First Known Piece of Mail Sent Using a Stamp Goes to Auction

The 183-year-old envelope is a rare example of two early forms of prepaid postage: Mulready envelopes and adhesive stamps

Old envelope with black stamp
The envelope was sent twice: once on May 2, 1840, and again on May 4, 1840. Sotheby's

The first known piece of mail sent with a prepaid, adhesive stamp could sell for as much as $2.5 million. Sotheby’s will offer up the 183-year-old envelope during a live auction in New York on February 2.

“We take for granted today the ease with which we can seamlessly connect with friends and loved ones instantaneously from nearly anywhere in the world,” says Richard Austin, Sotheby’s global head of books and manuscripts, in a statement.

The upper right corner of the envelope features a “Penny Black” stamp—a small, black square featuring a profile of Queen Victoria in the middle, with the words “postage” above and “one penny” below. Invented by a social reformer and teacher named Rowland Hill, the Penny Black was the world’s first adhesive stamp.

Black stamp on letter
Invented by a social reformer and teacher named Rowland Hill, the Penny Black was the world’s first adhesive stamp. Sotheby's

The envelope also still bears the two dates on which it was mailed: May 2, 1840, and May 4, 1840. On the first date, an unknown sender mailed the letter from London to William Blenkinsop Jr., who lived and worked in Bedlington, England, a town located roughly 300 miles north of the city. Blenkinsop managed the Bedlington Iron Works, which produced rail lines and locomotives, according to Sotheby’s.

After receiving the mail, Blenkinsop removed the letter and turned the envelope inside out. He then sent the envelope to a man named “Mr. Blenkinsop”—probably his father—in Dalston, a village some 75 miles away.

The younger Blenkinsop was able to reuse the envelope because it was a “Mulready,” an elaborately decorated wrapper that served as an early form of pre-payment for mailing letters.

The letters from both mailings have been lost, but Mr. Blenkinsop held onto the envelope.

Before Great Britain introduced prepaid postage in May 1840, sending mail was cumbersome and confusing. Recipients—not senders—paid for postage, and over time, people realized “they could avoid paying the postage by refusing to accept their mail,” per the Smithsonian’s National Postal Museum.

“Since the post office had done all the work of getting a letter from point A to point B without getting paid, a significant loss of revenue ensued,” according to the museum. “Complex postal rates resulted, and rates were set artificially high to compensate for the loss.”

In addition to adhesive stamps, Mulready envelopes, designed by painter William Mulready, were another attempt to streamline mail service around the same time. But they “sadly were an object of ridicule from day one” and didn’t catch on as stamps did, writes Sotheby’s.

Both stamps and Mulready envelopes also helped reduce the risk of theft, since mail carriers no longer had to carry cash.

While prepaid stamps and Mulreadys were introduced on May 1, 1840, they weren’t technically valid for use until May 6. The individual who sent the letter to the younger Blenkinsop decided to risk it and send both a few days early. The two new pre-payment methods were “met with mixed fortunes,” according to Sotheby’s.

“Some were accepted as payment, and some were not and charged double,” adds the auction house.

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