Introduction to Postal History
Postal history is one of the most fascinating aspects of philately.  Postal history involves investigation of all of the material relating to postal services.  It is so broad that most collections focus on a limited field such as one country, one group of postal markings, one route or conveyance,  or one set of rates.  This article will provide only a few highlights concerning postal history collecting in hopes of sparking the reader's interest in further pursuits.

Covers are the foremost representations of the history of mail handling.  A cover is any postally used item whether stampless or from the era of stamps.  It includes envelopes, folded letters, wrappers, and cards.  It includes paid as well as free mail.  It includes stamps as well as printed indicia.  Covers of interest may be mounted on pages with clear plastic corners made for the purpose or in plastic protective sleeves.  Each cover should have some annotation to explain its contribution to the collection.  Covers are used to show a variety of aspects of postal history.

One of the broadest areas of interest to postal historians is the postal markings that are present on covers.  Town marks are collected to show examples of the postmarks from an area such as a state.  The different hand and machine postmarks which were used in a town may be the objective.  One may also be interested in the postmarks of dead post offices (discontinued post offices) of DPOs.  Postmarks that included county designations are an interesting possibility here.

The Railway Mail Service officially added mail sorting cars on trains carrying mail on August  28, 1864.  Mail from Railway Post Offices (RPOs) generally has identifiable cancellations that create an interesting study.  Similar services have been provided by streetcars and highway post offices both of which are eminently collectible.

Other postal markings are associated with means of transporting the mail. Ship cancels for mail posted aboard ships and catapult mail cancels for mail delivered by airplanes catapulted from ships at sea can also be found.  Naval markings on mail from military vessels are another example of postal history.  The Rural Free Delivery service, started experimentally on October 1, 1896, quickly expanded to most of the United States.  Many postal markings signify use on RFDs.

During the 19th century before the creation of the Universal Postal Union, international mail was handled in accordance with a series of treaties between countries.  The postal fees were split between the country originating the mail,  the ship which carried it, and the country which delivered it.  The rates were very complicated and considerable bookkeeping was required.  The markings are equally complex with postal markings often applied by several organizations.

A continuing postal history interest that is easy to work with is the collection of slogan cancellations.  Hundreds are used each year and can be collected from your mail.  You can also obtain special slogan cancellations for which usage is limited to one town or post office.  Notice of such special items is provided by the philatelic press.  All you need to do is send off a self-addressed-stamped envelope or a small fee to obtain the cancellation service.  First day and last days of use are often collecting objectives.

Mails of the stampless era provide wonderful opportunities to study the mail system.  Of particular interest is the study of the rate markings.  Rates were based on distance and the number of pieces of paper that made up the mail.  At the time, envelopes were not in use and the letter was written on an oversized piece of paper that was then folded, turned in on itself, and sealed with a wax seal.  Since prepayment was not required and rates varied with the time period, delivery annotations on the outside can tell us much about how the mail was carried.

Mail which was sent from a territory often has unusual markings.  Because the territories were sparsely populated, such mail was often quite scarce and the covers left today are uncommon.

Air mail was started at a time when stamp collecting was very active.  As a result there are many covers that reflect the growth of the use of airplanes to carry the mails.  The first U.S. airmail flights were made in 1918.  There are earlier flights both here and abroad which are called pioneer flights.  Such flights were made prior to the establishment of regular service.  As transport of mail by airplanes grew in the U.S., the government made contracts with airlines and commercial carriers to fly the mail.  The routes were designated by number and the term Contract Air Mail (C.A.M.).  First flights over the routes were occasions to prepare covers for special cachets and cancellations.  Other forms of air mail have been balloon flights, rocket flights, missile flights, space flights, kite flights, and pigeon posts.   The relative scarcity of such items makes the search a challenge.

Wars and insurrections provide interesting opportunities for postal history studies.  During these times, mail is often disrupted and unusual methods are used to deliver it.  Often, stamps are in short supply or new political bodies want to issue stamps so provisional stamps are prepared.  The Confederate States of America quickly forbid the use of United States stamps at the start of the Civil War.  However, replacements could not be supplied.  As a result many postmasters made local handstamps and even printed postage stamps or preprinted envelopes for mail.  These are among the most interesting postal history studies.

Recent examples of postal history as a result of war include the V-Mail of World War II and the marks of Army Post Offices (APOs).  V-Mail was created to provide timely mail service but to minimize the load on strained air transport.  Letters were prepared on a form that was microfilmed at the source and then printed at the destination.  APOs used code numbers for destinations to prevent giving away troop locations.  The address was to the individual's unit c/o APO XXX, New York City, New York or San Francisco, California.  Censored mail is another example of the an area of postal history interest.

To see some examples of postal history, try this eBay search:  postal history.  Read the descriptions and look carefully at the postal markings on the item.

© 1999, Jim Watson