The postage stamp was first introduced in Britain in 1840 and its use spread rapidly throughout the globe. It made its appearance as part of the reform of the postal system which, by reducing the cost and improving the efficiency, led to a steep rise volume as the service became accessible to a greater proportion of increasingly literate population. This itself was but a part of the revolution in communications brought about by the age of industrialization. Whereas mankind entered the 19th century still entirely dependent on nature for his transport, be it a horse on land or the wind at sea, over the course of the next 100 years he had harnessed the power of steam, followed by electricity and the internal combustion engine, and it was in sight of conquering the air. The stamp box was a product of this process and its story reflects the history of an age when humans achieved a greater mastery of their environment than they had managed in the previous 2000 years.
Although an introduction of the stamp might be expected to have led to an immediate demand for containers to store these little pieces of paper, both at the desk and on the person, the stamp box was slow to become popular and decidedly modest in its early forms. For the first forty years their use was restricted to Britain and they were mostly made in wood or brass. The main reason for this lies in the organization of the postal service. In 1840 letters would still have to be taken to a Post Office as there were no street collection boxes, so it would have been more usual for the stamps to have been affixed by counter staff when payment was made rather than by the writer from a stock held at his home or office. Street collections boxes did not become nationwide in Britain until the 1870's, and a decade or two can be added for other countries. Thus, while in the 1880's saw a surge in the production of stamp boxes, it was only after 1890 that became truly popular. From this date until the outbreak in of the First World War in 1914, they were produced around the world in a staggering variety of forms, materials and qualities. The French call this period 'La Belle Epoque' and it was indeed a time of hitherto unparalleled prosperity and peace and the exuberance of which is amply represented in the diversity of these everyday objects. It should be remembered that before the telephone was invented the post was the private and business communication and that it was a great deal more efficient than it is today. A letter written and posted in the morning would be received by an addressee in the same town that afternoon, and a reply posted in the evening would be received by the original writer the next morning.
After the First World War stamp boxes largely fell out of fashion, although they continued to be made, especially in, or for, America. The introduction of stamp booklets and wall vending machines may have played a part in this change of taste, but these facilities did not come into common use until 1930's. Stamp boxes were never really necessary- a simple pocket in a wallet or a purse would have sufficed. Their demise, therefore, arose more probably from the loss of that spirit of innocent self indulgence that characterized La Belle Epoque. They never ceased to be produced however, and today examples can be purchased in Limoges porcelain and Tiffany silver, while plate 1 illustrated a printed cardboard box designed by Catriona Steward in 1991.
The market for collecting stamp boxes is extremely buoyant with demand far outstripping supply. Spink are pleased to offer rare and unusual examples of stamp boxes, available to purchase in our London offices as well as through our London stamp auctions.
For more information on buying or selling rare stamp boxes please contact our specialist and auctioneer,
Guy Croton: +44 (0)20 7563 4074 [email protected]
1891 London, superb triple compartment box By George Heath and retailed by W. Thornhill & Co. of New Bond Street. Sold at auction for £17,250