World Stamps

Spain’s first stamp: A classic that attracts specialists with modest budgets

Dec 28, 2016, 2 PM

By Sergio Sismondo

The early history of the post in Spain is complex. Of course, the first mail carriers in the Iberian Peninsula served their Roman employers, crisscrossing the main routes across Spain, which at that time constituted two of the wealthiest provinces of the Roman Empire: Hispania Citerior and Hispania Ulterior.

Following the weakening of Roman administrative structures and well into the Middle Ages, the movement of mail served primarily the Catholic Church, which had inherited the major semblance of civilization from the imperial authorities. In a later period, universities, being just about the only other enclave of literate people, undertook to create a parallel structure, essentially to serve their own needs.

In Castile, which was one of the important kingdoms of the Spanish area, a royal system of posts arose, independent of church and universities, which served the requirements of the noble classes. In addition, in the later Middle Ages, there were mails operated by the Guilds, again to serve only themselves. 

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Parallel to developments in Castile, beginning in 1152, under the aegis of Count Berenguer IV, an elaborate post system began functioning in Barcelona and Catalonia, and soon thereafter in Aragon, a neighboring kingdom absorbed by Catalonia after the marriage of Berenguer and Petronila, the daughter of Ramiro II, the king of Aragon.

From an economic perspective this was the powerhouse of Spain. A large part of all international business conducted with Spain went through the Barcelona port, banks, and other businesses. Naturally, the postal system progressed there rapidly and robustly.

One Aragonese king proclaimed that special hostelries were to be established, for couriers to stay overnight, “restore men and horses,” and as places to receive mail to be delivered. These establishments were known as “Hostal de Correus” in Catalan, which is most likely the origin of the Spanish word “correos,” meaning “posts.” The word was either derived from “correr” (to run, in Spanish) or from “bolsa de cuero” (leather case), leading to the Catalan “Correus,” and from there to the Spanish “Correos.” 

There were other mail systems in the Iberian peninsula when the land fragmented into various political units, kingdoms and duchies, and including many Muslim states that came and went through the centuries. A complete history of early postal communications in Spain would therefore require a large tome. We can only here hope to shine a glimmer, and give a minute impression of the many happenings. 

Near the city of Bergamo in northern Lombardy, one family of the early 12th century was to change all of that for Spain, as well as for most of Europe. This family, residents of an estate near Monte Tasso (in English, “Mount of the Badger”), was founded by Martin of the Tower. Martin was a creative man in business.

He launched a service to deliver mail to and from Venetian administrators in his area in northern Italy. His service being noted for its efficiency and low cost, his family received in 1305 a charter from the governing council in Venice (the Council of Forty). The charter was essentially a monopoly for the movement of the mail in the Venetian territories of Italy.

But very soon, the papacy in Rome also noted the efficiency of the service and granted the family, by now generally known as Tasso, another monopoly for the movement of letters in the Papal States.

For the next century and a half, the family expanded its business through the German-speaking world, obtaining charter after charter as fast as new routes could be opened and as fast as equipment could be obtained to service them. 

Such was their success that in 1491, Francis of Thurn & Taxis (as the family became known across Europe) appears in court documents as postmaster general of Maximillian’s empire. His coaches, reaching every important crossroads of Central Europe, were as ubiquitous as they were profitable.

Philip I, the Handsome, King of Castile, met Francis of Thurn & Taxis while residing in Belgium. The two men saw eye to eye. Each had something the other needed. The king had land and people who could become a vast number of new clients for Francis’ business. And Francis had the knowledge and experience to mount the logistics of a national-scale post office.

Both men knew that such a post office could be an important institution to promote cohesion and unity in the rapidly growing Spanish realm. Their meetings led to the signing of another concession, probably the largest single incorporation into the Thurn & Taxis postal empire up to that point in time. 

King Philip named Francis of Thurn & Taxis master of posts for Castile and all incorporated areas. The contract was signed at Ghent on March 1, 1500. Francis rapidly dispatched his brother John of Thurn & Taxis to Spain to organize the important new service. John was followed by another member of the family, John-Baptist of Thurn & Taxis.

The Ghent agreement was followed by a postal decree of 1516 confirming the arrangement and expanding the scope and territory served. Among other paragraphs, the following is most revealing: “the King of Spain will nominate dependable persons to the stations where the postal routes change, to deliver the letters and packages to the Postmasters and to receive incoming letters. No one shall be Postmasters, or in charge of the messengers, other than members of the Thurn & Taxis family.”

It was a remarkable edict; not only did it grant a monopoly to Francis of Thurn & Taxis, but essentially granted it in perpetuity to his family. In addition, it rendered extralegal other present mail services, some of which had existed for hundreds of years, such as the mail operated by various monasteries and that operated by various guilds.

It may have been a radical agreement, apparently entered roughshod over concerns of others in the business of delivering the mail. Be that as it may, the involvement of Thurn & Taxis with the modernization of the post offices of Spain, with all the support of the kings, was enormously beneficial to Spain and to the benefit of its inhabitants. 

With obvious self-interest, Thurn & Taxis established a much-expanded set of internal mail routes spreading from Madrid to all parts of the territory. It also increased the number of weekly deliveries to different points and some night deliveries in particularly busy routes. It organized secure connections to its own network covering most of Europe. And in general, Thurn & Taxis greatly enhanced the capacity of Spanish business to conduct activities abroad.

The system continued to grow. It should not surprise anyone that the country with the vastest empire should also have been the country with the broadest system of navigation. An edict of Aug. 8, 1764, established the major agency: “Correo Maritimo de Espana y sus Yndias Occidentales” (Maritime Mail of Spain and Spanish West Indies). This organization had offices in Spain, and in Havana, Buenos Aires, and Montevideo.

Merchant and navy vessels were at first required to deliver mail to and from the Americas. Three major harbors in Spain were dedicated to this traffic: La Coruna, Cadiz, and Bilbao. Major shipyards were dedicated to the construction of special ships for the transportation of mail and merchandise known as “paquebotes.” Postal matters became one of the hubs of Spanish imperial activity.

The First Issue of Postage Stamps

Three years after Great Britain issued the world’s first adhesive postage stamps, a Spanish provisional government decree of Aug. 17, 1843, gave impetus to the study and preparations required for the issuing of streamlined postage stamps and all other details for the creation of a prepaid postage system imitating in many respects that already functioning in the British Isles. However, for some of the same reasons we noted in previous articles regarding first issues of stamps of Belgium and France, the implementation of these ideas was to lag behind considerably.

No doubt, the complexity and extent of the already existing and partly decentralized mail delivery system in Spain contributed much to the delay, involving administrative adjustments and compromises with existing structures. 

In 1847, the Spanish government approached the printers Perkins, Bacon and Petch, the company that produced the first stamps of Great Britain, for a quotation on the preparation of postage stamps for the first issue of Spain. The quotations of the company are known, and were turned down by the Spanish government on the grounds that the offer was too expensive.

Following this lack of success with London printers, the government of Spain appointed responsible officials to carry out all the necessary steps for the production of stamps and their proper distribution through upwards of 450 post offices throughout the realm.

By a royal decree of Oct. 24, 1849, Spain committed itself to the voluntary prepayment of postage to begin on Jan. 1,1850. We can assume that with a public announcement being only two months ahead of the implementation date, most of the work of stamp production and other arrangements were already approaching a state of completion.

The artist hired for the job was Bartolome Tomas Coromina. A national bureau of stamp printing was supplied with all necessary elements for the work. Five postage stamps were prepared. The five stamps bear the image of Queen Isabel II. Queen Victoria was 20 years old when her image appeared on the postage stamps of Great Britain; Queen Isabel II was also coincidentally 20 years old when her image appeared on the postage stamps of Spain. On the lowest denomination, her image faces to the left. On the other four denominations, her image faces to the right.

On Dec. 1, 1849, another royal decree approved a lengthy regulation regarding franking of letters, rules for registration, franking of newspapers and other printed matter, and special rates for commercial samples. 

All the mail internal to Spain was eligible for registration, but for letters destined abroad, in the absence of bilateral agreements with other countries, only those items addressed to Belgium and France were eligible for certification. The service was to be expanded to other countries as the years went by.

Also, following the example of Great Britain, the Spanish stamps do not show the country name. Apparently, it was assumed that placing the image of the monarch on the stamp gave sufficient information for postal employees all over the world to recognize the country of origin unambiguously. This was true of Great Britain and Spain, and it might have been stretched to Portugal and maybe France and Austria. But if it were extended to all monarchs of Europe, the assumption would fail. Few, if any, post office employees of the world would recognize the images of the ruling monarchs of all Italian states, German states, and others. That is why the Universal Postal Union would eventually regulate that all postage stamps must bear the name of the issuing country.

An exception was made for Great Britain, which was “grandfathered in.” Spain began to include “Espana” in their postage stamps with the definitive issue of 1874.

The first stamp issue of Spain includes five denominations: 6 cuartos black (Scott 1), for single-weight internal letters; 12c lilac (Scott 2), for double-weight internal letters; 5 reales red (Scott 3), for single-weight registered letters; 6r blue (Scott 4), for registered mail to France; and 10r green (Scott 5), for registered mail to Spain’s possessions abroad.

The 6c, 5r, and 6r stamps were issued on Jan. 1, as stated in the various decrees. The 12c and 10r stamps were issued in early March 1850.

For specialist collectors, the first stamp of Spain is particularly interesting, partly because it is inexpensive so large numbers may be accumulated with a modest budget. There were two distinct plates made: the first contained 24 subjects, and the second had 40 subjects.

The two plates may be easily distinguished in that all stamps from plate 2 show the letters “T” and “O” of “CUARTOS” joined. None of the stamps from plate 1 show this characteristic. Also, all positions from these two plates may be positively identified by minute flaws. These positional flaws are described in specialized literature.

In addition to this plating exercise, the collection of cancellations on the black stamps presents a very interesting collecting possibility. There are at least 225 different cancellations known on Spain Scott 1, and possibly some room to discover some new ones.

Three of these denominations of the first issue are illustrated here. The first is a magnificent block of six of the 6c stamp, plate 2. The other illustrations show unused examples with rich colors of the two higher denominations. 

I cannot leave the subject of Spain Scott 1 without mentioning a most obscure and interesting fact. On April 2,1850, barely 90 days after the introduction of postage stamps in Spain, envelopes were discovered by a postmaster at Alicante bearing forgeries of Spain’s first stamp. History shows that the faker had printed 500 examples of this fraudulent stamp.

For those collectors ambitious to own all number ones of the world, this forgery, which is the world’s first postal forgery, will be a frustration. I say that because, in spite of all the judicial information of the case available for legal historians to read, only one example of this forgery has survived. In spite of the five-year jail sentence handed down to this, the first known postal forger, the production of postal forgeries in Spain continued unabated for many years. From 1850 to 1880, we know of more than 200 different postal forgeries of Spain.

For this reason, already in 1849 the engraver Bartolome Tomas Coromina, the artist responsible for the magnificent first issue of Spain, had warned that forgeries to defraud the post office were very likely to come about, and for this reason, even before the first stamps were printed, he proposed that each engraver should decide on a secret identification mark of his own, well hidden in the design, which could serve in the future as a marker to separate genuine stamps from postal forgeries. Shown nearby is a reproduction of the world’s first postal forgery.

Illustrations are from the archive of Sergio and Liane Sismondo.