Postal history is the part of the philatelic world that deals with the characteristics of the intact postal item. For postal history it is not enough to deal with isolated components such as an affixed stamp or a cancel that has been struck off. Postal history only becomes interesting when the overall picture of franking and postmarks, of the tariff used and the route taken can be considered as a whole. Social philately goes one step further, seeing an envelope or a postcard - even if intact and complete - first as a carrier medium for the message for which the letter or card was written and sent in the first place.

Joachim Helbig described postal history collecting as follows in his article on 'Ways to postal history' in 'Postgeschichte' No. 50 of May 1992:

[Quote beginning]

1. you need an idea:

When you decide to start a postal history collection, you also say goodbye to the well-trodden tracks that dictate catalogue numbers. You have to find your own theme, explore the ways to realise it and present it convincingly. Catalogues clearly tell you what you need to have a good collection. But this certainty also means boredom. Postal history requires independent thought and effort, but it is exciting and interesting. You don't have to be original to be a postal historian, you can use other people's ideas as a guide.

2 You need information:

By necessary information is meant historical knowledge of the chosen period, but above all knowledge of the respective postal regulations and contracts. With the current state of research, there are only a few areas of older postal history that are covered by literature. But postal history is not limited to the 18th or 19th century. Postal history begins yesterday, so to speak. Those who take care to work on the current postal situation save themselves many difficulties that arise when dealing with the 19th century. These problems result from the fundamentally differently organised postal systems. Postal history becomes comprehensible when one knows the logic of the respective postal system and connects it with the political-historical contexts.

Postal historians actually only differ from conventional philatelists in that they tell a (the) story to their covers.

Obtaining the information material to be able to tell this story(s) is indeed the real problem. The necessary archival materials are still largely undeveloped, postal contracts and postal regulations are only sparsely published and difficult for the beginner to use. Basically, there are two ways to "work" on postal history:

the inductive path (deducing the general from the specific individual item) and

the deductive path (deducing from the general to the individual).

It is undoubtedly the case that fruitful work can only be achieved through a combination of both paths. However, most people interested in postal history find themselves in the situation that they have letter material from which general conclusions could be drawn, or, to put it more simply, with which history(s) could be (inductively) told. But this way is very tedious, time-consuming and discouraging in the long run. Therefore, the acquisition of postal contracts and postal regulations (deductive material) and their reappraisal is unavoidable. I see the task of older postal history precisely in making these materials available step by step.

[End of quote]

Let us take the inductive path here. The following two letters may document this.

1.  The franking and postmark on a letter tell us something about the route taken, the importance of the post offices involved and thus the local postal organisation.

Letter from Someo via Bignasco to Sornico, all located in the upper Maggia valley in the canton of Ticino, mailed in November 1866. The franking with a 'Seated Helvetia' was cancelled contrary to the regulations with a so-called ray cancel of the postal depot Someo.

This relatively simple letter answers a whole series of questions from the fields of rates and frankings as well as postmark lore:

What did it cost? The so-called local rate was five centimes for a letter weighing up to 10 grams and up to a distance of two hours or 9.6 kilometres. If the letter had not gone as far as the end of the valley to Sornico, but down the valley to Locarno, the sender would have had to pay ten centimes, the rate for the whole of Switzerland over two hours' journey. The tariff was thus dependent on distance and weight, a principle that is still applied today.

The second question is also about money. Who pays for the transport? In this case of a so-called Franko letter, clearly the sender who affixed the stamp. In the local tariff, the recipient could also have paid the postman five centimes for the transport when he received the letter. With such a postage paid letter, the postage would therefore have been identical, regardless of whether the sender or the recipient paid. In the case of an imaginary letter from Someo to Locarno, however, the sender would have had to pay ten centimes and the recipient 15 centimes.

This directly answers the next question. How does one pay the postage? In advance with stamps or other 'tokens', be it a postage paid stamp or a non-physical SMS stamp today, alternatively afterwards with an increased postage rate in cash by the recipient.

Stamp science comes into play with the next question. What conclusion can be drawn about the workmanship of this letter from the cancelled stamps? The ray cancel of Someo does not bear a date. From a purely geographic point of view, the letter must have come from the postal depot at Someo, running halfway up to Sornico through the 'real' post office at Bignasco, which also had a date stamp. The different types of postmarks also reflect the different functions of the post offices. The Someo post office was allowed to sell the stamp and should really only have put its jet cancel next to the stamp to make it clear where the letter came from. The actual processing and cancellation of the stamp should only have taken place at the 'real' post office in Bignasco.

Let us come to the question of the path taken. What does this letter say about the path? The path in a valley is clearly defined, without alternative and thus not very exciting.

2. the franking and postmark on a letter tell us something about the route taken, the postal administrations involved and their share of the postage paid


What is postal history

Pre-philately is pure postal history. Even the exchange of letters between sender and recipient was a complex undertaking. The vast majority of letters in the 18th and 19th centuries were sent without postage until 1850. It was often not possible to determine the postage in advance. The complicated postal relationships of the various rights holders made calculating the postage for letters across national borders a sometimes impossible undertaking. It was only later, from the 19th century onwards, that it was possible to send cash-franked letters (prepaid postage = FRANCO), depending on the destination. The condition, however, was that the interstate postal relations of the sender and the receiving office were regulated by a postal contract. 

Unstamped letters from this period therefore include all the charges of the individual postal jurisdictions and when the letter was delivered, the recipient paid the final amount. This also ensured that the letter was delivered to the recipient. The collected tax was then redistributed or settled via the remuneration lists among the postal administrations involved in the mail route.

Zurich. 20 August 1785, via Basel to Mariaking in Alsace. Postage from Zurich to Basel 4 Kreuzer, Basel receives 6 Kreuzer from France and France demanded 13 Sols from the recipient.

Letters from this period that were sent over long distances and crossed several countries and thus usually also different postal sovereignties, demand a lot of knowledge and sweaty clarifications even from a specialist in postal history. On the one hand, he has to know the tariff structures and the postal conditions, on the other hand, he has to be familiar with the currency confusion of the almost 300 different currencies in Switzerland alone. He must also be able to interpret the postmarks and the special services associated with them. For example, a postmark can show that a letter (see illustration below) did not travel via the normal stagecoach routes, but was transported via a separate relay.

Lucerne 12 March 1799, from the Minister of War in Lucerne to the Administrative Chamber of the Canton of Zurich. Red stamp " EXTRA COUIRIER" and handwritten note "trés pressé".  

If the letters were also sent abroad, where different foreign currencies were involved, a clarification can take several weeks per letter and often several specialists, who have joined forces in the Swiss Association for Postal History, are required with their special knowledge of sub-areas. The postmarks also have to be determined according to their origin and of course all the notes often have to be analysed. They usually give the clue as to which route the letter took. To foreign destinations, partial frankings are often encountered since it became possible to send letters paid in cash (prepaid). The letter was then paid for in cash up to the point agreed in the postal contract, such as the Franco border, port of disembarkation or port of embarkation. The remaining distance had to be paid by the recipient.

Zurich 24 April 1846, to Rio de Janeiro for wrapper in third weight with postage paid to port of disembarkation in Rio (on reverse are 192 centimes and round stamp "Bureau Maritim, Havre" The consignee paid for port charges and inland delivery and was charged 240 reis. Red partial franking stamp: "P" in double square.



Even seemingly unstamped letters, whether from the pre-philatelic period or later, have their charm, especially for home collectors they are important collection items. 

Cash-franked (note on reverse) domestic pre-philatelic cover of 1847 from Colombier/Neuchâtel to Neuville/Bern. Front side: lower left FRANCO for paid. Next to the dispatch stamp the circular P.P for postage paid. On the reverse: the noted prepaid tax of 4 Kreuzern for the letter dispatch.

It is easy to recognise, the inland letters often have no great conspicuousness. If you are looking for such letters, look for the P.P. and the FRANCO, as a postmark or handwritten.

But they can also be more conspicuous. The letters to foreign countries below are a bit more conspicuous, all postmarks in red, the same procedure applies. Look for P.P. and Franco.
If there are also batch and other stamps on them, so much the better.

 Zurich 9 December 1844 as a prepaid (red FRANCO) and registered letter to Paris. On the reverse side of the letter the tax of 120 centimes is noted. On the front the French charges of 7 decimes are noted with the 7 AED, which France was to receive from Basel. The letter cost 8 kreuzer to Basel in Switzerland, the 7 decimene corresponded to 14 kreuzer, together this was 22 kreuzer. The registered mail fee resulted in a doubling of the rate, thus 44 kreuzer or the equivalent of 120 centimes

It was not until the cantons of Zurich and Geneva issued their first cantonal stamps in 1843 and later Basel in 1845 that the end of pre-philately was heralded. But letters outside the local postage or even abroad were still sent at this time without postage or with cash postage (paid in cash by the sender at the counter). Even in the early days of the Bundespost, from 1850 onwards, when pre-philately ended completely, many letters were still sent unstamped. 
This was due to the small values on the stamps and the high postage to foreign countries, which could not have been covered with an excess of stamps.

For all further details on franking marks, please refer to Postal History: "Charging marks".

Letters from the stamp era that were posted without postage are often treated as pre-philatelic letters, but this is fundamentally wrong. These are then unfranked or cash-franked letters. See Postal History: "Postage, Franco, Partially Franked". The specialist will be pleased, because pre-philatelic letters are often not expensive. But the later an unstamped letter is posted, the rarer they become. And as it is, rarities, once they have been recognised, are often no longer available at a good price.  




This paper attempts to explain the postal and philatelic terms associated with the word franking. Some people will find at least some of the terms "exaggerated" or even "useless". However, on closer examination, especially on careful consideration, one will inevitably find that these terms - used correctly - can be very informative and thus have their justification in philatelic terminology. Whether hunters or pigeon fanciers, sportsmen of all disciplines or amateur radio operators, whether in the professional field or in the field of hobbies, everywhere there are special technical terms, i.e. a terminology of their own, which is often jokingly referred to as "technical jargon". But what is found in all fields should not be foreign in philately. If in a technical language word inventions and word formations (technical terms) make it possible to describe a thing or a process precisely without needing a (often long) description or paraphrase, then this "technical jargon" is justified. But please remember that a language, even a technical language, can only be used if it is understood and mastered by the group of people in question. After this short excursion into the field of technical language, back to philately, back to frankings.


If we want to talk about frankings, it is necessary first to clarify what is meant by franking.
"Payment of the carriage charge at the post office" - so Brockhaus says. "Frankaturen are the stamps affixed to a postal item and representing the amount of postage, whereby it is irrelevant whether one or more stamps are used or necessary" so writes Hager in his Grossen Lexikon der Philatelie. "Franking is the amount of postage stamps that must be spent to frank a postal item according to the valid postal tariff" - this is how Arnau interprets it in his Handbuch der Philatelie. These statements are comprehensible to the reader and essentially get to the heart of the matter. However, I would like to offer my own interpretation of the term "franking". It reads as follows: "Frankatur" is the amount to be paid in postage stamps or in cash for a postal item and a postal route according to the valid postal rate regulations and to be indicated on the item. This statement is, in my opinion, somewhat more precise and more applicable to the overall treatment of the subject. But, is that really all that can be said about frankings? In all four cases, the definition refers to proof of having paid the fees demanded by a postal administration for the transport of a postal item. Is that enough for the philatelist who strives to describe a thing accurately and, above all, to designate it correctly? It will probably not be enough. For this, the subject matter must be worked through and the knowledge of frankings must be deepened.
When working on the term "franking" or "frankaturen", one cannot avoid the terms "postage", "franco", "taxe" and "fees". The terms become blurred and often cannot be separated from each other. However, if you want to make the subject of "franking" comprehensible, you first have to deal with these terms.


In earlier times, postage was the general term for all types of postal charges. In the vernacular, this is still the case today. Later, postage was understood to mean the fee to be collected from the recipient (postage), and this is how the term is still interpreted today. In connection with the word "postage" is postage-free, which should actually be correctly called "fee-free". Individuals, public authorities, state and private institutions etc. were and are granted exemption from charges under certain conditions, either temporarily or permanently. These postal items must be marked accordingly to avoid unjustified postage (surcharge) being levied on the recipient.


Franco is the opposite of postage. In this case, the recipient does not have to pay any fees. The sender pays the amount specified in the scale of charges in cash or by means of a postage stamp. Franco is therefore to be translated as "free" or "franked" or, as it was also called in earlier times, "franked".


The word "taxe" is an old collective term for postage and franco that is still used in many countries today; in a way, it is an umbrella term for prepaid or subsequently collected postal charges. 
One speaks of a "tacked-on" item when the sender has not paid the prescribed fee or has not paid it in full and the post office has noted the necessary additional charges (postage) on the item. Very often the postmark T was and still is used by postal administrations for this purpose. It would be wrong to take this as an argument for using the term exclusively for postage recovery.


A fee is a charge levied in return for the use of a public facility. The Post is a public institution. Its fee rates are regulated in a schedule of fees, which is amended from time to time and adapted to economic conditions. This all-encompassing term "fee" is applied equally to the terms postage, franco, taxe and franking. It is further proof of how closely intertwined these terms are.

But back to franking. What is meant by franking has already been said. Not all charges levied by the post office for a service are frankings; not even when they are provided with postage stamps. This will be discussed later.

For the philatelist, the concrete determination of a franking is of importance. Depending on the theme and structure of a collection, such pieces must be precisely integrated into the chronological sequence of the collection. This can only be done if the piece is clearly classified.

This brings us to the first and most important prerequisite. A piece can only be clearly classified if it is classifiable. Letter parts and pieces are not (or only to a limited extent) suitable material for franking. One does not know what was torn off or cut off from the pieces and usually cannot reconstruct it. Only complete pieces in which all postage stamps used, place of dispatch, place of receipt, postmarks of all kinds, routing marks and all other postal markings are recognisable and unaffected guarantee a perfect classification.

Another basic requirement is to know the multitude of frankings and their philatelically correct designation. There are always uncertainties and incorrect designations that could be avoided. This is certainly also due to the fact that one cannot simply write the individual franking designations one below the other and assign the pieces to be examined to one of these designations. In principle, several franking terms are applicable to each item. It depends on the point of view from which one looks at the piece in order to determine the assignment possibilities.

A registered letter is franked with four stamps of the same issue but with different nominal values and addressed to a recipient in France. These pieces are

a registered franking
a coloured franking
a foreign franking and
a multi-colour franking.

The philatelist who has classified such a piece according to all aspects can now choose under which designation and in which place in his collection he can best show off the letter.

Frankaturen their meaning and their designation