Tea and stamps anyone?

Twinings 1959 series Inverted Swan

In 1959, the famous tea merchant, Twining’s of London, printed a series of 30 small cards measuring 1½ inches by 2¾ inches featuring illustrations of some of the world’s rarest stamps. Cigarette cards, showing actresses, sportsmen and other well-known figures, first appeared here in the late nineteenth century, issued by firms like Wills and John Player & Sons. They were used both as a form of advertising and as a means of strengthening the cigarette packet. The idea proved popular and all kinds of subjects featured on the cards over the following decades.

After the Second World War and the rationing of tea that was continued in its aftermath, the big British tea companies introduced tea cards as a way of marketing and re-introducing tea to the public in the early 1950s. Their market, of course, extended to Ireland where drinking tea was, until very recent years, much more popular than coffee. Considerable care was taken in the design and printing of the cards which were produced to a very high standard. The combination of colour and interesting snippets of information was a winning formula and the public collected cards to such an extent that the tea companies had to take on extra staff to deal with queries from those who wanted to buy missing cards to complete their collections!

Twining’s was set up in the early eighteenth century and its premises on London’s Strand is not far from the headquarters of the famous stamp dealer, Stanley Gibbons, which is also located on the Strand. Perhaps there was some co-operation between the two businesses for these tea cards encouraged stamp collecting. Instructions on the back of the cards read:

“Collect all 30 cards of the set. Cut off the bottom portions and return to above address with stamped addressed envelope for a free packet of selected foreign stamps.”

The series was devised by leading English stamp experts of the time, the Williams brothers, Norman and Maurice, whose knowledge of philately, especially its quirkier aspects, was immense. This particular series highlights some of the bizarre stories behind early stamp issues. Take a look at card No. 7, for instance. It shows Charles Connell, postmaster of New Brunswick in Canada, who decided to put his own portrait instead of Queen Victoria’s, on a 5 cent stamp in 1860. Such was the outrage generated that he had to resign and almost all of the stamps were destroyed.  The “Double Geneva” of 1843 is an interesting stamp because it was printed in two parts, half could be used for local Geneva post at 5 centimes or the whole, at 10 centimes, could be used for letters between Swiss cantons.

Finally, there is card No. 8 which has an Irish connection even though it is an 1854 stamp of Western Australia. The stamp shows a swan within a frame. During printing the frame was inverted and a few stamps were issued before the mistake was discovered. Known as the “inverted swan”, one of the very few known is in the National Museum’s collection in Dublin. It was discovered by a school boy in The High School Dublin and ended up being bought by the Duke of Leinster who left his wonderful stamp collection to the museum.

Curator

 

 

 

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Turkeys, cards and Santa Claus – Visit our Christmas exhibition at the GPO

 

APMA Christmas cards

 

For well over a hundred years, there has been in the public mind a particularly close association between the Post Office and Christmas time. Christmas cards, letters from abroad, turkeys, geese and parcels of every description are happily linked with the image of a heavily-laden but cheerful postman. Despite great changes in technology in recent years, the link between Christmas and the Post Office survives and Santa Claus himself still depends on An Post to bring him the many thousands of letters written by children throughout the country.

How did all this begin though? The connection with the Post Office goes back at least to the invention of Christmas cards and to Henry Cole who is credited with introducing them. Cole had worked with the postal reformer, Rowland Hill, on the introduction of universal penny postage and the famous Penny Black stamp. In 1843 he arranged for the design and printing of one thousand hand –coloured cards which he sold at the high price of 6d – about 3 cents in today’s currency but a lot of money at the time and well beyond the reach of most ordinary people. Slowly, however, the idea of sending a special greeting card at Christmas caught the imagination and by 1881 the Post Office thought it wise to issue its first “Post early for Christmas” message in order to cope with the additional mail volumes. Some more recent examples from An Post’s Museum & Archive collections are on display here.

Early Christmas cards generally show Santa dressed in green in anticipation of the spring-time that would put an end to winter’s grip. His red costume originated later in the United States and spread back to Europe. Scenes of festivity and traditional Biblical motifs formed the most popular themes on cards but, with the increasing importance of the Post Office at Christmas time, card manufacturers would sometimes incorporate a postal image – a snow-covered pillar box for instance or children awaiting the arrival of the postman.

In days when letters were still the main form of communication between people, it was expected that postal staff would provide normal services on Christmas day. Occasionally, there was generosity on the part of the Post Office as an employer: eighty-odd years ago the Postmaster General conceded that an “official Christmas breakfast” might be funded out of official funds for staff engaged on the 4am duties on Christmas day. This concession, however, was experimental and was not repeated the following year! It was normal for local delivery staff to remain on duty until the final incoming mails had been received, even if they were late, and staff might not get home to their families until the evening. Pressure from staff eventually brought change and, for the first time, there was no Christmas day delivery in 1937.

As mail volumes grew, it became necessary to take on extra staff at Christmas and, in difficult economic times, applications for those Post Office jobs far exceeded the number of positions available. An Post still takes on extra staff at Christmas in order to cope with the nearly 100 million additional items that pass through the postal system over the Christmas period.

It is hard to be quite sure which country came up with the idea of issuing a special Christmas stamp: Canada issued a stamp in 1898 bearing the words Xmas 1898 but the wording was incidental to the main theme. British forces in Egypt used a special Christmas label in the mid 1930s and the Austrian Post Office issued a stamp for use on Christmas mail in 1937. Here in Ireland, the Department of Posts and Telegraphs issued our first Christmas stamp in 1971 and the practice has continued ever since. Designs have generally been based on traditional nativity scenes as portrayed in famous paintings, manuscripts and similar works of art but other aspects of Christmas also feature. In selecting designs, the Post Office has cast its net wide with modern artists like Richard King and P. J. Lynch rubbing shoulders with young children and classical masters like Giorgione and Bellini. As a collecting theme, Christmas stamps offer scope for an attractive and interesting display.

Today, Christmas remains the busiest time of the year for An Post. Modern automated equipment now does most of the sorting work and trucks and vans have long replaced the horse and cart but delivery still depends on the commitment and dedication of Post Office staff throughout the land. While e-mail, text and social media are an integral part of contemporary life, for warmth and the cosy glow of an authentic Christmas, there’s nothing quite like the post!

 

 

 

 

 

 

Curator

An Post Museum & Archive

 

Travelling Post Office carriage

37452353660_6eec4331be_oThe Travelling Post Office or TPO, as it was known within the Post Office, was a vital part of postal infrastructure in Ireland from 1855 until the last ones were taken out of service in 1994. Clerks would sort letters en route so that they would be ready, close to delivery order, by the time the train arrived at its destination. Bags of mail, moreover, would be taken on and offloaded by means of a special net and pole apparatus at points on the journey without the train having to stop. The system was remarkably efficient and the men who worked on the TPOs were experts in their knowledge of the postal system and Irish geography.

Having been in storage for many years, the last of our TPO carriages was moved last weekend to Downpatrick’s railway museum where it will be on loan from the Post Office to form, in due course, part of a display in the Downpatrick & County Down Railway’s exhibition. The ties between the Post Office and the railways in Ireland have been very strong over the last 150 years or so and it is nice to find an appreciative and fitting home for the last of these purpose-built Post Office carriages.

 

 

Urban art

The latest stamp issue from the Irish Post Office shows it is doing its best to be edgy and contemporary in its approach. The new booklet and associated stamps are striking and the booklet provides an interesting insight into the development of street art over the last twenty years or so from an expression of political protect to an art form in its own right. Admirers of the genre will be pleased to see this new addition to some of the excellent art stamps issued by the Post Office since its first foray into contemporary art  back in 1969 – remember the large format Evie Hone Eton Chapel window?

Urban street art booklet

Bianconi, Trollope and Clonmel

A great new exhibition, A Message in Time, has just opened in Tipperay County Museum in Clonmel and there’s a chance to see there several items on loan from the An Post Museum & Archive. The exhibition takes as its starting point Tipperary County Museum’s rich post card collection and uses that to draw out local stories through multi-media, textile and traditional displays.

The exhibition opened earlier this week and a special post card, which uses a 1983 Robert Ballagh stamp design, can be posted in an old letter box on display.

A message in time post card

Sunny June – Irish holiday advice

Advertising slogans added by the Post Office to letters as they are postmarked are interesting pieces of ephemera. This envelope, addressed to the Gouldings’s fertiliser company back in 1964, with its advice of “June for  your Irish holiday”, would have had it right for this year certainly!

June holiday slogan

A 1947 old age pension order

In 1947 the Irish old age pension was just ten shillings in old money: that’s about 60 cents in today’s euros although we would have to adjust for inflation and purchasing power of course. It was payable, as it still is, through the Post Office and this order bears the postmark of the Grand Parade post office in Cork city although it is the Irish language version that is used on the date-stamp, Sráid a’ Chapaill Bhuidhe, the Street of the Yellow Horse. There’s a puzzle for denizens of the real capital now – what’s the origin of that?

Old age pension 31st october 1947 Grand Parade Cork

This seventy year old pension order has more of social history lore to offer. It bears an addition little stamp signifying that an extra five shillings should be added to the order. This was thanks to the liberality of the reforming first Inter-Party Government which replaced de Valera in 1948 and in particular to William Norton, Tánaiste and Labour Party leader, who introduced the  measure… and Norton, of course, had started life as a Post Office employee and became secretary of the Post Office Workers’ Union!

So much to be learned from one little item in our Museum & Archive collection.