What is postal history?


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06 October 2020
Postal history is the study and collecting of letters (known as 'covers'), with particular interest paid to how the mail has travelled through the postal system, and why specific stamps, postmarks and other markings were added to the envelope

Postal history broadly covers the following aspects of the postal system:

  • Postal rates – which therefore usually concerns the stamps used
  • Postal routes – how the cover travelled from sender to recipient
  • Markings – the postmarks and notation added to a cover during its journey

The term 'postal history' is said to have been coined by philatelist, author and dealer Robson Lowe, and the area of study gained recognition much later than stamp collecting which was popular by the end of the 19th century.

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How is postal history different to stamp collecting?

Unlike stamp collecting, postal history is concerned with the real life journey of correspondence, rather than just the design and varieties of the stamp.

Postal history and philately (the study of stamps) are very closely related. Many stamp collectors will start collecting a specific stamp or set of stamps, before moving on to collect examples of those stamps 'on cover', and so they soon add postal history items to their collection, thus showing the stamps in mint and used condition.

Postal history could be argued to be part of social history, however, postal historians are rarely concerned with the letter inside the envelope (and sadly these were often discarded in the early days of postal history collecting), instead paying attention to the front and reverse of the cover which features the markings that allow the exact journey, date, and transport method to be deciphered.

What types of postal history are there?

There are many different subjects within postal history, with collectors focussing on a particular aspect of the postal system, these include:

  • Local postal history – collecting only covers sent to or from a particular location
  • Postal routes – the study of mail sent along a specific railway or canal for example
  • Transport method – covers sent by train (mail rail), plane, zeppelin, rocket
  • Marcophily – the study of postmarks, cancellations and postal markings
  • Military mail – those letters sent during wartime
  • Censored mail – often related to military mail
  • Pre-stamp postal history – the study and collection of covers sent before stamps were invented

Where can I find out more about postal history?

There are many postal history societies, study groups and clubs, offering regular meetings, literature, the sharing of information, and auction or sales, allowing members to build their collections. Find a postal history society in our 'Clubs' directory.
Museums which can provide information on postal history include The Postal Museum in London and Bath Postal Museum.

Don't miss the popular 'Postal History by County' and 'Cover Explained' articles in every issue of Stamp Collector magazine.
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