To pay or not to pay – for a long time, that was the question that dogged the writers of letters. Illustration by Marco Heer
To pay or not to pay – for a long time, that was the question that dogged the writers of letters. Illustration by Marco Heer

The battle over postage stamps

In 1850, Switzerland got its first national postage stamp. But it took a long time to persuade everyone to use it. The reason for this was, as usual, money…

Andrej Abplanalp

Andrej Abplanalp

Historian and communications chief of the Swiss National Museum.

In March 1843, the first postage stamps in what is now Switzerland appeared in Zurich. There were two denominations: 4 centimes for local letters and 6 centimes for items to be delivered within the rest of the canton. Zurich modelled its stamp on the penny black from Great Britain, where pre-paid postage had already been brought in in 1840.
Switzerland’s first postage stamps were issued in Zurich in 1843.
Switzerland’s first postage stamps were issued in Zurich in 1843. Wikimedia
With the founding of the Confederation in 1848, the canton’s postal system passed into federal hands. After a transition period of around two years, in 1850 the first national stamps were finally stuck on the envelopes that were sent all over the country. So far, so good. But there was still one very important question: Who should pay? The fortunate recipient of an item of mail? Or the poor old writer who had already invested such effort into words and sentences? But more on that later…
Local postage stamp from 1850 with a value of two and a half centimes. This stamp allowed a letter to be mailed within the local area.
Local postage stamp from 1850 with a value of two and a half centimes. This stamp allowed a letter to be mailed within the local area. Collection of the Museum of Communication
The introduction of pre-paid postage was directed by a decree of 9 September 1850. From now on, letters were only to be paid for with stamps. Before then, delivery of all types of mail used to be not only complicated, but also expensive. A messenger carried the mail, and the sender paid. The cost was calculated on the basis of the distance to be covered and the nature of the goods to be transported. It wasn’t until the 17th century that the first permanent postal services were established, mainly between larger towns. But if you lived outside these centres, it became difficult and expensive.
Directive for the introduction of pre-paid postage, September 1850.
Directive for the introduction of pre-paid postage, September 1850. Swiss Federal Archives
Which brings us back to the question of mailing costs. In actual fact, in the mid-19th century many people felt that the person who received an item of mail should be the one to pay for it. However, the recipients generally didn’t see it that way. In such cases, the letter was returned to the sender. An additional expense for the post office. In 1862 the post office finally introduced a penalty rate for unstamped mail: “The letter rate for a straightforward letter up to 10 grams throughout Switzerland is: for stamped letters 10 centimes, for unstamped letters 15 centimes.” For local letters with a maximum delivery time of two hours, the rate remained at 5 centimes, regardless of whether they were stamped or unstamped. This was a mistake, as the post office noted almost straightaway in its 1863 annual report: “It would have been preferable if prepaid postage had been applied uniformly to all letters […] as a standard rate with compulsory stamping.”
Excerpt from the 1862 Post Office Annual Report.
Excerpt from the 1862 Post Office Annual Report. PTT Archives
The number of unstamped letters had fallen to 32% in 1863. But the checking process was lengthy and arduous, and ultimately it cut into the profit. In 1876, the proportion of unstamped items was 6%. To bring the incorrigible non-stampers to their senses, the penalty rate was adjusted that year. Those who failed to use a stamp now no longer paid a fixed amount (5 centimes) – instead, they were charged double the amount that transporting the item would have cost. That worked.
Postman, c. 1900.
Postman, c. 1900. Swiss National Museum
Nevertheless, it took another few years before prepaying with stamps finally caught on with the general public, and postmen were at last able to concentrate on their main business: delivering letters.

The first time…

There’s always a first time. In this series, we will be looking at historic Swiss firsts. The topics covered are very diverse: from the first zebra crossing to the first ever popular initiative. The articles have been produced in cooperation with the Schweizerisches Bundesarchiv (Swiss Federal Archives).

Further posts

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Swiss National Museum

Three museums – the National Museum Zurich, the Castle of Prangins and the Forum of Swiss History Schwyz – as well as the collections centre in Affoltern am Albis – are united under the umbrella of the Swiss National Museum (SNM).