I was asked to do a short presentation during one of Paper Umbrella's Letter Writing Club nights and decided to touch on the secret language of stamps. I've always loved ciphers, hidden messages and codes in plain sight, so this topic was intriguing as I researched it.
This all started in the Victorian Era when courting was an art in itself and men and women were expected to behave in a certain, respectable way. Discrete messages between two lovers could be hidden in plain sight, especially when living with meddling parents. This way of sending secrets was also during the heyday of postcards as your messages were in full view of prying eyes. You could write, "Wish you were here.." or talk about the weather but the stamp would carry a different meaning.
So what's the code? If you split up the surface of a postcard or envelope into 8 sections (9 if you count the area of the recipients address)
- Stamp upside down in the top left corner: I love you
- Stamp is sideways on top left corner: My heart belongs to another
- Stamp positioned in the centre top of the envelope/postcard: Yes
- Stamp positioned in the centre bottom of the envelope/postcard: No
- Stamp upside down in the top right corner: Write no more
- Stamp positioned at an angle to the right, positioned in the top left: I hate you
- Stamp upright in the top right corner: I desire your friendship.
Codes like this became so common, many national postal services introduced strict guidelines and sometimes letter weren't delivered if improper stamp placement wasn't present. Some codes would even go a stamp further and incorporate 2 or more stamps, or even using the same of different coloured stamps would signify a different message. Nowadays it's not such a big deal where you place your stamps but because today's stamps are a lot more colourful, you can't use the colour system so much.
Sometimes codes were confusing as they crossed international borders are different countries had their own code system. In the USA a stamp placement might portray "I love you" where in Sweden it meant "Leave me alone in my grief.
Codes of this sort are still used today in the military and in places such as prisons where mail is usually intercepted before reaching the intended receiver. During the Vietnam war, putting a flag stamp upside down was a gesture of protest and it signified distress. Most commonly today stamps are either upside down which means I love you or sideways which means you've been relegated to the friend zone.
This is a postcard I found at the Antique Mall. It says "It is not right for you to read the message on the other side of card unless it is addressed to you. Directions must be followed carefully" Rub a wet sponge or cloth in the tinted developing material on the other side of card and wipe lightly and slowly downward until developed. Start at the stars each wipe. When you turn the card over....
The card reads "We want you to try Purity Flour, Purity Rolled Oats, Purity Food - for breakfasts and desserts, and Puro-a-self rising mixture for pancakes, gems, cakes; in fact 40 different recipes. Every sack and package bear this trademark. It is a guarantee of perfect quality, absolute purity. Ask your dealer.
Western Canada Flour Mills Co Ltd.
This postcard uses invisible ink for this ad made by the National Invisible Print Co. How cool is that?! Another way to post a secret message!
Sending correspondence back in the day was a heartfelt practice. Sending email today just doesn't have the same effect.