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August 18, 2005

The Hidden Language of Stamps


Who knew that how you tipped your stamp was once as important as whether you set your cap at someone?

Ian Urbina deconstructed this rather arcane area in a most interesting story which appeared on the front page of this past Monday's New York Times.

Here's the article.

    From Love to Longing to Protest, It's All in the Tilt of the Postage

    Every other day, when Janie Bielefeldt writes to her husband, who is deployed in Afghanistan, she places her stamps upside down and diagonally on the letters as a way to say "I miss you."

    Susan Haggerty says "I love you" by putting her stamps upside down on letters to her son, stationed in Iraq.

    Noma Byng does the same thing with the letters she sends to her husband when he is serving abroad as a way of trying to convey what words cannot.

    "You do everything you can to make the letters seem like more than a piece of paper," Mrs. Byng said.

    For most people, the front of an envelope is simply a place for addresses and postage, and a crooked stamp indicates little more than that the sender was in a hurry.


    But for others, this tiny sliver of real estate is home to a coded language, hidden in plain sight, that has been passed down through the generations for more than a century.

    "Another military wife told me that her grandmother used to flip her stamps when writing her husband, who was deployed overseas," said Mrs. Bielefeldt, an ex- marine living in Jacksonville, N.C.

    "It's just something you hear about on the base."

    A long-distance version of the romantic language of hand-held fans and flowers, the so-called language of stamps emerged in the Victorian era as a discreet method of courtship at a time when parents often censored mail.

    And though, like the epistolary tradition itself, the stealthy code has waned with the emergence of technology, it replenishes itself ever so slightly in the face of war, distance, parental disapproval and anything else that might get in the way of people's connection to each other.

    "It tends to resurge during war times or whenever else there are large numbers of people separated from their loved ones," said John M. Hotchner, a former president of the American Philatelic Society.

    "These are times when there is more letter writing and more emotions poured into those letters."

    For some, the stamps represent a valuable tool of affection.

    "My husband is good at drawing, so he always puts a tree, which symbolizes the growth of our feelings for each other," said Mrs. Byng, 27, who lives in Oak Harbor, Wash.

    "I can't draw, so I just use the stamps to say what I want to say."

    And while the struggle to cope with longing is at least as old as language itself, the placement of stamps to send messages had its heyday during the 1890's in England with the popularity of postcards, said Roy Nuhn, a researcher who has studied the history of stamp placement.


    Though more affordable and attractive than letters, postcards left text exposed to any nosy intermediary, so people found other ways to get their point across, said Mr. Nuhn, 68, who added that he took interest in the topic while he was serving in the military during the Korean War and noticed other soldiers receiving letters with angled stamps.

    But the language has narrowed since the turn of the 20th century, when postcards printed in various countries featured keys that helped explain the message behind each stamp positioning.

    Expression was also limited by the mechanization of the postal system, which led some systems to impose rules confining stamps to a single corner of a piece of mail.

    The prevalence of e-mail has furthered this decline, except in contexts like prisons, war zones and less-developed countries where electronic communication is less of an option.

    "I heard it was a way to say, 'I love you,' and to gesture that your world is upside down without that person," said Michael Palagonia, who put his stamps upside down on the weekly letters he sent to his girlfriend while he was serving in Guinea in the Peace Corps.

    When Christine Prosano temporarily broke romantic ties with her husband, who is in prison in upstate New York, she stopped putting her stamps upside down on her letters, placing them sideways instead, as a gesture of friendship, not love.

    More than a trivial sideshow, the practice of conveying secret messages from the front of mail long precedes the language of stamps and the use of these codes is part of the reason that we prepay for our postage today.

    Before 1840, when postage stamps were first used in England, the recipient of a letter paid for its postage.

    And since the cost was often prohibitively expensive, people began placing small marks and symbols on the front of mail.

    These codes allowed senders to convey a message to the recipient without obliging the recipient to pay for the formal acceptance of the letter.

    The loss of revenue from the use of these codes was one of the reasons that the British government adopted the system of prepaid stamps that is used almost everywhere now.

    "It was not unlike the tactic that some people use today with phone calling," Mr. Hotchner said.

    "While traveling, people often tell their family back home that they will call at a designated time and let the phone ring only once before hanging up as a way of saying that they have arrived safely, without having to pay for the call."


    But for all their scrappiness, these methods of makeshift communication leave room for misunderstanding.

    "I think it took several letters before my girlfriend realized that the upside-down stamp wasn't a mistake," said Mr. Palagonia, who now teaches English-as-a-second-language classes at a public school in Phoenix.

    This potential for miscommunication was even worse when there was a wider range of possible positions.

    According to keys published in the early 20th century, a stamp placed in the upper right corner of an envelope, right side up but tilted slightly to the left, means, "Will you be mine?" in England, "Why don't you answer?" in Germany, "A kiss" in Denmark, "How will we meet?" in Finland, and, "Your antipathy grieves me," in Estonia.

    The diversity of images used on the stamps also added to the possible confusion.

    Gerald McKiernan, a spokesman for the United States Postal Service, recalled that during the 1960's, turning flag stamps upside down became a popular gesture of protest against the Vietnam War because upside-down flags signify distress.

    Mrs. Prosano, whose husband is serving a 20-year prison sentence for armed robbery, said she was confused at first when he began turning his stamps upside down on his letters.

    Some of the stamps had American flags on them, and Mrs. Prosano, 37, a travel agent who lives in Brooklyn, said she was initially worried that her husband might be indicating that he was in trouble.

    He reassured her that he was fine when they spoke soon thereafter.

    "When you are away from someone for so long," she said, "you watch for every little thing."

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August 18, 2005 at 04:01 PM | Permalink


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Charming. So like the secret language of flowers...

Posted by: Mb | Aug 19, 2005 2:40:40 PM

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