What is postal stationery?

Jan 1, 2000, 8 AM

The term, "postal stationery," refers to all types of forms and stationery issued by governments for either public or official government use. The most common types collected are: stamped envelopes, lettersheets, postal cardsand letter cards.

Most postal stationery pieces are collected as "entires," that is, the whole card, sheet or envelope. As collector Dr. Rodney Mott has pointed out, the French word for postal stationery is entiers, and the German term is ganzsachen each meaning "whole covers." Postal stationery, while not precisely like a stamp, falls under the general stamp definition of "a government adhesive or imprinted stamp placed on a piece of mail as evidence of prepayment of postage."Although a stamp design is usually printed, or printed and embossed on these to show that postage has been prepaid, some postal stationery does not carry such a stamp-like addition. Examples are: formula cards used before imprinted stamps were known, the change-of-address cards still used in the United States, and aerogramme forms from a few countries.

Postal stationery was in use long before the first adhesive postage stamps of 1840. Earlier postal charges often were based on the number of sheets in a letter, and on its total weight including the cover. Since these rates were high, it became customary and cheaper to use one of the message sheets as a self-cover, with postage usually paid by the recipient.

Later, as postal service became more dependable and organized, paying the postage fee at the post office where the letter was mailed became the more common practice, resulting in the first manuscript "paid inscriptions" and eventually in stamped "paid markings."

In 1608 the coat of arms of Venice first appeared on lettersheets. These are thought to be the first postal stationery indeed, the first philatelic item issued by any government. Other early types were the Luxembourg 25-centime sheets of 1790; the highly colorful British newspaper stamps of 1712-1870, which were printed directly on paper supplied the government by newspaper publishers; and Australian postal stationery, which preceded the famous English Mulready envelopes of 1840 by at least two years.

Lettersheets have been used by most countries at one time or another. One side was meant for the message; the other carried the stamped indicium, instructions for use and address. In 1863 the United States issued two lettersheets with the same stamp design, but of different sizes. A large size was intended for use by soldiers of the Civil War, with a smaller sheet for ladies correspondence. Several heavier sheets, bearing the picture of President Ulysses Grant, were in use between 1886 and 1894. The United States discontinued franked lettersheets because sales finally almost ceased. None has been sold in the United States since.

Stamped envelopes have existed since the 17th century, first used primarily by royalty and nobility. But since paper was expensive then, and since an envelope containing a letter was assessed double postage, their use declined. When the Penny Post was introduced in Britain, the British Post Office undaunted by the poor reception accorded the Mulready envelopes continued to sell stamped envelopes.

In the United States, embossed stamped envelopes were first issued in 1853. They offer an interesting challenge to the collector since so many varieties exist. They vary in size, the paper is often watermarked on old varieties and always watermarked on new U.S. envelopes, different colors of paper appear in the same issue, and modern envelopes are found in "window and windowless styles." The manner in which the flap is cut (defined by "knife size") can vary, as well as the gumming of the flap. Several different dies with minor variations have been used for the same envelope issue. This number of varieties runs into the thousands.

For foreign envelopes, much the same holds true. Great Britain produced a "ladies size" in 1840 that was 2½ by 4 inches. Panama has made envelopes running to 4 1/8 by 9 5/8 inches. Since some foreign governments permit large postal users to bring their own envelopes to an official insignia printer, stamped envelopes can exist in an almost infinite variety of paper colors, textures, weights and sizes.

Prior to 1984, all U.S. stamped envelopes were both printed and embossed. With the 20¢ Small Business stamped envelope of 1984, the U.S. Postal Service issued one that was gravure printed only, but with the indicium and cachet designs wrapped around the edges to prevent feasible counterfeiting. That was the first non-embossed U.S. envelope in 131 years.

Postal cards along with stamped envelopes, are the most popular types of postal stationery collected. They came along some 30 years after the first envelopes were issued, although many private and unofficial postal cards were in use as early as 1777 in France. When postal cards were first suggested, their use was frowned upon by many governments since such cards would expose the writers thoughts to the gaze of anyone who might handle it. Others, like Dr. Emmanuel Hermann of Austria, viewed them as "the poor man's telegram."

Austria issued the first official postal card on Oct. 1, 1869. Hungary soon followed, and sales rose incredibly to more than 50 million a year between the two countries. By the end of 1870, Great Britain, Finland, Switzerland and Wurttemberg joined in to be followed by the United States in 1873. Today, some countries, such as a few African states, still do not use them. In Australia, they have been abandoned in favor of lettersheets.

Since 1873, the United States has issued more than 245 major varieties of postal cards, including commemoratives, definitives, airmail, message and reply, and official cards. With variations in printings, indicia, colors, textures and thicknesses of card stock, U.S. and foreign postal cards can be found in endless amounts. Many countries, notably Japan, issue many more cards than the United States. For the 245-plus U.S. postal cards, the United Postal Stationery Society (see Stamp Organizations) estimates that upwards of 500 types are known.

Postal cards with a paid reply card attached began in 1872 in Wurttemberg. These double cards may have different wording on each, although the United States recently has taken to issuing identical pairs. The two cards may be hinged at the fold by perforations, roulette cuttings or merely a straight printed line. They may be attached at top, bottom or either end.

Letter cards were introduced in Belgium in 1882, and since then, many countries have used them. These are lightweight cards of double normal postal-card size, which may be folded and sealed around three sides to keep the message private. One gummed edge is perforated to allow the recipient to open the card easily. Letter cards are strictly foreign in nature; the United States has never issued them, although private stationers have made them available for use with stamps. These private issues, of course, are not postal stationery.

Aerogrammes, sometimes called air lettersheets, are issued flat, with side and top flaps gummed, and must be folded after the message has been written. The aerogramme is made of lightweight paper, frequently covered with an overlay of printing to make it opaque. It bears its own printed stamp.

Some are very highly decorated; many foreign nations even issue Christmas aerogrammes. Here in the United States, however, they are far less popular than overseas. Much of all foreign airmail goes on aerogrammes. U.S. aerogrammes were printed by the Government Printing Office until 1968. Since then, they have been printed exclusively by the Bureau of Engraving and Printing in Washington, D.C.

Wrappers are among the more exotic types of postal stationery. The United States provided these for many years after 1860. They were already stamped so that publishers could mail their newspapers easily and conveniently. The United States and most other countries have discontinued them, making collecting them difficult. In good used condition, most varieties are almost unobtainable.

Package tags are perhaps the most unique postal stationery issued by Japan since the World War II. Similar to a lettersheet, they are about the size of a baggage tag when folded. After the message is placed inside, the tag is folded and a flexible wire inserted through a reinforced hole in one end. This can be attached to a parcel, allowing both parcel and message to arrive together.

Collecting postal stationery offers several advantages over stamp collecting. It is less easily damaged than stamps, poses no gum or perf problems, is generally cheaper to acquire, and offers the collector an opportunity to collect something different and less frequently seen.

But in another way postal stationery and stamps are much alike. Each offers an almost endless variety for the beginning collector, meaning that, here again, the beginner should limit his interest and acquisitions. For more information on collecting and exhibiting, visit the United Postal Stationery Society online at