04 January 2021
The first stamps of France followed the earlier British example, showing a simple left-facing portrait of Ceres, with subtle decoration. Find out more about these classic French stamps in our expert stamp guide.
Four other countries took up Britain’s adhesive stamp system of postage prepayment before France adopted the innovation in 1849.
The arrival of Ceres stamps in France
However, France followed the British design more closely than those who had gone before. The first France Ceres stamp was black; it carried a central, left-facing female portrait head; the flanking vertical borders displayed simple decoration; the engraved white lettering on the lower border included the postage value; and the stamp was imperforate.
The French chose the Roman deity Ceres, goddess of the harvest, to represent and personify the French Republic; an appropriate choice given France’s vast agricultural estates.
How much should I pay for France’s imperforate Ceres stamps? Find out in our price guide
In 1848 a popular uprising in France swept away the last remnants of the monarchy that had regained power following the total defeat of Napoleon Bonaparte at Waterloo. The revolutionaries created the Second Republic and appointed Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte (nephew of the battle loser at Waterloo) as President.
The Second Republic planned to have Ceres stamps of different values to meet the postal needs of running a service similar to Britain’s that would bring low-cost postage to the whole of France, Corsica and French Algeria.
The first Ceres stamps in 1849
In January 1849, the first denominations were:
- a 20 centimes black stamp
- a 1 franc red
The smooth introductions of other denominations and colours were thrown into confusion when the error of issuing a black 20 centimes had to be corrected by altering the colours, or proposed colours, of other values.
Plans to switch to a blue 20 centimes had progressed by the spring of 1850 to the printing stage when the issue had suddenly to be halted because a new postal rate rendered a 20 centimes value unnecessary. Thus a blue 20 centimes never replaced the earlier black; but other values and colours followed in 1850:
- 40c orange
- 25c blue
- 15c green
- 10c bistre
Withdrawal of Ceres stamps
In 1851 in the wake of a coup led by the President the Second Empire replaced the Second Republic. Louis-Napoleon became Emperor Napoleon III, and stamps displaying Ceres were withdrawn, to be replaced by issues carrying the new Emperor’s portrait.
His first stamps were issued progressively from September 1852.
If we leave the confusions of the 1850s issues for a moment and leap forward to 1870 we discover that stamps depicting Napoleon III had indeed spread across the French Empire; but that reign was about to come to an abrupt end.
The return of Ceres
This was the year in which Paris lay under siege by a Prussian army and eventually Napoleon III fled into exile, eventually making his home in England, where he died in 1873.
Some of the printing plates for Ceres stamps were apparently hidden in Paris during the Franco-Prussian War and may have been used to print Ceres values that paid for balloon mail from Republican supporters.
Other Republicans sympathisers fled the besieged capital and set up a provisional government at Bordeaux where they managed to print supplies of the Ceres designs using lithographic plates. The following imperforate issues were distributed from November 1870 until March 1871 to post offices in unoccupied regions of France where the Prussians had not stationed troops:
- 1c green
- 2c red-brown
- 4c grey
- 5c green-yellow
- 10c bistre
- 20s blue
- 30c brown
- 40c orange
- 80c rose,
The Bordeaux Provisionals declared the Third Republic in September 1870 and France gradually recovered its peacetime economy.
Ceres stamps, all now perforate, ran to thirteen colours and values, serving the nation’s postal requirements until 1875 and the introduction of an entirely new design depicting the allegorical figures Peace and Commerce.
A brief timeline of France's Ceres stamps
- January 1849 - two values of stamps introduced
- 1850 - additional values issued
- 1851 - short-lived Second Empire sees Ceres stamps replaced with those depicting Emperor Napoleon III
- 1870 - Franco-Prussian War ended Empire
- 1870 - Bordeaux Provisionals, featuring Ceres designs, were in widespread use
- 1875 - Ceres stamps replaced by designs featuring allegorical figures Peace and Commerce
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