First piece of mail with a stamp could sell for up to $2.5m

Pre-paid envelope, which includes a Penny Black, was designed by Irish artist William Mulready

The first known piece of mail sent using a pre-paid stamp is expected to fetch between $1.5 million and $2.5 million (€1.38m- €2.3m) at an upcoming sale in New York. If achieved it would become among the most valuable items in philately ever to be offered at auction.

Offered at Sothebys The One sale on February 2nd, the item is the earliest known posted envelope using a prepaid stamp. The envelope is a Mulready letter-sheet with a Penny Black stamp, first introduced in May 1840. The stamp was the first ever method of pre-payment for post.

Prior to this post in the UK was paid for by the recipient – you can just imagine the issues this threw up – and costs of delivering mail were not recoverable by the postal service when recipients refused or were unable to pay. Rates back then were said to be high, complex to understand and anomalous.

The Postage Reform Act of 1839 abolished free franking privileges (letters “for the service of the Commonwealth” were free of charge), and established uniform penny postage rates. In May 1840, the Mulready, an ornate wrapper/envelope designed by Irish artist William Mulready, was first introduced.


Known as Mulready stationery after the Co Clare-born artist, the envelopes were issued in two forms that could be folded over and posted. Adorned with a design, emblematic of Britannia sending winged messengers to all four corners of the globe, the envelopes came with a Penny Black, the world’s first adhesive stamp used in a public postal system. These new steps in communication eliminated the need for postmen to handle money, hence reducing theft and forgery.

Mulready’s pre-paid envelope – the earliest known in existence – was successfully sent, first stamped with a Penny Black, on May 2nd. It was then “ingeniously repurposed”, according to catalogue notes, as it was “turned inside out and re-mailed as a Mulready on May 4th”. The letter covered a combined journey of 400 miles before the official start date for the stamp of May 6th.

Mulready’s design was the subject of a celebrated caricature by John Leech in Punch: his design was conceived on Friday the 13th, and delivered on April’s Fools Day, according to Sotheby’s. “Yet the success of these reforms was evident in the significant surge of mail volume handled by the English Post Office, soaring from 75 million to 350 million annually – within a decade.”

At the time Mulready was a well-respected painter living in London, and much of his works now reside at the South Kensington Museum and National Gallery in London.

Despite the 1 Penny Mulready letter-sheet being well preserved over its 180-year existence, the contents of the letter have been lost to history. Markings on the letter-sheet give an indication of its journey; it left London on May 2nd to go to a 35-year-old manager of an iron works, William Blenkinsop Jnr in Dalston, Cumbria, though the original sender remains unknown.

The first known use of a Penny Black on an Irish letter was May 8th, 1840 – six days after the letter in Sotheby’s sale – when a letter was posted from a Fitzpatrick to a Thomas in Dublin. With independence in 1922, Ireland began to issue its own stamps.

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Elizabeth Birdthistle

Elizabeth Birdthistle

Elizabeth Birdthistle, a contributor to The Irish Times, writes about property, fine arts, antiques and collectables