What is Postal History?

It is time to introduce another one of my collections to you, the one which is more responsible than any other for introducing me to the exciting world of ephemera.  That is probably a sentence that you haven’t seen before.  Here is another one.  Postmarks can open portals into other dimensions and I’m going to prove it to you.

A while ago I posted about why children should collect postage stamps and how little perforated bits of paper can be the genesis for interests in everything from history and geography to science.  Well if history is your thing then there is a way to take stamp collecting to the next level.  The principle is simple – as well as looking at the stamps themselves you can also collect the postmarks on them.

It probably sounds a little silly to non-philatelist sorts (which I’m guessing make up 99% of my readership), so let me try to explain.  Postage stamps are nothing more than evidence of a payment being made for postal delivery.  If it wasn’t for the dishonest nature of humans then such evidence wouldn’t be needed and stamps would have never existed.  I digress.  The first stamp was printed in Great Britain in 1840 and featured the profile of a young Queen Victoria.  Other countries followed and printed their own, with pictures of other important people on them.  Eventually some countries started printing stamps with pictures of other things, such as landscape views, birds, dinosaurs and just about everything one can imagine.

Collectors will often look for stamps that have pictures of a certain topic, this is called thematic collecting.  Other magnifying glass wielding philatelists might be interested in the size of the perforations, or try to identify other tiny differences between seemingly identical stamps.  But most collectors overlook the secret story behind the stamps in their collection.  They can reveal a forgotten world of wild west stagecoaches, tall ships crossing wild oceans, the story of flight, war, disasters and much more.  The key to unlocking this secret past of the postage stamp is to look past the pretty picture and focus on the grimy black ink that covers them.  The secret is the postmark.

Take this envelope for example.

1877 cover from Dunedin, New Zealand
Lemuel Lyes Collection

The stamp on its own is relatively common, it can be bought for the price of a cup of coffee.  Mmmmm coffee.  If I only looked at the stamp itself then all I could tell you is that it is from New Zealand, cost one penny, has a picture of Queen Victoria on it (like every other New Zealand stamp until 1898) and this design was first issued in 1874.  If I got out a ruler and started measuring perforations, or examined the back for watermarks then I might be able to narrow down the date a little more.  Oh yeah, also it is purple.

But if I look at the postal markings then suddenly I can get even more specific.  I now know that the letter was sent from the Dunedin Post Office on April 9th 1877.  If I have not just the stamp but the entire envelope (known as a cover), then I can also tell you where it was sent to.  One simple envelope can tell all sorts of stories.  For example in my collection I have some that have postal markings that show that the stamp or cover had been recovered from a shipwreck, sent from Antarctica, opened by a military censor, sent from a prisoner of war camp and even carried by a pigeon.  The postal markings reveal exact dates and specific locations, both of which makes the item much more interesting to people like me.

The early teenage years are supposed to be a time when you discover new things.  For me it was when I discovered that stamps had more to them than just the pictures on them – and wow that discovery was liberating.  No longer were my collecting habits defined by catalogs and price guides, but I could take my obsession one step further and start to see the human stories behind every bit of paper.  This was the genesis of my love affair with ephemera.

There is a postal history society in New Zealand which you can still join if you are interested.  I was a member of the Nelson chapter in the days of my youth.  I recall one field trip to explore the sites of former post offices of the Murchison region.  In many instances there would only be one house left in the “town”, or sometimes nothing at all.  I thought it remarkable to be able to hold an envelope in one hand and say “on such and such a date this bit of paper was sent from this town”, and then look around at an empty paddock.  That to me is the beauty of postal history.

Of course it branches out from there with some collectors focusing on a particular kind of mark that is specific to a particular period, or mail that has been sent by soldiers, or airmail and so on.  Also one can always look past the postal markings as well and take a look at the name of the address or/and the sender.  Try reading the address on the envelope that I published earlier in this post.

You’ll see that the envelope was address to this guy:

His name was Bendix Hallenstein.  If you read the envelope carefully you can see that it was addressed to the N.Z. Clothing Factory in Dunedin.  Bendix was the owner and for a while the headquarters of the N.Z. Clothing Company was on Dowling Street.  It is a historic building that I know well as I used to work just a couple of doors down from there.

In 1876 he opened a clothing store in the Octagon and by 1900 he had 34 shops throughout New Zealand.  They are still around today and if you are a New Zealander then you have almost certainly visited one – our friend Bendix was of course the founder of Hallensteins.  If you want to learn a little more about him the check out this interesting article on how he built up his clothing empire off the back of the Gold Rush.

So you see that every envelope can tell a story if you look deep enough.  Just don’t let those pretty pictures on the stamps distract you too much.  Happy collecting.

© Lemuel Lyes

9 replies »

  1. There’s a theory about Bendix Hallenstein and some of the other start-up industries of the age – the notion is that they became pivotal on the back of the depression that followed the end of the Vogel boom. Some of them had been bubbling alogn for a while; the new environment then gave a kick-start to small industries and supercharged the medium ones. The theory goes that as a result of people such as Hallenstein, Shacklock and so forth, the ‘depression’ of the 1880s was actually more a kind of re-balancing. I covered it off in my book “Old South” (now, alas, out of print, but we’ll see about that in a while…) They certainly shaped New Zealand’s retailing world of the twentieth century.

    • That is an interesting theory. Their world still exists today here in Dunedin in the many buildings that remain from the 1880’s (many of which are left empty today). I don’t think the city has ever outgrown the commercial success that it had in those decades after the gold rush.

      I enjoyed reading ‘Old South’!

      • I agree. This post has inspired me to begin collecting with my son. He is 8. I will keep you updated as to our progress. And, with your permission, I will add your blog to my blogroll.


        S. Thomas Summers
        Author of Private Hercules McGraw: Poems of the American Civil War

      • I look forward to hearing how your collecting goes! One thing I’m particularly envious of is how it is still fairly easy to collect Civil War postal history and other ephemera. There are some beautiful examples of printed stationary from that era!

        I enjoy reading your blog also and would be honored to be on your blogroll!

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