Postal History…Part One. What Is It?

I think I first encountered the term in the 1970s…as a youngish “adult” stamp collector. It seemed then like a distraction from the serious business of collecting stamps. That a letter, an envelope, a postcard, a postmark etc could be more interesting than the stamp itself seemed a silly proposition. Increasingly I find that these are often more interesting.

First a personal definition of History …History is exactly what you believe it to be. And as a History graduate, I have an “academic” interest as well as a quirky “individual” interest.

In traditional or juvenile stamp collecting, a kindly aunt gives an envelope to her nephew, who collects stamps. The nephew duly steams the stamp from its envelope and mounts it in his stamp album. We have all done that. But I think it pays to take a good look at the envelope.

Some Definitions.

 Postcard….is a postcard. No surprise there. But there is a Golden Age in the late 19th century and early 20th century when before the telephone and long before the Internet, it was a very important means of near-instant communication. From the Stamp Collecting perspective, there is the stamp itself and the hand-applied postmark. As the Mail Services became more mechanised, postmarks of small villages disappeared.

On a broader “history” sense, the image on the card is important. As Photography became a hobby and a business, we see early photographs of major cities and small villages as well as groups of workers and family portraits and political propaganda…all destined to end up in car boot sales and market stalls in the 21st century. Basically there was a fascination with photographing everything…they were the “selfies” of the era.

It might appear voyeuristic but the message on the card is a fascinating insight into the attitudes of the time. And of course there are the postcards sent home to parents and sweethearts from military camps.

Cover is merely an envelope. When stamp collectors refer to “cover” they mean “envelope”. Again there is  a stamp. a postmark and maybe a means of delivery such as “airmail markings” or “wartime censorship markings” . A First Day Cover…an envelope showing posting on the first day of a stamp issue…was initially an accidental find by collectors but as the hobby progressed in the mid 20th century, there was an element of pre-planning which possibly distracts from the genuine postal service. The First Day Cover may never have passed thru normal postal channels and produced for the philatelic market. It will show all the stamps in a set, far beyond the normal rate of postage. There is no real purpose to the FDC except “collection”. I much prefer Commercially Used Covers, a philatelic term that refers to a cover sent from sent for a genuine business or social reason.

Entire is an envelope (cover) which still has the contents. Again nothing specifically interesting about the stamp or postmark but the letter may be of interest to the “general” historian. Particuarly if the letter is written by or sent to a historical figure or is military mail or “prisoner of war” mail.

In a series on Postal History, these are the words I will be using.


About John

Dia Duit! Hello. My name is John. I am retired. I live in Ireland. I am on a five year mission to visit every city, town, village and place of historic and scenic interest in Ireland.
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