Many collectors will have encountered an envelope or postcard with the stamp affixed at an angle, (as illustrated above). In a number of cases the angle as well as the possition of the stamp is an additional message from the sender and this is known as the language of stamps. From circa 1890 to circa 1960, the position of the stamp could actually be a coded message.
The practice seems to have its origins in the English pre-stamp period when the recipients of letters paid for their postage. In some cases special marks were placed on the address side of the letter and the recipient on seeing this would then refuse the letter, (and the payment of the postage fee), knowning already what message was sent. With the introduction of cheaper postage and the postage stamp in 1840, this practice generally died out, but in the late 1800's, the introduction of the postcard with a message that could be read by anyone, the idea of the special marks was given a new lease of life in the form of secret messages in the way that the stamp was placed on the card. This is the "Language of Stamps".
As with all things, the marketing and publishing people soon saw the possibilities of this and postcards showing the 'codes' were produced. As the language developed, it involved not only the orintation of the stamp in the top right corner of the postal item, but also in other possitions on the letter as well as additions by the use of combinations of two stamps.
An important point to remember is that the positions have different meanings depending upon what language you speak. Thus ....
a "kiss" in Finnish may mean "write soon" in English.
The oldest reference to the 'Language of Stamps' is in the Hungarian provincial weekly Szarvas es videke, for the 13th July 1890. The extract is shown below along with a translation.
The intrest and use of this new language spread rapidly, and after the turn of the century the rules of the language of stamps received their particular chapter in the etiquette books along with the languages of flowers, handkerchiefs and fans. In many countries the acquisition of this language was assisted by special manuals, such as Cupid's code by George Bury for the transmission of secret messages by means of the language of postage stamps (Ashford, Middlesex, circa 1899). This is a 20 page booklet and a few pages are reproduced below
In reality, examples of mail, (mostly post cards, it would appear), using such codes are scarce. Furthermore, while some of the messages were more likely to be used such as Do you love me?, others were undoubtedly rarely used such as Leave me alone in my grief. One can never really know if the stamp placement on a particular piece of mail represented a code, or just sloppy application of the stamp. Furthermore, many correspondencts undoubtedly had their own codes, (in the same way that lovers have "their own song"). While we may never know what was really meant, we can use our imagination.
In later years the language became more articulated, and expressed the 'shades of emotions' not simply by the possition of one stamp, but through the relations of two stamps.
In addition to all the cards that showed the variations of the 'language', there were also cards produced that showed just a single element of the code. This again was probably a case of the marketing people cashing in on the trend by creating single version greetings type cards and at the same time, tapping into the collector base, where a whole series of cards would need to be aquired for a collection.
As already mentioned the meaning of the codes would not only be dependant on geographic location, but would also change at various times, much of this probably depending on who was publishing the details. This situation of change is seen in its greatest degree when the 'Language of Stamps' was employed during times of war and in these cases the messages change from the romantic to the patriotic.
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