of The Stamp Collector's Review and Monthly Advertiser.

Interest in increasing their knowledge and in acquiring stamps encouraged collectors to join together in specialised associations. The oldest known association is the 'Societe Philateliquell', which was founded in Paris in 1865, but which did not last very long. It was, however followed by other such as the 'Philatelic Society' of London (1869), the 'Societe Francaise de Timbrologiell' of Paris (1874) and the 'Internationaler Philatelistenvereinll' of Dresden (1877). These associations were the forerunners of many of today's societies most of which are members of the IPF (International Philatelic Federation) through national federations.

The first international exhibition took place in Vienna in 1890, but already in 1881 the associations then in existence in Germany were holding annual meetings called 'philatelic days' (Deutsche Philatelistentage) which were true postal exhibitions.