Postal deliveries were such a celebration in yonder years by one and all– so it was practically impossible to get mail to someone without the entire household knowing about it. At a time when ‘Victorian morals’ were central and privacy wasn’t, this made personal, private messaging between couples very difficult.
So, how did they speak their feelings without writing it?
They coded it into the positioning of their stamps.
Apparently the ‘secret stamp code’ actually emerged back in the ‘receiver pays’ mail era as a way to dodge exorbitant postal fees. The sender could encode a simple answer into the placement of their stamp on the envelope – perhaps ‘yes’, ‘no’, or ‘come at once’. The receiver could then examine the envelope, extract the message and then refuse to pay the delivery fee for the unopened letter.
Obviously, this became redundant in the ‘penny post’ era but later couples adopted the system for their own needs. Here’s an example.
The postcard above appears perfectly innocent to anyone scanning it. Will is asking Laura if “Bob is having some dainty dishes“. A little oblique – perhaps an ‘in-joke’ – but nothing improper.
In reality, the stamp tells another story. Will was telling Laura: “I’m longing to see you“.
This stamp messaging system was used across the postal systems of the world although there was significant variation between countries. Some system relied on where the stamp was placed on the postcard while others were concerned only its orientation to the page.
The system was remarkably subtle and sophisticated. Messages could be as simple as ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ but also as complex as:
- “May I ask for your portrait?”
- “Take care. We’re being watched.”
- “I think you are very ungrateful.”
- “My heart is another’s”
- “I have discovered your deceipt.”
Of course, postcard companies often saw the code as a great opportunity to sell more postcards. They printed millions of these stamp messaging guides from the 1890s onward, though there was never a centralized body standardizing the code from region to region. Variation and mutation happen naturally.
As a consequence, some guides prescribe that a 90º right-turned stamp means a hopeful “Reply at once!“, while other guides would interpret the same stamp as “I wish for your friendship, but no more“.
I suspect there must have been thousands of star-crossed lovers who’s dreams were dashed by a misread coded message from a potential partner. Who would have thought that the mundane act of attaching a stamp to a letter could be loaded with such social danger?
Yet, the mystery and the wait was worth it in those times. The Instant world of today cannot phantom this evolution!