The Past is a Foreign...Something

Cupids, Man bats, & Penny-post women with Wings

Or, Americans learn about the British Postal Reforms of 1840


The way the London correspondent of the New World affects a tone of Victorian prudishness, about the crudely drawn “naked” people on the letter sheet he’s describing, is, simply, hilarious. And the dig at Frances Trollope (who said of America, and I quote, “Ew.”) is pretty nice, too.

From The New World: A Weekly Family Journal of Popular Literature, Science, Art and News, June 13, 1840, p.28:

From our London Correspondent
London, May 6, 1840

To-day begins the penny postage stamps and envelopes, and a more universally complained of matter, in a small way, we have not seen in a long while. You may yourselves describe them better than I can from the specimens sent. The stamp is an uncommonly plain affair, being a simple head of the Queen on a little piece of paer somewhere about the size of a Broadway omnibus ticket … The envelope is a more complex concern, one-half or more of the front being used to illustrate all the outlandish parts of humanity, sketches of which Peter Parley has already placed before the American public.

Brittania sits in the middle, with outspread arms despatching a quartette of grown up Cupids, or man bats, or else penny-post women with wings, in dishabille. At her right there is an elephant, some queer looking camels, and a group of Chinese and Orientals. One of the animals in this tableau looks somewhat like Martin Van Buren–perhaps this is fancy.

On the other side of her ladyship is William Penn bargaining with half a dozen Indians, who, I may say, are dressed in sans-habille, if there be such an expression–beside them are some little papouses in the arms of their mothers, and a couple of naked coopers hard at work under the superintendence of a tall gentleman in a sombrero. In the extreme distance on one side are some ‘liners,’ but no steamboats–on the other is a Venus or something like it, driving a smartish reindeer in a carman’s sledge.

As supporters to all this interesting ‘pennyworth,’ there are on either side two or three of the fair sex busy reading love letters. One lady ‘over the left,’ is extremely like that amiable authoress, Madame Trollope. Such is our opinion of the whole concern, but, as was said before, you may describe it better yourselves.

No…no, I don’t think we quite can.

Image Cite: “Mulready envelope,”