Democracy and the Postage Stamp

Roland Hill was a precocious youth. When he was 12 years old, he was teaching astronomy in his father’s school. As a young adult, he gained acclaim as an education innovator. He became an advocate for public education and founded a model school for the middle class.

Roland’s efforts in postal reform might rival his public education efforts as the high mark of his legacy. The postal system in the mid-1800s in Britain was basically corrupt and inadequate for a nation with an expanding economic base. Postal rates were determined by the distance of the mailing and the number of sheets of paper. The receiver of the mailing was required to pay for the mailing, not the sender. Often poorer citizens could not afford to pay for what was sent to them. The gentry class paid no postal fees.

Roland Hill set about to change the postal system. He discovered the major cost in the postal system was not the transportation of the mailings, but the processing at the sending and receiving end. His first proposed change was to base the charge for mailings on their weight, not distance traveled. He also proposed that the sender should pay the postage. Both of these changes greatly reduced mailing costs.

But the change for which Roland made his greatest impact was in the creation of a postal stamp. At first, he proposed stamped letter paper and then a pre-stamped envelope. These were subsequently replaced by the adhesive stamp still being used today.

The impact of the stamp was immediate. In one year mailings nearly doubled. Mailings were no longer limited to those of wealth. The citizenry could use the postal system to connect with each other. Commerce was facilitated and the economy was no longer held back by the inefficient delivery of messages.

The internet has become a democratizing force in our current times. The ability to communicate at a low cost has opened societies. In the mid-1800s, the postage stamp had the impact that we now see with the internet. Roland Hill is a remarkable hidden hero for the impact he made on two areas critical to democracy: public education and low-cost communications by mail. We rarely think of the impact of common objects on our society, but the postage stamp had a democratizing impact far beyond what its creator would have visualized.

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“I love the rebelliousness of snail mail, and love anything that can arrive with a postage stamp. There’s something about that person’s breath and hands on the letter.”  – Diane Lane

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