Mulready stationery describes the postal stationery lettersheets and pre-gummed envelopes that were introduced as part of the British Post Office postal reforms of 1840. They went on sale on 1 May, 1840, and were valid for use from 6 May. The Mulready name arises from the fact that William Mulready, a well-known artist of the time, was commissioned to illustrate the part of the precut sheets and envelopes which corresponded with the face area.
The design incorporated a munificent Britannia at the centre top with a shield and a reclining lion surrounded on either side by a representation of the continents of Asia and North America with people reading their mail in the two lower corners, bestowing the benefits of mail services to the countries of the world under British control. The Mulready illustration was printed such that it appeared on the face of the sheets when folded. The Mulready lettersheets followed the traditional lettersheet design and could be folded as normal while the envelopes were a diamond-shaped sheet which, when the sides were folded about a central rectangular area, became an envelope when the overlapping edges were pasted.
The Mulready illustration was effectively a very elaborate frank indicating that postage had been pre-paid. In the same way that the first postage stamps were issued in two values (Penny Black and Two Penny Blue) both the lettersheets and envelopes were issued in one penny and two penny values in the same black and blue colours as the same value postage stamps.
Rowland Hill expected the Mulready stationery to be more popular than the postage stamps but the postage stamp prevailed. The design was so elaborate that it generated widespread ridicule and lampooning, and in addition was perceived in some areas as a covert government attempt to control the supply of envelopes, and hence control the flow of information carried by the postal service (which had become a government monopoly under the reforms). Many caricatures (or lampoons) were produced by stationery manufacturers whose livelihood was threatened by the new lettersheet. Only six days after their introduction, on May 12, Hill wrote in his journal:
|“||I fear we shall have to substitute some other stamp for that design by Mulready ... the public have shown their disregard and even distaste for beauty.||”|
Within two months a decision had been made to replace the Mulready designed stationery and essentially they were a folly. As a result of the uproar the stationery was withdrawn and a machine was designed and built to destroy the stocks. The Mulready stationery suffered an inglorious demise.
There was nothing to stop one from writing on the inside; consequently the Mulready wrapper was fundamentally akin to the present-day aerogram.
Pre-gummed envelopes as we know them today did not exist. The diamond-shaped sheet and the geometrically more complex short-arm cross-shaped sheet remain essentially the staple designs to this day. (As a point of interest: all mechanical printing devices from the Gutenberg press on are primarily designed to process flat rectangular sheets. Hence the illustration would have been printed using a press and then cut to a diamond shape. The number produced from any one sheet naturally depended on the size of the printing bed and to this day envelope printing and envelope manufacture have maintained a symbiotic relationship.)
- "Mulready stationery: Lettersheets and envelopes". The Queen's Own: Stamps That Changed the World. National Postal Museum. Retrieved 2006-09-25.
- "Mulready stationery: Caricatures". The Queen's Own: Stamps That Changed the World. National Postal Museum. Retrieved 2006-09-25.
- "Mulready Letter Sheets". Alphabetilately. Retrieved 2006-09-25.
- First Day of Issue, 6 May 1840, Mulready letter sheet Royal Insight (British Monarchy website)
- Mulready's, Parodies, Lampoons & Caricatures
- Propaganda Envelopes, Hand-Painted Envelopes, Reproductions and Forgeries
- Proof of One Penny Mulready lettersheet (details) Larger image British Postal Museum and Archive
- Proof of One and Two Penny Mulready envelopes (details) Larger image British Postal Museum and Archive