Arago: Postal Stationery

Postal Stationery

Mulready envelope with pre-first day of issue cancellation date of May 4, 1840


On May 6, 1840, Great Britain issued the Mulready envelopes, the Mulready letter sheets, and the first postage stamps, all as part of its postal reform movement. Prior to that time, the addressee rather than the sender had paid the postage. Over time, though, people had realized that they could avoid paying the postage by refusing to accept their mail. Since the post office had done all the work of getting a letter from point A to point B without getting paid, a significant loss of revenue ensued. Complex postal rates resulted, and rates were set artificially high to compensate for the loss.

In recognition of this problem, the British government, under Queen Victoria, solicited proposals for a solution. Sir Rowland Hill set forth a deceptively simple one. First, he reasoned, to recover the lost revenue, it was essential to require prepayment by the sender. This was upsetting since payment by the sender was considered insulting to addressees, suggesting the addressee couldn't afford to pay. Second, with the revenue recovery, postal rates could be reduced dramatically, which would encourage more people to use the mails, and this would generate more revenues. Seeing the logic of Hill's plan, Britain soon established a universal penny post, wherein a half-ounce letter could be sent anywhere in Britain for a penny.

Hill understood the necessity of providing the sender with a receipt for having paid in advance, and he implemented this in two ways: adhesive stamps to be affixed to the letter and preprinted, postage-paid envelopes and letter sheets. For the latter, a design competition produced a winner, noted artist William Mulready. The design features an allegorical figure of Britannia in the center directing letters right and left to people and creatures of the far-flung empire.

Hill believed that the envelopes and letter sheets would be popular with the public, and he provided the adhesive stamps as something of an afterthought. The public, however, ridiculed the bizarre design. Many satirical caricatures were created and circulated, some by stationers who resented the government's incursion into their trade. The widespread derision led to withdrawal and destruction of the Mulready products after a very short time. Postage stamps, on the other hand, proved convenient and were widely accepted.

The Mulready envelope shown here is postmarked at Leicester on May 4, 1840, two days before the official issue date. This practice of 'jumping the gun' in usage of new issues plagues philatelists to this day.

May 4, 1840
paper; ink
Height x Width: 8.4 x 13cm (3 5/16 x 5 1/8in.)
Museum ID:

  • Mulready envelope with pre-first day of issue
  • Mulready envelope with pre-first day of issue
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