The issuance in 1869 of a series of innovative, square pictorial postage stamps coincided with a revolution in global transportation and communication, quite literally a sea-change. The pundits of the day were well aware of the significance of this revolution, and I believe this awareness contributed to the selection of iconic images of postal reform for the designs for the 1869 stamps. A primary purpose of this article is to show how some of the 1869 stamp designs picked up specific images that had been associated with the cause of postal reform as far back as 1840, based on philosophical underpinnings established in the previous century.
Figure 1 shows images of the ten different 1869 stamp denominations. I contend that a majority of the designs on the 1869 stamps — six of the ten — spoke directly or indirectly to the cause of postal reform.
Figure 1. The ten different denominations of the U.S. 1869 Pictorial stamps, issued just over 150 years ago. Courtesy Siegel Auction Galleries.
Benjamin Franklin, on the 1¢ stamp, was postmaster general both in colonial days and under the Continental Congress. The horse-mounted mail carrier on the 2¢ stamp evoked recent memories of the pony express.
The 3¢ stamp depicted the locomotive that bridged the continent. The Transcontinental Railroad was completed in May 1869, just weeks after the Pictorial stamps appeared. The decision to depict a locomotive on the basic letter-rate stamp — a radical design departure — obviously anticipated this event. Mainly for this reason, many philatelists regard the 1869 series as the world’s first commemorative stamps.
The 12¢ stamp shows the Collins-line steamer Adriatic. When these stamps were issued, Adriatic was carrying letters from the U.S. to England at the newly reduced rate of 12¢ per half ounce. The 1869 stamps would last less than a year, but the transatlantic rate would be reduced further before they went obsolete.
The relationship of the 10¢ and 30¢ stamps to the cause of postal reform is not immediately evident, but I’ll advance what I think is persuasive evidence momentarily. Both stamps show an eagle and a shield, symbols of the new nation and its union.
To examine the roots of these symbols of postal reform, we must jump backward almost a century.
In the last decades of the 18th century, David Hume and other writers of the Scottish enlightenment began to promote the virtue of commerce as a civilizing agent and as an engine of economic growth. In his 1776 Wealth of Nations, Adam Smith established the principle that commercial freedom was the surest route to material progress. The notion that global harmony would result from free trade supported by cheap communication was put forward by Immanuel Kant, most notably in his essay on Perpetual Peace, published in 1798.
These ideas had to simmer during the Napoleonic Wars, but in the quiet aftermath of the Peace of Paris it was a short step to argue — as Victorian free-traders and reformers did — that global commerce in a vast single market supported by cheap communication would lead inevitably to universal brotherhood and world peace. By the revolutionary 1840s, many propagandists made this case explicitly.
The envelope was just then coming into use as a form of postal packaging, and activists of the day took quick advantage of this novelty. Propaganda envelopes, first developed in Britain, promoted a wide variety of radical causes. These British envelopes were very popular. Many of them were exported to the United States and used here. Those that survive today help us interpret the evolution of the icons that ultimately appeared on the United States stamps of 1869.
When this paper was in draft form a decade ago, a major collection of illustrated propaganda covers assembled by David L. Jarrett was sold by the Robert A. Siegel auction firm. Jarrett is an old friend and now a neighbor in Manhattan. I have borrowed a few images from his collection to support this essay.
Figure 2 shows one of the most remarkable items in the Jarrett collection, an intricately engraved multi-theme propaganda cover. Lot 22 in the sale, this envelope was printed in England but was used in the United States. It bears an imperforate 3¢ 1851 stamp and was posted at Farmington, Ohio, in the early 1850s. A legend on the envelope indicates it was engraved and published by J. Valentine of Dundee, one of the most talented and prolific creators of British propaganda envelopes.
The three tableaux at the top of the envelope from left to right promote “ARBITRATION FOR WAR,” “UNIVERSAL BROTHERHOOD,” and “FREEDOM OF COMMERCE” or free trade. These were all causes espoused by Elihu Burritt (1810–1879), a largely self-educated Connecticut polymath who spent decades in England as an activist and propagandist, promoting world peace, abolition, temperance, universal brotherhood and cheap postage. Dubbed “the learned blacksmith,” Burritt published dozens of books and is said to have been familiar with 50 languages.
The disparate thematic elements on the Figure 2 cover seem odd today, but these conjoined causes are representative of the reformist mood of their era. British free-traders of the 1840s believed that unfettered worldwide commerce would create a global web of mutual dependence that would foster international interdependence that would make war unthinkable.
Figure 3. The top-left element on the Figure 2 cover, inscribed “ARBITRATION FOR WAR,” shows a Parthenon-like “CONGRESS OF NATIONS” for keeping the peace.
Figure 3 enlarges the visual element at upper left on this remarkable cover. Inscribed “ARBITRATION FOR WAR,” it shows a Parthenon-like temple, framed in palm fronds, with “CONGRESS OF NATIONS” inscribed on its pediment. This is a very early reference to the decidedly 20th-century concept of a world governing body. At the steps of the building stand a crowd of figures in costumes of many lands, and in the foreground are objects—including a compass, a carpenter’s square, an artist’s palette and a book—suggesting worthy artisanal pursuits. A dove of peace, with an olive branch, soars overhead.
Figure 4. Inscribed “UNIVERSAL BROTHERHOOD,” the central element of the Figure 2 cover shows an angel of peace, against a background of national flags, holding a broken sword above kneeling helmeted warriors who bow before her, hands clasped in peace.
Figure 4 captures the central visual element at the top of the cover. An angel of peace, against a background of the flags of many nations, is shown breaking a sword above two kneeling helmeted warriors, who clasp hands in peace as they bow before the angel. At their feet are a discarded shield and another broken sword. This scene is inscribed “UNIVERSAL BROTHERHOOD.”
Figure 5. The top-right element on the Figure 2 cover, inscribed “FREEDOM OF COMMERCE,” shows the bounty of agriculture and industry transported by steamship.
Figure 5 presents the visual element at top right on the cover. Inscribed “FREEDOM OF COMMERCE,” it shows artifacts of agriculture and industry: wheat sheaves, a plow, bundles of manufactured goods, with a derrick unloading a smoking steamship in the background. As with the image at left, this scene is framed in palm fronds and includes a soaring dove of peace.
Figure 6. Also on the Figure 2 cover, world trade has as its background factories of the west, pagodas and temples of the east and a flag-bedecked fleet. Busy traders jostle to sell exotic wares to all comers, but the rusty cannon forgotten in the weeds has no takers.
In addition to the three labeled panels, the scene at the bottom left, depicted in Figure 6, illustrates world trade in microcosm. The factories of the west and the pagodas of the east are joined by the ubiquitous smoking steamship, with the Union Jack, Old Glory and various foreign-looking flags in the background. The trade depicted seems to involve barrels of rum (or is it opium?) being exchanged for elephant tusks. At the lower left, a lamb lays down fitfully in front of both a poorly rendered lion and the gaping muzzle of a discarded cannon rusting in the weeds, its purpose forgotten.
Altogether, it is hard to imagine a loftier or more effective and thorough representation of the potential benefits of global commerce.
Figure 7. The benefits of world trade for all are the theme of this propaganda cover on which Peace sits amid a patient trio flying a banner for “OCEAN PENNY POSTAGE.”
In Figure 7, lot 6 in the Jarrett sale, the same basic message is expressed more succinctly in another British propaganda cover supporting “OCEAN PENNY POSTAGE” and universal brotherhood. From our 21st-century perspective it seems odd to link these two causes, but in the revolutionary 1840s the connection was implicit and intuitive.
Per a legend on the back flap, this envelope was printed by the London office of the League of Brotherhood, one of many idealistic reform groups launched by Burritt. The cover was posted at Boston, Massachusetts, in the early 1850s. The imperforate 3¢ 1851 stamp is tied by the distinctive Boston PAID marking. A design on the back flap shows two clasping hands. The propaganda theme on the front, with three foreign men surrounding an allegorical figure of peace holding an olive branch, clearly suggests that inexpensive ocean postage would contribute to the worldwide brotherhood of man. An ocean steamship trails smoke in the background.
Figure 8. Text on this 1850s cover salutes the beneÿ ts of inexpensive international postage: “BRITAIN! BESTOW THIS BOON, AND BE IN BLESSING BLEST. / OCEAN PENNY POSTAGE WILL LINK ALL LANDS WITH THEE IN TRADE & PEACE.” On a sea crowded with commerce, a detail shows parcels from around the globe piling up at nautical flagbearer’s feet.
Shown in Figure 8, lot 8 in the Jarrett sale expands on this theme. This is another creation of Valentine of Dundee, printed in England but mailed in the U.S. in the late 1850s. The perforated 3¢ 1851 stamp is postmarked North Brookfield, Massachusetts, November 5. The printed legend clearly expresses the expected benefits of inexpensive international postage: “BRITAIN! BESTOW THIS BOON, AND BE IN BLESSING BLEST. OCEAN PENNY POSTAGE WILL LINK ALL LANDS WITH THEE IN TRADE & PEACE.”
An enlargement from the foot of the cover in Figure 8 makes the postal connection more explicit still. In it, mailbags from India and China, Australia, Africa and America are spread at the feet of a sailor — Jack Tar personified — who holds aloft the staff of a Union Jack. Again, note the smoking steamship along with several sailing vessels in the background.
In After Tamerlane: The Global History of Empire, a thoughtful and provocative 2007 study of the roots of globalization, British historian John Darwin looked at the Victorian reform movement and summarized it this way:
“The idea of free trade and the open economy was adopted in Britain in the 1840s and 1850s not just as a policy but as a total world-view, an ideology promoted with crusading passion. It imagined a world in which peoples would be freed from their bondage to rulers by the flood tide of commerce. Individual freedom and international trade would move forward together. Free trade was regarded as the key to British economic success, and to the economic progress of the rest of the world.”
In fact — and this is one of the main theses in After Tamerlane — free trade was seen as a moral imperative, so essential to human improvement that it could be imposed by force where necessary, as was done in India and China during this era.
Figure 9. One of the best-known U.S. propaganda covers advocating cheap postage was this 1851 design by Barnabas Bates. Note how the graphic attributes of the cover are echoed in four of the 1869 Pictorial stamps.
By the 1850s, the cheap-postage movement was well established in the United States. Lot 10 in the Jarrett sale, pictured in Figure 9, shows one of the best-known of all U.S. propaganda designs, advocating cheap inland and ocean mail postage. This overall design was copyrighted in 1851 by Barnabas Bates, an American acolyte of Burritt who formed a group called the New York Cheap Postage Association. The envelopes were printed in New York City, and this example is franked with an imperforate 3¢ 1851 stamp postmarked Havana, New York, on March 25, 1854.
The Bates design has distinctively American elements, most notably the eagle and shield, and the petition to Congress: “WE ASK OF CONGRESS CHEAP INLAND AND OCEAN POSTAGE.” The similarities to the British antecedent in Figure 7 are abundant: Both employ a top-banner message with distinctive hand lettering; both state their global missions as an imperative; both use national flag imagery and transport symbolism; and both specifically seek cheap ocean postage.
In the 1850s, the Bates envelope was a powerful and widely distributed advertising tool. The design was extremely popular with the mailing public throughout the United States. Bates envelopes went through multiple printings and many were saved—this in an era before stamp collecting, let alone cover collecting, had become popular pursuits. Bates covers survive today from many different U.S. cities and towns. It’s not too much of a stretch to say that its three major visual elements came to symbolize the cause of postal reform in the United States. The symbolism may have been subliminal, but it was real and important nonetheless.
These symbolic icons of postal reform were subsequently adopted by the U.S. Post Office and incorporated into the 1869 Pictorial stamps—the steam locomotive on the 3¢ stamp, the eagle and shield on the 10¢ and 30¢ stamps, and on the 12¢ stamp the ubiquitous side-wheel ocean steamship. The 1869 stamps were privately printed by the National Bank Note Company, but that doesn’t diminish the validity of this observation. There was a lot of back-and-forth between the printers and the postal establishment, as evidenced by the documentary record and by the proliferation of design essays and trial color proofs that survive for this issue.
I said at the outset that the brief lifetime of the 1869 stamps coincided with a revolution in global transportation and communication. Let me now be more specific in this regard.
Spurred in part by intensified competition along the transatlantic shipping lanes, foreign trade revived at the conclusion of the American Civil War. Advances in maritime engine design, propulsion systems and hull architecture drastically reduced ocean transport costs. Lower sea-post charges, greater efficiencies in land transportation and a growing international acceptance of the liberal principles of postal reform combined to steadily reduce international postal rates.
Nowhere is this more evident than in correspondence between the United States and Great Britain. On January 1, 1868, the cost of sending a letter from the U.S. to England, which had been 24¢ for almost 20 years, was cut in half, to 12¢ per half-ounce. This 12¢ rate was in effect when the 1869 stamps began to appear in the spring of 1869. As noted earlier, the transatlantic steamer Adriatic was placed on the 12¢ 1869 stamp to make this point. On the first day of 1870, when the stamps were at the peak of their use, the rate to England was cut in half again, from 12¢ to 6¢. This amounts to a fourfold price reduction in just two years.
Similar rate cuts rolled through U.S. postal treaties with other European nations during this era. In addition to fostering trade and stimulating correspondence, rapid rate reductions produced a number of short-lived postal rates from the U.S. to various foreign destinations. They are the main reason why the 1869 stamps, despite their very brief on-sale period, can reflect such a wide panorama of postal history.
Accompanying these improvements in the cost and manner in which mail was transported; similarly dramatic changes occurred in the routes over which mail could be carried.
Commencing in the late 1860s, steam service across the Pacific linked the American and British overseas mail services in the Orient. This established a worldwide transportation network that changed the ow of international correspondence, hastened the arrival of Universal Postal Union and positioned the United States as a Pacific power. The last links in the chain came together very quickly. In August 1868, regular transpacific steam service began. The U.S. transcontinental railroad was completed in May 1869, and the Suez Canal opened in November.
The U.S. transcontinental railroad meant the two American coasts were now just six days apart. Correspondence between the Orient and Western Europe, which had earlier traveled westbound through the Mediterranean, could now be sent eastbound, sometimes quicker and always cheaper, across the United States.
Figure 10. What a difference two months made. Franked with 34¢ in Pictorials, the left cover went from New York to Shanghai in April 1869, before the transcontinental railroad was complete, taking the traditional route via London to the Orient. The right cover, franked with a 10¢ stamp, went from New York to Hong Kong June 8 after the railroad opened, traveling “By overland mail / & P[acific] M[ail] S[team] S[hip] Co[mpany].”
Figure 10 shows two covers that illustrate these savings quite vividly. The left cover, franked with 34¢ in postage, was sent from New York to Shanghai in April of 1869, a few weeks before the railroad was completed. This took the traditional route from the U.S. to the Orient, via London and Suez. The right cover, franked with just 10¢ in postage, was sent from New York to Hong Kong two months later in June, just after the railroad was completed. Note the routing: “By overland mail / & P[aci c] M[ail] S[team] S[hip] Co[mpany].”
The opening of the Suez Canal on November 17, 1869, cut weeks off the sea route to India, speeding the eastbound transit of passengers and mail, and breaking down the barrier (as much psychological as physical) that once seemed to separate Europe from what was known then as “the Far East.” Looking backward at the end of the century, Joseph Conrad observed “The piercing of the Isthmus of Suez, like the breaking of a dam, let in upon the east a flood of new ships, new men, and new methods of trade.”
Like the moon landing in 1969, the transportation revolution of 1869 was recognized worldwide as a transformative event in the epic of humankind. Putting it on a set of stamps was only part of the recognition. Walt Whitman celebrated it in a long poem, "Passage to India," written in 1871 and subsequently included as "Poem 183" in Leaves of Grass. Jules Verne, one of the fathers of modern science fiction, etched the transportation revolution into popular culture with the publication in 1873 of Around the World in Eighty Days. This French novel was a huge bestseller, translated into English and many other languages.
Let me conclude with two verses from Whitman’s "Passage to India." First, his breathless and inimitable paean to the transportation accomplishments of the year 1869:
Year at whose wide-flung door I sing!
Year of the purpose accomplish’d!
Year of the marriage of continents, climates and oceans!...
I see O year in you the vast terraqueous globe given and giving all,
Europe to Asia, Africa joined, and they to the New World,
The lands, geographies, dancing before you, holding a festival garland,
As brides and bridegrooms hand in hand.
Whitman saw in the transportation and communication advances of 1869 a promise of global unity—echoing Bates and Burritt—that still eludes us in the age of the Internet:
Lo, soul, seest thou not God’s purpose from the first?
The earth to be spanned, connected by network,
The races, neighbors, to marry and be given in marriage,
The oceans to be cross’d, the distant brought near,
The lands to be welded together.
The importance of the transportation revolution of 1869—particularized by the Golden Spike but in fact vastly broader than railways alone—was understood and celebrated worldwide. The U.S. 1869 stamps were an important part of that celebration, incorporating images that the public would immediately recognize as symbolizing the success of the postal reform movement.
Editor's Note: The “Icons of Postal Reform: The 1869 Pictorials at 150” article was originally published in the June 2019 issue of The American Philatelist. We are bringing the archives of The American Philatelist to the Newsroom - to read back issues of The American Philatelist, click here and scroll down to the Back Issues section.