A Mulready — Rowland Hill's prepaid stationery designed by William Mulready, RA 1786-1863. Mulready envelope, posted from Taunton, Somerset, UK, with "26 JU 1840 BY POST" postmark. From the collection of Norman M. Fox.

Britannia atop a crouching lion oversees a glorious postal outreach extending to all four corners of the globe; four winged angels (one missing a foot, a topic of much derision) bring news of Britain's achievement to colonial possessions (e.g. India), North American colonies (e.g. Canada), and places where England was currently fighting wars (e.g. China). Today we read in the Mulready design the geographical range of British political authority in 1840 that forecasts the increasingly aggressive expansion of British imperialism after the death of Prince Albert in 1861. The visual stereotypes of nation and race on the xenophobic top portion of the officially commissioned design — a pigtail for the Chinese, a headdress for the Native American — remind us of the Nativist attitudes toward “un-English lands” that form a thorny part of Victorian nationality and pride. Sentimental scenes of hearth and home on the lower left and right sides idealize the Victorian family and illustrate how the Penny Post was intended to cheer the sick and infirm and keep Victorians connected in an increasingly mobile society.

With the adoption of the Penny Post on January 10, 1840 came the need to create a means to indicate prepayment of postage. Rowland Hill, appointed to the Treasury in 1839 to oversee the Penny Post transition, invented prepaid stationery and postage stamps. The Department of Treasury announced a competition, inviting "'all artists, men of science, and the public in general'" as well as "'people in any part of the civilized world'" (Briggs 338) to submit designs for postage stamps and prepaid stationery, which took the form of letter sheets and envelopes. Public rejection of the stationery, called Mulreadies after designer William Mulready, was immediate and forceful; the design sparked caricature envelopes that essentially killed the Mulready, which was withdrawn from circulation in 1841. — Catherine J. Golden



Golden, Catherine J. Posting It: The Victorian Revolution in Letter Writing. Gainesville: University of Florida Press, 2009.

Last modified 22 July 2010