Design Decoded: The Story of the First Postage Stamp

 

first postage stamp

The Penny Black. The World’s first postage stamp (image: wikimedia commons)

“Philately” (get your mind out of the gutter) is the proper term for the studying of stamps and stamp collecting. It was coined in 1865 by Georges Herpin, who very well may have been the first stamp collector, from the Ancient Greek φιλο (philo), meanning “love of” and ἀτέλεια (atelīa), meaning “without tax.” Of course, because the ancient Greeks didn’t have postage stamps, there was no proper Greek word for the idea. But, as we shall see, the term is actually a reference to the earliest days of paid postage.

Postage can reveal more than the history of a letter, it can reveal the history of a nation. As noted by the National Postal Museum, which celebrates its 20th anniversary this month, “every stamp tells a story”—and, I might add, it sometimes tells how the story should be told (fat Elvis or skinny Elvis?).

The forthcoming book A History of Britain in Thirty-Six Postage Stamps by Chris West tells the story of the stamp. And of Britain. West is himself a philatelist (seriously stop snickering) who inherited a collection from his uncle that included a “Penny Black”—the first postage stamp issued in Britain and, more importantly, the first postage stamp issued anywhere.

The Penny Black bears the image of Queen Victoria, but the first British postal service did not originate in Victorian England. In 1680 an entrepreneur by the name of William Dockwra started a public service that guaranteed the quick delivery of a letter anywhere in London. His system was quickly nationalized with Dockwra in charge. It was far from a perfect system, burdened with seemingly erroneous charges and tariffs that made it unreasonably expensive to send a letter. Worse still, recipients were expected to pay. As you might imagine, this presented some problems—either people weren’t home or flat-out refused to pay. Not to mention the blatant corruption. The system just didn’t work, but it remained in place for far too long.

About 50 years later, an ambitious polymath named Rowland Hill thought he could do better. Hill ran a progressive school, for which he also designed a central heating system, a swimming pool and an observatory. Hill’s skills weren’t just architectural and pedagogical, he was also an accomplished painter, inventor and essayist. In one of his most famous pamphlets, Post Office Reform, its Importance and Practicability, Hill argued for abolishing the postal tariffs and replacing them with a single national rate of one penny, which would be paid by the sender.

Continue reading on Design Decoded

Designing Football, from Helmets to Hashtags

football field
Dimensions of a professional football field (image: 2011 Official Playing Rules And Casebook of the NFL)

Sports are good design. American football is no exception: helmets are perhaps the most highly engineered piece of protective equipment in professional sports; the football field is unique in that it’s not designed to accommodate a ball, but to serve as a metric of progress in a battle for territory; the ball itself is an index of the game’s evolution, shrouded in myth and hearsay. It’s taken more than 100 years for professional football to become the game we know today and that history is embedded in the design of its fields, stadiums, and equipment. I recently wrote a threepart series investigating this design history for Design Decoded and learned some surprising facts about America’s favorite sport, including the rationale behind the so-called Boise Rule, which mandates turf color, and the link between naval paratroopers, cobblers, & college football.

Read my three-part design history of football on Design Decoded:

The Ruins of San Francisco’s Sutro Baths


Gloomy San Francisco Days are always good for exploring ruins. This week, on a particularly grey and windy day, a friend and I took a stroll through the Sutro Baths in San Francisco…or at least what’s left of them. If I were making a low-budge, post-apocalyptic student film, I would probably use the site as my primary location. It’s been 40 years since the baths burned down, but what remains still has a definite ground-zero vibe. Mysterious pieces of concrete and brick walls jut out of the hillside growth and unusual sand formations. Navigating the site can be tricky—as Maude will surely attest—with pieces of bent, rusted metal and concrete holes aiming to trip up careless explorers. When the Sutro Baths opened in 1896, it was the world’s largest indoor swimming hole — complete with 7 different pools, a private museum and 8,000 seat concert hall. Continue reading “The Ruins of San Francisco’s Sutro Baths”