Postcrossing Blog

Stories about the Postcrossing community and the postal world

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Back in 2017, we were in London to visit friends and took the Little Mail Carriers along for the ride. At the time, the newly revamped Postal Museum had just re-opened, and so we were super excited to check it out! Now that the museum has a new temporary exhibition all about postcards, this seems like a good time to fish those photos from the archives and show you a bit of what you can see there as part of their permanent exhibition. Here are the little guys, to tell you all about it! 🙂

The Little Mail Carriers sit atop a red British postbox

Hi everyone! We’re back in London, the city of Big Ben and Buckingham Palace… though we don’t much care for those — we were promised a tour of the fantastic Postal Museum, and we’re super excited to discover the treasures and stories hiding inside.

From cryptic Victorian Valentine cards, to pirates or a mischievous lioness that attacked a mail coach, the whole visit was lots of fun… but let’s start at the beginning.

The Little Mail Carriers look at a museum display of old letters and an illustration of a letter carrier

Check out these really old letters in their permanent exhibition! Through them, you can learn more about how there came to be a need for the uniform penny postage. Before the postal reform that Sir Rowland Hill brought about, postage was paid by the recipient according to the number of sheets in it, and the distance it traveled… which wasn’t very practical!

To save space, some letters were written in a particular style called “crossed writing”, which makes them extra hard to read.

Paulo pulls a display featuring the history of the ship SS Garisoppa

You know how sometimes big ships sometimes have the prefix RMS on their name, like the RMS Titanic or RMS Queen Mary? RMS stands for “Royal Mail Ship”, as these vessels were used to transport not just passengers but also mail. This wasn’t always an easy task though, and there are stories of captains fighting pirates to defend the mail, or ships torpedoed in wars. This was the case of the SS Gairsoppa, sunk in 1941 and found only in 2011. Some 700 pieces of mail from this ship have been recovered, and they offer a unique insight into the lives of ordinary people, living in extraordinary circumstances during the Second World War.

A Little Mail Carrier peeks into the hole of a green letter box

This green pillar box is from 1853, from the Channel islands — the first place where postboxes were trialed before being brought over to the UK. This first trial was a success, so postboxes started appearing around the British mainland soon after. Although these boxes were first painted red, their color was later standardised as green… but it was quickly discovered that the green color blended too much with the background, so, after many complaints by people who couldn’t seem to find mailboxes anywhere, their color was changed back to red again, to make them more conspicuous!

The Little Mail Carriers look at a display featuring a complete sheet of Penny Blacks, the first postage stamp.

Having heard so much about them, we were super excited to check out the only full sheet of the most famous stamp in the world, the Penny Black, which the museum shows in their exhibition! Before looking at them like this, we hadn’t realized that all the stamps in a single sheet are different — for extra security, they all bear a combination of two letters, with one changing from stamp to stamp. There are 240 stamps in each sheet, to make a total of £1 per sheet.

Paulo dressed as a mail coach guard, with a top hat and a heavy red felt coat Ana dressed as a postwoman, with a round hat and heavy blue felt coat

One of our favourite parts of the exhibition is that it is interactive! You can dress up and be like James Moses Nobbs, who was the longest serving (55 years!) and the last of the Mail Coach Guards in the Royal Mail. Or, you can don the postwoman uniform and try to deliver some secret pneumatic messages on their tube system! We were obviously a little too small for the clothes, but the real Paulo and Ana had fun instead. 😀

A display of several posters about the post office A poster with two crossed pens reads Think ahead, write instead

There are also lots of posters and other printed materials to peruse in the permanent exhibition, and we couldn’t help but admire the graphic design on them. The posters came about when Stephen Tallents was appointed Public Relations Officer to the General Post Office in 1933. He had extensive experience in PR, and set out on a radical programme to change the way in which the General Post Office communicated with its customers. One of these changes was to start using posters made by talented designers for marketing, and also to display in schools and post offices. Reproductions of many of these are available as postcards in the gift shop!

A yellow and red postbus

There’s even a 1983 Post Bus on display! These cute vehicles could once be seen throughout rural Britain, and they were a convenient hybrid between a normal bus for ferrying passengers and a mail van to deliver mail to those areas.

A display of illustrated envelopes, part of the Tolhurst envelopes collection

One of our favourite parts of the exhibition was looking through the Tolhurst envelopes — a collection of correspondence from Frederick Charles Tolhurst to his children. Each letter was posted in a carefully decorated envelope with hand-drawn images – some happy, some sad, but all gorgeous. It’s mailart from the early 20th century, and an illustrated slice of the events that were taking place at the time.

A worker of the Postal Museum signals the start of a trip on the Mail Rail, the train journey through London's underground postal network, which is now open to the public

The Mail Rail has opened to visitors since the last time we were in London, and so, as part of the museum tour, now you can discover the tunnels below London that used to carry the mail swiftly across the city. It was the first electric railway with driverless trains in the world, and it worked from 1927 until 2003, carrying 4 million letters every day at its peak. If you’re a little bit claustrophobic like big Ana, you can take a peek at the Mail Rail experience on this virtual tour.

Wish you were here — 151 years of the British postcard exhibition poster

Right now, the Museum has a brand new exhibition titled Wish You Were Here: 151 Years of the British Postcard, which looks amazing and right up our alley! Here’s a sneak peak:

You can explore postcards throughout history, reflect on their future and even mail one of four unique postcards by artist Peter Liversidge, especially created for the Postal Museum. Bonus points if you spot Postcrossing in the exhibition and send us a photo of the display! 😍

PS – If you’re planning to check out the museum, let other postcrossers know on the forum (maybe you can go as a group and get a discount!).

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I believe most postcrossers have a soft spot for stamps. Who can help but be enthralled by their history and design, and the stories they tell in such a small format? There have been stamp collectors for as long as there have been stamps, but philately goes beyond simply keeping a collection. A big part of the field is actually the research of stamps and postal history.

One association whose members are dedicated to these goals is the Royal Philatelic Society London (or RPSL). We discovered it through Barrie (aka PeaceFox), who is both a postcrosser and one of RPSL’s assistant curators. When we first met him at a philatelic exhibition in Tampere last year, he talked so passionately about his work that we promised to check it out. Sometime after that, the Little Mail Carriers magically found themselves in the British capital with a bit of free time… so we sent them to the RPSL to explore and report back. Here’s their travel diary.

Hello from London 🇬🇧! There’s so much to see and do, and everything looks so posh here! But there’s no time for shopping or sightseeing today, as we’re on a mission: to visit and learn about the Royal Philatelic Society London, the oldest philatelic society in the world.

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The home of the RPSL is a lovely historical building in the heart of London, where we were received by their museum’s curator Juliet Turk. She explained that the Society was founded on April 10th, 1869 with a diary which they still keep…

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… but only truly became “The Royal” (as it is known among its members) 37 years later, when King Edward VII gave permission for the usage of the Royal prefix. Over time, several royal figures have been patrons of the RPSL, most notably King George V, who was an enthusiastic stamp collector and also served as president of the Society from 1896 to 1910.

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One interesting project that the Society is responsible for is the Museum of Philatelic History. Their permanent exhibition in the basement features displays on printing, using, collecting and exhibiting stamps, as well as post office tools and other interesting specimens… and even the printing press of Jean de Sperati, a famous master of philatelic forgeries!

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Visitors have access to temporary exhibitions and themed displays throughout the building, as well as historical artefacts related to philately — including this plaster cast effigy of Queen Elizabeth II by Arnold Machin. If she looks familiar, it’s because this is the image featured not only on the ubiquitous Machin stamps series, but its silhouette is also used in all the British stamps that don’t have a photo of the Queen herself.

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Juliet also gave us a peek into the museum’s archives, which include the Perkins Bacon records. This British company was responsible for printing many series of stamps, among which is the famous Penny Black. Their impeccable accounting and printing journals detail when each series of stamps were printed, and are thus a valuable resource for philatelists.

But… what about postcards?

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Oh, here they are! These date roughly between 1890 and 1920, and were sent to the RPSL’s Experts Committee, the department tasked with the job of certifying the authenticity of stamps.

Rosemary Green, a fellow of the RPSL, bequeathed a huge collection of archives, over 60 medals, 80 antique weighing scales and 50 Tunbridge Ware stamp boxes in 2012. Among the collection are these adorable kitten postcards, featuring scales.

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To keep their collections in good hands, many philatelists bequeath their stamps and prized postal possessions to the Society in their wills, and as a result, great treasures can be found in the RPSL’s own collection… and also some tiny ones, like this mini-postcard that Juliet showed us!

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How cute is that?!

There is also a library at the RPSL, where members come to research philatelic topics. Since every stamp is a mini-testimony to a certain era, there is a lot you can learn about the world through them. Over the years, we’ve seen many philatelic displays in exhibitions around the world, and it’s very likely that some of the research made for them came from the materials in this extensive library.

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At the end of our tour, we sat down with a cup of tea and marvelled at their colorful bookshelves stretching almost to the ceiling. You should definitely come visit, if you’re interested in stamps and philately! Independent Museum tours are free and guided tours start at £5, but booking is required.

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That was a brilliant visit — thank you Juliet and Barrie, for taking such good care of us! 😊

As we left the building, the sun was shining in London, so we went out to see the sights. Well tell you all about it in a different post… Stay tuned!

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We’ve written about postboxes on the blog before, like the very old post office tree in South Africa, or the barrel postbox in the Galapagos… but did you know there’s a very special postbox in Utah that has its own Postcrossing account?

Yup, you read that right! Her name is M (aka MthePostBox), and she lives in South Jordan (a leafy suburb of Salt Lake City), together with Sir Owen, a telephone booth which functions as a free library. They love postcards and books respectively — and when we stumbled on their profile, we found their story so charming that we just had to invite them for the blog. 😊

Sir Owen and M

Sir Owen and M

Could you introduce yourselves to the community?

M: Certainly! I am Dame Mavis Margaret, although my friends all call me 'M’. I was named after two female code breakers at Bletchley Park during World War II. Have you ever seen the movie, “The Imitation Game”? That was the place. There were around 10,000 people working to break codes in secret during those years (and that’s just the people! There were also telephone boxes, telegraphs, post boxes, and a not insignificant number of spy pigeons — but that’s another story). As an anthropomorphised Post Box, I came into service in 1941.

Mavis Batey

Mavis Batey, a code breaker at Bletchley Park during WWII, and one of M’s namesakes.

Sir Owen: I am Sir Owen St. George, named after the Royal Librarian of Kings George V, VI, and the first years of Queen Elizabeth II. As an anthropomorphised telephone box I came into service in 1936, and also got involved in the code breaking efforts during the war. M. and I first worked together at Bletchley, then stayed in intermittent contact after the war — she stayed in England, while I immigrated to Las Vegas, Nevada in the United States in the 1970s, (though still in the capacity of a functioning telephone box — I wasn’t decommissioned until the early 2000s).

What is South Jordan like? And how did you end up there?

Sir Owen: South Jordan is just lovely — it’s located about 25 km southwest of Salt Lake City, the capital city of Utah. As a former farming community that has become increasingly developed and suburban, there are plenty of parks and open spaces, though some neighbourhoods can be quite spread out and not feel very walkable. Everyone seems to favour their Sport Utility Vehicle or Minivan!

Which leads to how I happened to relocate to South Jordan. My stewards had wanted a Little Free Library or neighbourhood book swap for several years: an opportunity to share their love of books and reading, but also to provide a reason for families, friends, and neighbours in the community to get out walking, interact, and share a smile. And what can do that better than free books in a British telephone box? They investigated having one restored and shipped from England, but when they happened upon me outside a Las Vegas antique store, it was an ideal match for all of us.

Sir Owen without M

Sir Owen without M. Doesn’t he look a bit lonely?

M: Sir Owen relocated to Utah and began his days as a Little Free Library in August of 2015. He enjoyed his new surroundings so much that he asked if I might consider joining him. I had been retired for some years at that point, but know that whatever our age or position, we can all find new purpose and be useful. I immigrated in mid 2016, and my stewards finally had my brickwork completed last October.

How did you find out about Postcrossing? What made you stay?

M: I must thank one of my patrons! My stewards originally had postcards made up to enable Sir Owen’s and my visitors to send a kind note to a friend, but then one of our patrons pointed me to the Postcrossing website. Imagine being able to do a similar thing with people all across the world! I remember wondering what I would say that could possibly be interesting enough to fill up a whole postcard. But reading about the person to whom I’m sending a postcard (or from whom I’ve received one), and possibly finding a point of commonality and connection, it helps me realise that no matter our backgrounds, we have so much in common with and so much to learn from each other. And that’s what makes me stay. 😊

Do you have a favourite postcard you’ve received?
Postcard Selection

Sampling of postcards that M has received.

M: I have received so many wonderful and beautiful postcards! Honestly the ones I remember the most are the ones where someone shares something about themselves or why they chose the particular card they sent. A lovely Postcrosser (and self-proclaimed “Crazy Cat Lady” 😀 ) in Switzerland recently sent me a postcard she had made which included a picture of her cat who lived over 16 years! Our library cat Locutus also turns 16 this year, which gave us each a chance to connect and reflect on our benevolent feline overlords.

Locutus the Library Cat

Locutus the Library Cat will occasionally deign to visit, if treats are provided.

Do you do anything special with the cards you receive?
World Map Mural

A world map mural, perfect for marking all the postcards sent and received.

M: My stewards have a large (2 meters x 3 meters) world map mural in the family office. Each postcard sent and received gets a small sticky tab showing were it was received from (or sent to), the number of days it took to be delivered, and distance sent. Their children love learning about the geography and cultural details of so many people across the globe! I also feature many postcards that I’ve received on Sir Owen’s Instagram account, which helps share the Postcrossing fun with his followers in the Little Free Library and larger “Bookstagram” community (which, perhaps unsurprisingly, includes a lot of existing Postcrossers and has convinced others to join!).

Do you get many visitors everyday?
Halloween Visitors

Halloween visitors.

Sir Owen: Yes! Although technically located on my stewards’ property, they intentionally located us next to a walking path that many children use to go to and from the local primary school. My stewards try to keep my shelves stocked with a good selection of books, but there are also other reasons to stop by — free bookmarks and treats, colouring pages, doggie treats, and of course blank postcards to send to a friend! If patrons address them and place them in M, my stewards will even affix postage and mail them via USPS on their behalf. Sir Owen Freebies

Various surprises for patrons. Oh, and don’t forget a book while you’re here!

Visitor Notes

Visitors love leaving Sir Owen and M (and each other) notes on the windows when they visit.

How does the free library work?

Sir Owen: While the motto of a Little Free Library is “Take a Book, Leave a Book”, there’s no expectation that you have to leave a book in order to take one. The purpose is to share the love of reading and build community! If you like a book that you take, you can keep it forever. Or you can share it with a friend, or even return it to another Little Free Library in a different neighbourhood. Similarly if patrons have books they’ve enjoyed that they’d like to share with others, they can place them in my returns and donations bin under my bottom shelf (emblazoned with the Union Jack, of course).

Sir Owen s Rules

Sir Owen’s Rules. The first rule is by far the most important.

I have five shelves organized roughly by age, from picture books on the bottom shelf for children, up through primary and secondary school, young adult, and books for grown-ups. While most of my selections are donated, my stewards also enjoy curating books to ensure I have a good selection for all reading levels (one steward has become quite familiar with the local thrift stores), as well as for particular holidays and themes throughout the year. My favourite celebration? Banned Books Week — celebrated the last week in September every year with the American Library Association. I’ve rediscovered classics and found so many new and interesting ideas that way!

Is M a normal mailbox, still in use by USPS? And is there a phone in the phone booth? :)

M: I am merely decorative as far as the USPS is concerned, as I would have to have the words 'U.S. Mail’ stamped or painted on me to serve in any official capacity. However I did have the great honour of serving as an official letter drop for Santa Claus this past Christmas! Not only did I get to help deliver them, but every child who wrote also received a return postcard from Mrs. Claus stamped from the North Pole. I have also occasionally been mistaken as a book return. 😊

Santa Letter Drop

M loved being an official drop-off for letters to Santa this past Christmas.

Christmas Morning

Christmas morning!

Checking M for Postcards

The youngest child of Sir Owen and M’s stewards loves checking M every day for new postcards to mail for patrons.

Sir Owen: I no longer feature a telephone; that leaves more room for books! However about a week after I opened, a kindly gentleman visited me and gave me a frame that had once housed the emergency telephone in a lift. As you saw above, I use it now to welcome patrons and explain what a Little Free Library is.

Finally, any plans for the future?

Sir Owen and M: Why, books, reading, and Postcrossing of course! Our stewards also think there might be a faerie garden in our future, as well as a couple of other surprises still in the works. One of our stewards says that if he could figure out how to pay the bills by purchasing books at thrift stores and then giving them away for free, he’d retire and steward for us full time (well, that and tend the royal beehives 😊 ). Our other steward (by far the more handy of the two) enjoys creating amazing projects for us in her growing wood shop (such as Sir Owen’s bookshelves, and our brand new bench featured in the first picture above!). Sir Owen and I plan on being here happily giving people a chance to slow down, share a smile, and build community, both in our local neighbourhood and across the world.

Thank you Ana for letting us share our story!

Thank you guys for this wonderful interview! I wish we lived closer to South Jordan, to pay M and Sir Owen a visit and sit on their bench for a while…

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Alan (aka MindYerCar) from the UK sent us a tip to a radio series from BBC4 that aired some years ago. The People’s Post is a 15 part series of programs on everything Royal Mail: from the early history of the postal service, to reforms and modern day challenges. Most of the episodes are still available on BBC4's website for everyone to hear though, so we thought it was worth sharing with you.

The People's Post

If you have a bit of time, give it a listen! And as always, we appreciate your tips on all-things related to mail — if you know of interesting stuff we should check out, leave a comment or shoot us an email. 📬

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Once again, we give the Little Mail Carriers center stage, so that they can finish telling us about their adventures in Leicestershire (here’s part one of their adventures in the UK, in case you missed it)!

Naturally, we wanted to take part in a Postcrossing meeting whilst we were in England, which we did with our host, her sister and cousin. They have quite a collection of postcards between them and we liked picking out cards to send which showed typically British images. Our favourite was a postcard of William and Kate; the closest we got to meeting any Royalty whilst on our visit!

The Little Mail Carriers in Leicestershire, UK! - part 2

During our stay, on 9th September 2015, Her Majesty The Queen became Britain’s longest serving monarch, having been on the throne for 63 years and 7 months. This surpasses the reign of her great-great-grandmother Queen Victoria. We were really interested to learn more about Queen Elizabeth II and her reign and lots of the newspapers had special editions on this day. We were also very excited to hear that Royal Mail have released a limited edition First Class Definitive stamp in regal purple. The stamp is usually red but will stay purple for 12 months to mark this historic occasion – cool!

The Little Mail Carriers in Leicestershire, UK! - part 2

Of course wherever we are in the world we like to check out the mail boxes and no trip to the UK would be complete without seeing some of those iconic red post boxes! We were lucky to see a few during our visit, including a traditional pillar box, a very old post box in ">Birmingham, and even a miniature replica (almost the perfect size for us!).

The Little Mail Carriers in Leicestershire, UK! - part 2 The Little Mail Carriers in Leicestershire, UK! - part 2

Our favourites though were these two very special gold post boxes in Stratford-upon-Avon. Royal Mail has painted more than 100 of its post boxes gold to celebrate every GB gold medal won during the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games. The post boxes will remain permanently gold to mark the achievements of the athletes and the historic Games – wow! These two are in honour of the appropriately named paralympian rower James Roe.

The Little Mail Carriers in Leicestershire, UK! - part 2

We loved our day trip to Stratford-upon-Avon, where we enjoyed all things Shakespeare, including visiting the Shakespeare Centre and Shakespeare’s Birthplace, posing with a statue of Hamlet, meeting a giant Shakespeare teddy and stocking up on British souvenirs! We also enjoyed watching boats in the sunshine on the canal.

The Little Mail Carriers in Leicestershire, UK! - part 2 east midlands19 The Little Mail Carriers in Leicestershire, UK! - part 2

On the final day of our visit, we were treated to a trip to Cadbury World in Birmingham, home of the world famous Cadbury chocolate!

The Little Mail Carriers in Leicestershire, UK! - part 2

As soon as we got out of the car, we could smell the delicious chocolate in the air! There was plenty of chocolate to be found inside of course, as well as the chance to make some new chocolatey friends; the Cadbury Buttons owl, a purple and white cow and even Bertie Bassett himself!

The Little Mail Carriers in Leicestershire, UK! - part 2 The Little Mail Carriers in Leicestershire, UK! - part 2

Phew, what an exciting trip! We had a great time visiting the UK and can’t wait to go back again soon.

Our heartfelt thank you to Sophie (aka FlyingGiraffe) for hosting the little guys and taking them on so many adventures!