I’m back with a real post this week! Yay!
Last night I finished reading The Brontë Cabinet by Deborah Lutz, which I highly recommend. It’s a joint biography of the Brontës through nine items. One of the items was a letter Charlotte had written which had been torn apart and sewn back together. The chapter about letters discussed them more broadly; the torn one was just a small part of the chapter. In talking about letters, Lutz went briefly into the history of the postal system and different types of items that were used by the Brontës. One of the items mentioned was Mulready stationery.
This is probably going to be a shorter post since Mulreadys didn’t last long, so a bit of background on what was going on with postage at the time. Before 1840 (when postal reforms went into effect), in England, postage was paid by the sheet of paper, with the envelope counting as a piece of paper; was paid by the mileage the item had to travel; and was paid by the recipient of the mail.
In 1840, postal reform took place. Both stamps and letter sheets were introduced. Stamps were what you think they are, a small square you could stick on any item going through the mail, as long as it had enough postage. Letter sheets were preprinted and prepaid sheets of paper that would be folded up to create the letter and the envelope in one. If you’ve ever used or seen air mail sheets, the letter sheets were like that.
William Mulready was the person who came up with the design that was printed on the letter sheets. Mulready was a well-known Irish artist, living in London at this time. He was commissioned to create the illustrations for the letter sheets. His illustrations had Britannia at the top and center; on either side were symbols of Asia and North America, showing the reach of the British Empire. The illustration also showed that the mail was prepaid, with different colors of ink being used for different postage: black for one penny, blue for two penny. Because they were just blue or black inked images, a lot of people hand-colored them in.
Rowland Hill was a postal officer and one of the men who helped with postal reform. He was sure that stamps would be a folly and that Mulready stationery would take over. However, almost immediately it became apparent that people preferred stamps. Mulready’s design was overly complex and was mocked and caricatured almost immediately. Stationery creators and sellers also didn’t like it because then they couldn’t sell their product, whereas stamps could be used on anything. People thought the government was trying to control the supply of envelopes by developing the letter sheets, too.
Mulready stationery went on sale May 1, and was valid in the mail starting on May 6. By May 12, Hill realized it wasn’t going well, and within two months the stationery was being replaced by more and different stamps. The supply of Mulreadys that were in shops were used until they were gone, but distributors weren’t distributing them anymore. What was left of the Mulreadys were destroyed, eventually having the middles punched out so the part without printing could be reused. These middles were sold as waste paper or were recycled.
So that’s it about Mulready stationery. They only lasted from May to November 1840. They’re such an interesting part of postal reform and history; I’m surprised I haven’t come across them before.