The language of stamps

Raimundo de Madrazo y Garreta (1841-1920): Untitled

“Everyone knows that there is a language of the stamps,
which is related to the language of the flowers as the Morse-code to the written alphabet.”
Walter Benjamin: Einbahnstrasse (1928)

The weeks before Christmas used to be the time of postcards. But who writes Christmas postcards any more in the age of e-mail? They disappeared from the post offices, where formerly you could choose and pick between them from the end of November. Gradually disappear the stamps too, which we used to stick on the postcards, and about which Walter Benjamin foretold with a particular insight that they would not survive the twentieth century. And along with them disappear the customs once connected with them, including a most peculiar one: the language of the stamps, one of the several languages disappeared in the past century.

On philatelic and auction sites you sometimes find postcards which illustrate with small pictures, similar to naval flag signals, what it means if the stamp was stuck in this or that position on the card. The custom is probably as old as the greeting card itself, which started its world conquering tour from the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy in 1869. I’ve found the oldest mention of it in the 13 July 1890 edition of the Hungarian provincial weekly Szarvas és vidéke, which indicates that it had to flourish long before that date:

The secrets of the language of stamps. For all those who are in the situation of Hero and Leander, and similarly to them can only exchange secret signs about the feelings of their hearts, here we publish the secrets of the language of stamps. If the stamp stands upright in the upper right corner of the card or envelope, it means: I wish your friendship. Top right, across: Do you love me? Top right, upside down: Don’t write me any more. Top right, thwart: Write me immediately. Top right, upright [once more again???]: Your love makes me happy. Top left, across: My heart belongs to someone else. Top left, upright: I love you. Bottom left, across: Leave me alone in my grief. In line with the name: Accept my love. Same place, across: I wish to see you. Same place, upside down: I love someone else. – We hope that besides the inventor of the “new language” there would be other persons too who would eventually use it.

The hopes of the journalist were not in vain. The new fashion spread rapidly, and after the turn of the century the rules of the language of stamps received their particular chapter in the etiquette books along with the languages of flowers, handkerchiefs and fans. Moreover, in many countries the acquisition of this language was assisted by particular manuals, such as George Bury’s Cupid’s code for the transmission of secret messages by means of the language of postage stamps (Ashford, Middlesex, 1899), of which the Tower Projects Blog published a few pages.

At the same time appeared the greeting cards as well, which on their picture side offered a short introduction into the grammar of the new language.

A short introduction, I say, because there were not many postcards such as the above British, Czech, Finnish and Russian ones, which also interpreted the place of the stamp on the card, either with illustrated examples or sorted in a table. The majority of the postcards contented with adding a short explanation on the position of the stamp. In the simplest version, the various positions of the stamp indicated, as the pointer of an erotometer, the temperature of love, such as in the following French, Belgian and Bulgarian cards (the last of which, for curiosity, was sent with a Hungarian greeting: Many kisses from the far away distance.).

Other cards, on the contrary, informed the unwanted suitors about the reasons for rejection through the position of the stamp.

The majority, however, conveyed more subtle messages, from hesitation through desire to rejection, and even specific instructions such as “tomorrow at the usual place!” or “he has discovered everything!” We find this kind of messages on the following French, Polish of Lemberg/Lwów and Swedish cards (the English translation of the labels of the latter can be read here).

One specialty of the cards of the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy was that they deciphered the numbered stamp positions not on the picture side but on the reverse. And the other was that whatever language of the multiethnic empire they used, the lovers preferred to send their messages to each other by means of Franz Joseph’s head.

Unfortunately, the only Hungarian postcard I found on a Danish philatelic site, has been sold in the meantime, and its original picture deleted. I could only dig up this small one from Google cache. However, after the publication of this post, Natasa from A Nagy Háború blog sent me the following version (for which we hereby say thanks):

Sometimes the language became more articulated, and expressed the shades of emotions not by turning one stamp, but through the relations of two stamps, such as in the following English and German cards.

In the simplest version, which related to the “real” language of stamps in the same way as a blank to a handwritten letter, one could underline the convenient message attached to the stamps of the same position, or stick on the postcard the suitable color stamp from the three options shown on the picture side.

The language of stamps, like any language, naturally had its own dialects. They were sometimes linked to a multi-language publisher, as the Austro-Hungarian ones above, or as it is illustrated by the following Finno-Russian and Pan-European examples.

Sometimes the postcard, just like word-teaching cards, contained only one element of the language, perhaps for a didactic purpose, and probably also to encourage the fans to collect the entire series.

The Muses were not silent in the war either, but by supporting Mars with the power of Venus, they stood at the service of the victory.

The custom of the language of stamps reached different ages in different countries. In Russia, where it was a great fashion, no such postcard was published after the revolution, just as in the socialist countries after 1945. On the one hand, etiquette itself was considered a bourgeois left-over, and on the other hand the power did not tolerate any encoded message either. In western European countries, however, we find its instances as long as the end of the sixties.

Today it is not easy to determine how much the language of stamps was used in real correspondence. Perhaps one could dig up relevant quotes from high society magazines or novels of the period. A telling reference are the stamps actually used on the postcards illustrating the language of stamps in the philatelic sites. However few of this kind of postcards we find, a surprisingly great number of them bear a stamp stuck on them in the way as shown on their picture side. This fact also highlights the real function of these cards. Whoever did not learn by heart the relevant chapter of the etiquette books, could easily select the desired meaning, and the recipient decode the sweet message encrypted by means of the stamp.

Picture side and reverse of the same postcards

However, when finding a postcard or envelope which offers no code to the interpretation of the position of the stamp, we can only guess what dialect or which etiquette book was used by the sender, and whether the recipient could understand the appropriate shade. Who could tell whether the stamps of the following missives conveyed a secret message, and if yes, what it was?

7 comentarios:

Rupert Neil Bumfrey dijo...

languagehat dijo...

That's one of the most bizarre things I've ever read about.

mim dijo...

Me gusta esta "post." Muy interestante y estranjero.

Studiolum dijo...

This post was extremely popular in the last week. It was quoted, among others, by The New Yorker, BoingBoing, Tai-Wiki-Widbee, Bruce Schneier, Neatorama, Crackajack, etc., sending over about a hundred thousand interested people to this post. Most of them emphasized what we have not even thought about, that is, the striking similarity of the function of the stamp positions to modern emoticons.

Studiolum dijo...

The Russian site has quoted this post. Check in the (visual) comments how the Russian genius managed to play with the original pattern!

Studiolum dijo... has published a good summary of this post in Russian.

PamelaArtsinSF dijo...

This is fabulous--I just found it. LOVE the information and the fantastic postcards.....