The question is asked: What was the first Cinderella? That is, what is the first artistic imitation of a postage stamp or “Artistamp,” not sanctioned by an official postal service?
My semi-authoritative source (Wikipedia) notes that “The first artist to produce an ‘artist’s stamp’ is open to interpretation.” Well, what do you know? I would say just about everything about this verfluchte subject of Cinderellas is open to interpretation. Nevertheless I shall soldier on, because I believe I have an interesting conjecture about the “first Cinderellas.”
Some consider the first Cinderellas were “local” mail delivery stamps — like the Pony Express, whose covers today are worth big bucks. Some local stamps were issued by regional postal authorities around the time the first U.S. stamps appeared, in 1847. In the later 1800s, commercial “poster stamps” are considered early artist’s stamps, or Artistamps. Otherwise, references seem to be mostly in the 20th century — a Dada postage stamp in 1919, World War II-era Artistamps, then the 1960s and beyond. (The term “Artistamp” is credited to T. Michael Bidner, in 1982. Bidner was a devoted archivist of artist’s stamps.)
My assertion is that Cinderellas appeared the same year as the world’s first postage stamp, the British Penny Black, in 1840; and that those very first Cinderellas helped determine the course of philately itself.
The story starts with the Mulready Cover, named for the artist, William Mulready. An associate of Rowland Hill who designed the Penny Black, Mulready was chosen to produce postage-paid envelopes, in one-penny and two-pence denominations. Think of it as the first aerogramme, about 80 years before airmail service. The envelope Mulready came up with was an elegant engraving that featured Britannia with a lion at her feet, presiding over a kind of universal postal union — exotic animals and persons representing British subjects and others in different continents engaged in various activities, including getting and sending letters.
Rowland Hill anticipated that his boring Penny Black stamp would be less popular than this exotic, engraved cover. He was wrong.
The Mulready Envelope never caught on. There are at least three explanations out there. First, the cover was so busy that the public couldn’t really get the point. In fact, the Mulready Cover was subjected to public ridicule and scorn, some of it downright lascivious. The London Times took an immediate dislike to it. “We have been favored with a sight of one of the new stamp covers,” the newspaper editorialist opined, “and we must say that we have never beheld anything more ludicrous than the figure or allegorical device by which it is marked with its official character.” (More about this later.) A second factor was suspicion that the Mulready Cover was a government conspiracy to control the flow of information under the Postal Reforms Act that had just become law. The third explanation, which I want to dwell on at some length, was the threat posed to stationers by this new postal instrument, sold in 12-copy Formes for 1 shilling or 2 shillings. Since the aggrieved stationers had ready access to engravers and printers, they launched a media blitz. In the milieu of 1840, this meant printed cartoons and caricatures. The satirical artwork began appearing almost simultaneously with the release of the Mulready covers. The public fuss was not lost on Rowland Hill. Less than a week after the covers went on sale May 12, Hill wrote in his journal: “I fear we shall have to substitute some other stamp for that design by Mulready.” He added testily: “The public have shown their disregard and even distaste for beauty.” Within two months the postal powers-that-be had decided to scrap the Mulready Cover.
Is the cover beautiful? Ludicrous? Lascivious? Let’s take a look at some of the caricatures, and see how they manage to undermine the hifalutin notions of the Mulready Cover.
This first caricature is noteworthy not just because of the pipe-smoking figure of Britannia, but because it comes with a detailed description in a contemporaneous gazette. I will quote from the commentary at some length, because it goes directly to the point that the Mulready Cover is so elaborate, obscure, even ribald, that any point is lost and the hapless viewer must make up his or her own story. Herewith the 1840 text, to accompany blow-up images of the section being satirized:
“Look directly at the centre, and you will perceive the besotted figure of Britannia with her shield upon her knee. She has just put up a covey of postmen, with the wings of wild geese — naked in the pictur, but here, you will perceive, clothed for families. … At the foot of Britannia is the British lion, looking as mild as if suckled upon ass’s milk, and having not so much as a growl inside of him. With spectacles on nose, and his nob covered with a Palmerston cap, he is leisurely reading the latest foreign intelligence. This once vigorous animal appears to be in his dotage, and his tail hangs as limp as a thread-paper! …”
I’m not done yet. Here is the satirist’s impression of the domestic scene in the lower left corner (see enlargements): “… There is the portrait of a venerable old lady of the name of Smith. She is bed-ridden, ladies and gentlemen, and is listening to a letter read by her niece. Mark the figure of Mrs. Smith. She is looking all sorts of gratitude, and her two hands is clasped. The letter is from her grandson, John Smith, reported to have been hanged for burglary and murder; whereas that letter, just received by the penny post, assures the delighted parent that her grandchild is transported for life, for robbing on the highway, with the minor offense of slitting an attorney’s nose. …”
This business of lampooning the Mulready Cover went viral, 1840s-style. An online collectors site lists 47 satirical covers. The effect must have been dramatic, and the battle was quickly won. While there would continue to be designed envelopes through the Victorian era and beyond, and while we all know about aerogrammes and stamped envelopes, the postage stamp quickly became the preferred and indispensable mailing device. Score a victory for the first Artistamps! (Though I suppose the Mulready Cover technically was not a stamp … )
I have had fun looking over these caricatures and would like to share images of some of them. I got the images from the Internet, mind you, since they are expensive and rare. An original cover can cost $550, sometimes much more, though
you occasionally may find a bargain. Unfortunately, I have not yet uncovered any other colorful narratives to accompany these images. However, I shall endeavor to pass along in captions some of my own impressions from close observation; and as Yogi Berra said, you can see a lot just by observing.
Here is another busy caricature of the Mulready Cover. Britannia and some of her naked messengers are presented fairly straightforwardly — except at left, a naked minion rides a glue stick with a belching smokestack — and delivers a Mulready Cover to the mouth of a waiting camel. Britannia has a jester’s bells on her cap, and the shield replaced by a penny coin — the price of a Mulready Cover. Lots going on here: The English lion is all but obliterated by his cap; among other envelope-readers, a bespectacled elephant (upper left) rests her letter on a block that is inscribed by the printer, “W.H. Mason, Repository of Arts, Brighton”; note the faces carved into the foundation … note also the scenes, bottom left and right. Is the postman a clean, personable public servant (left), or a wily rascal (right)? By now you must be getting the same impression I’m getting — that the cumulative effect of these published caricatures makes it impossible to take the Mulready Cover seriously.
What follows is a small gallery of Mulready Cover caricatures from the 1840s, with notes and comment
The caption above accompanies the online offering of this extraordinary Mulready Cover caricature. At the center is a dour, pipe-smoking Britannia and her lion, flanked on one side by a devil with a mail sack, and on the other by a gunpowder explosion throwing victims into the air. The envelope is embellished with six scenes of letter exchanges, each one worth a story of its own. All this busy-ness reinforces the overall point of the anti-Mulready campaign, which is that the Mulready Cover is so confusing and misunderstood and busy that it should be scrapped immediately.
One more thing about this cover. I have not yet made the connection, but don’t you think the figures in these comic caricatures, with their big heads, expressive faces and tiny bodies, look an awful lot like the work of John Tenniel, illustrator of the Happy Families playing cards — as well as “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland”? Well, maybe. Maybe not. Tenniel would have been only 20 at the time. So if it wasn’t Tenniel, who drew these wonderful characters?
In my opinion, those Tenniel-like characters are more interesting than the crude ones in this caricature. Britannia looks like a thug, the distracted lion looks more like a turtle. Then there’s all the busy-ness. In this iteration, everyone is using the post — that is, the Mulready Cover — as an excuse, a quick fix, a way to avoid personal responsibility. Here are the comic sketches of 1840:
Daughter: Oh please, Mr. Smut will you bring Mother half a hundred of coals.
Mr. Smut (enjoying a snack): I can’t bring them cos I’m engaged. But I’ll put em in the post directly.
Miss: Have you sent my mutton Mr. McSticken?
Mr. McSticken: The boy has just put it in the post Miss.
Diner: Waiter, how long will my soup be.
Waiter: It’s just put in the post sir.
Postman (handing baby to surprised matron): It’s returned, marm They won’t take it in.
Child (to grandmother, who is threading a needle): Granny, can’t you send belly aches away by the post?
Not sure what the deeper meaning of all this is. That you shouldn’t rely on the post office — or the Mulready Cover? Hey, not bad …
This is a caricature where I initially found myself at a disadvantage. The small title at the top announces, “Punch’s Anti-Graham Envelope.” Who is Graham? Apparently the guy standing in for Britannia. And then, who is guy drawn as the head of a black snake taking the place of the English lion? One of them must be Mulready. I know Punch is the venerable British humor (humour) magazine. And I can see a snake in the grass when it’s right in front of me. Another thought occurs as I take in those little postmen in their coats and top hats, flitting about in great numbers, peering through a keyhole, reading over shoulders, even sticking their heads right into a Mulready Cover to see what’s inside: Isn’t this a visualization of the conspiracy theory — that the Mulready envelope is the leading edge of a campaign to control the free flow of information? A snake in the grass, indeed!
Why is this cover blue? My guess is that this particular caricature is not aimed at the (black) one penny Mulready Cover, but at the (blue) 2d. cover. One more note: This is not the first caricature where there is a small icon at the bottom of a bottle with an “S” on it. Meaning? Could be an artist’s mark …
Addendum: Now I have more authoritative background (and confirmation) on this cover, which dates to 1844, courtesy of the web. This is from the William James Linton Archive at the Melton Prior Institute for reportage drawing and printing culture: “The politician who suffered most from Punch … was the most unpopular of a long line of unpopular Home secretaries, Sir James Graham. … His capital offence was directing the opening of certain of Mazzini’s letters (ed: Giuseppe Mazzini was an Italian, a politician and journalist who led the early movement for unification.) … in consequence of the statements made to our Government by that of Naples, to the effect that plots were being carried out – of which the brilliant and popular Italian refugee was the centre – to excite an insurrection in Italy. … (T)he popular feeling roused by it was intense, and Punch, up in arms at once at this supposed violation of the rights of the subject, fanned the excitement … This consisted in the famous Anti-Graham Envelope (…) drawn by John Leech — a sort of burlesque … . The circulation attained by this envelope was very wide, and although I have not ascertained that many were actually passed through the General Post Office, it certainly brought a flood of bitter ridicule on the unfortunate Minister.” (M. H. Spielmann, The History of Punch, 1895)
More from the Melton Prior Institute: “The original prepaid Mulready envelope was the world’s first postal stationery, issued in 1840, at the same time as the first postage stamp. It had been decorated by the painter William Mulready with a representation of Britannia at the centre top, sending out her winged emissaries to all corners of the British Empire. Leech and Linton turned this document of Imperial pride into the vision of a total surveillance state with the detested minister as “Big Brother” Britannia, who sends out his winged flock of clerks to violate people’s privacy. The Anti-Graham envelope followed a favoured radical strategy of using fake documents and bogus money as means of criticism and propaganda … For Linton, it was a first encounter with the art of creative forgery.”
Now look at the blowup, right. It’s from the upper right of the last caricature. And here we come, finally, to the lascivious angle. Notice how the naked Indian conferring with the Pilgrim (no, wait! It’s now a postman!) looks like a Vaudeville extra. So does the Indian seated on what looks like his pants, whose buttocks are modestly concealed by … what? A Penny Black postage stamp! It’s altogether quite a garish scene, don’t you think?
For comparison purposes, I include a blowup of the same corner of the authentic Mulready Cover. In the dignified scene, one (naked) Indian shakes hands with a (fuilly-clothed) Pilgrim, while others stand back. In the foreground, another (naked) Indian sits on a mat, facing away from the viewer. Never mind the (naked) winged messenger in the background, or the (naked) Laplander driving his reindeer sled. Focus on the buttocks! They surely grabbed the attention of the British public, even as they found their way into the caricatures. Were Victorian sensibilities titillated by this expose of supple young butt cheeks? Was there outrage? Gossip? Protest? (Gee, someone should do a paper on this …)
Now let’s take a quick look at other lascivious close-ups in Mulready Cover caricatures.
In this caricature (sorry about the hand-scrawled cancel), naked Indians cavort around the sober Pilgrims, while fellow sitting on the mat maintains a stoic silence. Indeed, his helmet or cap or mantle of hair makes him look like a (naked) Prince Valiant …
In another caricature, the artist went off on a flight of fancy, doodling one naked sprite after another …
In this cynical caricature, all the characters have become grotesques — Indians and settlers conniving in a tight group. Naked buttocks are much in evidence, including the fat cheeks of the obligatory seated-nude-facing-away. Next to him a reclining dandy is wearing a postman’s hat … and apparently nothing else!
Finally, here is a detail from a caricature showing a youth in chains, seated, looking downcast. But see: A bird flies toward him, carrying in its beak — a Mulready envelope. All is not lost!
That notion that an airborne Mulready Cover can free a prisoner or slave is a bit visionary, particularly so for a satirist from the 1840s. What an image!
END OF PART THREE