Postal history and postage stamps of France

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The postal history of France goes back to the early Middle Ages . It is strongly influenced by the country's varied history . The Paris balloon mail , which marks a crucial point in the history of air mail , is particularly famous among philatelists . Today, French postage stamps are mainly associated with Marianne , which has graced France's definitive stamps without interruption since 1945.

Development up to the French Revolution

Forerunner of the French postal system

Forerunners of postal services on French soil can already be found at the time of the Roman Empire . The state transport system for messages, goods and people, the cursus publicus , established by Emperor Augustus , also operated in Gaul . In general, the beginning of French postal history is seen with the division of the Franconian Empire and the emergence of a separate state France in 843. At that time, however, there were only more or less regular messenger services , which were largely maintained by noble houses and, especially during the war, brought news.

In the beginning, these messengers were mostly unridden. It was not until 1101 that there were records of the first mounted messenger in the royal service of Robert II. In 1261, 16 mounted messengers were already mentioned in the service of King Louis VIII . Even at the time of the Hundred Years War , messengers were often used to deliver messages. Philip VI In 1350 there were already 13 unmounted and 6 mounted messengers available. This number increased steadily in the course of the war. Under Charles V there were only 8 unridden messengers, but there were already 36 messengers on horseback.

Beginnings of the organized royal postal system

The establishment of an organized French postal system took place shortly after the successful end of the Hundred Years War. The courier services that had been maintained up to now were slowly being replaced by a nationwide postal system. Shortly after ascending the French throne, King Louis XI. on June 19, 1461 a post for the French court. The use was still reserved exclusively for the king and the members of his court. On June 9, 1464, the king issued a uniform regulation for the postal system. A total of 234 mounted messengers provided the postal service on predetermined routes between the most important places in the whole kingdom.

In 1490, under the successor of Louis XI, King Charles VIII , members of the Italian courier family Tasso , as well as within the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation , were entrusted with the transport of royal courier mail and the expansion of a nationwide postal system. The use of this postal system was still reserved for high nobility and the king himself and was steadily expanded and expanded in the following decades. Under King Charles IX. a tax was levied for the first time from 1576 on the conveyance of messages using the royal postal system. From 1603, under the newly appointed postmaster general Fouquet de la Varane , the royal postal service was gradually opened to the public.

Expansion and introduction of postal tariffs

His successor, Postmaster General Pierre d'Almeras , endeavored to expand and uniformly regulate this postal system. On October 16, 1627, he introduced the first uniform postal tariffs that every user who was not a member of the king had to pay. Depending on the distance between the sender and the destination, different fees were charged for the delivery of the letters. For example, sending letters from Paris to Dijon or Mâcon cost 2 sous and from Paris to Lyon , Bordeaux or Toulouse 3 sous. A new regulation and adjustment to the expanded postal system took place in April 1644. The postage rate of 2 sous was completely abolished, but 41 cities with the postal tariff between 3 and 5 sous of Paris were already listed. Just a month later, in May 1644, the first installments for England with 10 Sous from Paris were announced.

Extensive modernization and reform of the postal system was carried out under the Sun King Louis XIV . In connection with this reform, King Louis XIV established a Paris city post office , which was leased and maintained by Jean-Jacques Renouard . The postage for the city post was one sou. The letters were delivered within a day. Jean-Jacques Renouard had mailboxes set up specifically for this purpose and began selling paper that was similar to wrapping paper, which should be attached to the letter to be sent. These billets de port payé first appeared on August 8, 1653 and are now considered the first forerunners of the postage stamp .

Although the Paris City Post Office soon had to be shut down for economic reasons, new reforms were carried out. In 1673 a uniform regulation of postal tariffs was decided. These should only depend on the destination and the location of the sender. Four different distance zones were established. Letters within 25 Postleugen (lieue de poste) corresponded to 2 Sous, from 25 to 60 Postleugen 3 Sous, from 60 to 80 Postleugen 4 Sous and beyond that 5 Sous. One Postleuge is roughly 3.898 km. Since 1676, envelopes were also sent with the premium of a sou for the first time . This premium was relatively cheap compared to other countries.

Development up to the French Revolution

The tariff system introduced under Louis XIV was retained in its basic structure. In the following time only the tariffs themselves were changed. At times there were also fixed postage levels within a department . By 1789, the entire country was better served by post and connected to the postal services of neighboring countries.

In addition to the opening of new post offices, postmarks were also used more and more frequently on letters in the 18th century . Most sender stamps are long stamps and have a de (from) in front of the place name . In addition, stamps with the inscription Port Payé (postage paid) and Déboursé (money displayed ) were often used if the recipient refused to accept the letter or could not be found.

French Revolution, Republic and Empire

Changes in the postal system due to the revolution

Especially at the beginning of the French Revolution , there were regular major delays and local closures of the French postal service. In addition to the uprisings that made mail delivery difficult, some of those responsible for the French postal service were also executed in the course of the revolution. In 1792 the first major increase in postage rates to 5 to 15 and within a department to 4 sous was carried out as a result. Just three years later, in 1795, all postage was increased by a further sou to 6 to 18 and within a department to 5 sous. Further tariff increases followed in the next two years. It was only towards the end of the revolution that postage was largely reduced to the previous price level.

These new postage rates were only in use for a short time because they were completely reorganized in 1800 through a comprehensive reform and adapted to the newly introduced metric system . Standard delivery of a letter weighing up to seven grams within 100 kilometers cost two decimes . This new system was retained until the Congress of Vienna in 1815. Furthermore, the first French postmarks with the date can be found in this period.

Napoleonic Wars and Congress of Vienna

The Napoleonic Wars led to numerous territorial expansions in France. This new French country was quickly connected to its own postal system. In the course of this enlargement of the area, all regions were assigned their own department numbers for easier administration. The numbers of the new regions were mostly between 84 and 129 and were also used as a designation in postal traffic. In addition to these French territories, France also took over the postal system for a short period of time in occupied territories or in those states that were established at the pressure and instigation of France. In the Helvetic Republic , for example, the entire Swiss postal system was taken over by France. During the Napoleonic Wars, a well-operating French field post was also set up. Numerous notes on letters that have survived still testify to the well-organized forwarding.

The first rail mail in France was taken on July 16, 1846 on the Paris – Rouen route.

With the Congress of Vienna, the original borders of France were restored. As a result, the French post office was again limited to the old national territory. The French postal system was largely spared new reforms in the period before the February Revolution of 1848 , with the exception of minor zone changes in 1828. During this time, however, the first field posts were already in use as part of the acquisition of the first colonies in Africa . However, after the February Revolution of 1848 and the establishment of the Second Republic , major changes were made.

The first French postage stamps

Shortly after the establishment of the Second Republic in France under President Louis Napoléon Bonaparte , it was decided to issue its own French postage stamps based on the British model. On January 1, 1849, the first two postage stamps for 20 centimes and 1 franc appeared at French post offices. The value of 20 centimes, also called vingt centimes noir , was intended for franking a standard letter, the value of 1 franc, also Un franc vermillon , was intended for larger postage rates. The two postage stamps were part of the French postage stamp issue Cérès, the other values ​​of which appeared in the following years. The total of six values ​​all show the monochrome image of the Cérès . This is from the declaration of value and the inscription REPUB. FRANC. surround. The imperforate stamps were produced in the Paris Mint using letterpress printing on slightly tinted stamp paper.

Together with the new postage stamps, the French post offices also used new, uniform postmarks. However, these did not reveal a place name or a date. The mostly grid-like imprints of the postmarks should prevent re-use of postage stamps that have already been used as much as possible. In connection with the Cérès brands, however, they were only in use for a short time, as these soon gave way to brands with the portrait of the president. These still show the same frame drawing and inscription as the Cérès. After the re-establishment of the empire, however, this changed to EMPIRE FRANC.

Empire and Franco-German War

New stamps

Napoleon III, colonial stamp

In the years leading up to the Franco-Prussian War , the new French emperor appeared without exception on France's postage stamps. However, the inscription and drawing were partially changed. From 1863 only postage stamps were used that listed the country name EMPIRE FRANCAIS in full and not, as was customary until then, abbreviated. This was also the first perforated postage stamp in France. The postage stamps, which were also issued from 1859, showed, in contrast to the postage stamps, only one digit drawing . The telegraph stamps issued by France from January 1, 1868 did not show the emperor himself, but the imperial coat of arms as the main motif, an eagle.

At the time of the Empire, the first postage stamps were also issued in France's colonies . From 1859 a series of postage stamps appeared there, which, like the telegraph stamps, shows an eagle and also has great differences in the overall design to the French postage stamps. This series was, however, towards the end of the Empire by Napoleon III. repressed. The new postage stamp issue differed only slightly from the French version. If the inscription of the first series COLONIES DE L'EMPIRE FRANCAIS still indicated that these postage stamps were intended for the French colonies, this was dropped by Napoleon III. whole and was replaced by a simple EMPIRE FRANCAIS . Before the introduction of the colonial brands, the brands of the mother country were already in use in several countries and were replaced by the uniform colonial brands in 1859.

Imperial field post

Address side of a balloon letter with the inscription Par ballon monté

In addition to the new postage stamps and types of postage stamps in France, there were hardly any postal changes. The fee system remained largely unchanged. However, due to the participation of the empire in several wars, the respective field posts were set up and this system was expanded. These include, for example, the field post transport of the Crimean War . Here the field post letters carried, including those of the allied British Army, were marked with the field postmark Army d'Orient . The field post was also used during the Sardinian War . The soldiers were equipped with 20 centimes stamps from their home country and posted the soldiers' letters franked with them both at the French field post and at normal Sardinian civil post offices.

The most famous French message transmission during the war, however, was balloon mail in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870 and 1871. The connection between Paris and unoccupied France could only be maintained through a clever interaction between balloon mail and carrier pigeons . In addition to 2,500,000 letters and postcards , the balloons from Paris were given  a total of 363 carrier pigeons so that they could return later with replies or other messages. Similar attempts were made in Metz to use balloons to deliver messages to allies during the Franco-Prussian War. The Metz balloon mail , however, did not achieve the extent and fame of the Paris balloon mail .

Third Republic and the Second World War

Before the First World War

Before Paris surrendered on January 28, 1871, a provisional government of the newly proclaimed Third Republic was formed in Bordeaux in 1870 . The first postage stamps of the new republic were issued on October 11, 1870. Cérès was again chosen as the motif and the new French postage stamps were modeled on the Cérès stamps of the Second Republic with the inscription REPUB. FRANC. This time, however, the stamps were issued perforated. During the war, stamp production was relocated to Bordeaux. Only after the Prussian troops had withdrawn from Paris were the postage stamps printed again in the Paris mint. The French colonial stamps also switched back to the old Cérès motif.

In the years after the war, the French post office quickly resumed its normal service. The previous post and tariff system of the empire was retained. When the Universal Postal Union was founded in 1874, the French Post Office was one of the first participating states (joined on January 1, 1876). The postcard was introduced in France in January 1873 . The standard postage for this was set at 15 centimes. In March 1892 the first express shipments were made at a cost of 50 centimes. These innovations and tariffs were retained without change until the beginning of the First World War .

First World War and the interwar period

Right at the beginning of the First World War, the German Empire occupied some French territories in the north and northeast of the country. Here a few German occupation issues were issued. From December 1, 1916, these were combined with Belgian territories as "Etappengebiet West" and provided with a uniform crew output. This issue was the German Germania issue with a French value imprint. In addition to German occupation expenses in their own country, the French army issued its own postage stamps during the First World War. These include, for example, the issues of the Mediterranean islands of Castellorizo and Ruad . In contrast to the other great powers of the World War, only a few occupation postal services were set up due to the lack of success. In the unoccupied country itself, the French postal system operated largely undisturbed.

French stamp with overprint MEMEL and value in pfennigs

France emerged from the First World War as a victorious power and was able to operate its postal system across the country again. Added to this was the gain in the formerly German area of Alsace-Lorraine . Due to the Treaty of Versailles , France briefly became the protective power of some countries. For example, in the German Memelland or Memel area, postage stamps from the French mandate administration were issued from 1920 to 1923.

The French postal tariff system was increased several times until the beginning of the Second World War due to a small but progressive inflation in the 1920s. By the time the war broke out, the fee for a standard letter had quadrupled.

The French air mail was also established in the 1920s . The first flights took place between London and Paris in November 1919 . The French airmail charges were three francs. This novelty was mainly used as a connection to the colonies. Among the pilots of the French airmail was Antoine de Saint-Exupéry .

German occupation and état français

During the Second World War, France was in a German-occupied part of the north and the État français divided in the south, which replaced the Third Republic and the German Reich collaborated . Alsace-Lorraine was completely annexed to the German Empire. The war in France had serious consequences for the French postal system. There were numerous restrictions and temporary suspensions. Several locally used German occupation issues soon appeared in the occupied part. From 1940 the Vichy regime used its first own postage stamps. These mostly showed the new head of state Henri Philippe Pétain . From 1941 to 1942 an airmail connection from the État français could still be maintained at times.

After the liberation of France in 1944 and 1945, the circulating postage stamps were overprinted with RF (République française) or something similar, such as the Lorraine Cross , in numerous places . In October 1944, the first French postage stamps of liberated France were issued. These were made in Washington, DC and brought by the Allies . In addition, the issues of the National Liberation Committee of Algiers in France were soon sold, which were actually only intended for use in the French colonies. The triumphal arch in Paris, the Gallic rooster and the head of Marianne were chosen as motifs .

Fourth and Fifth Republic

Development until today

The winner of the current Marianne edition will be presented at the Palais Bourbon

After the end of the Second World War , the French Post was able to quickly re-establish postal connections across the country. The inflation of the Fourth Republic soon affected French postal tariffs. Accordingly, on January 1, 1960, the new franc was used. The Indochina War and the Algerian War finally meant the end of the French colonies and the Fourth Republic. Today, French stamp issues are mainly characterized by the Marianne definitive stamps, which have been issued in various drawings since the end of the Second World War. From January 1, 1999, there was successive conversion to the dual currency and finally to the euro on January 1, 2002 .


  • 150 years of postage stamps in France. In: Deutsche Briefmarken-Zeitung , No. 4/1999, pp. 8–13
  • Jean-François Brus et al .: Marianne 1849–1900. Catalog encyclopédique. Timbopresse, Paris 1999, ISBN 2-908101-08-4 .
  • Helmut Heymanns: The advance cancellations of France. A summary from the forerunners to the present day. Association of German Philatelists, Geilenkirchen 2004.
  • Laurent Lemerle: La France par ses timbres. Flammarion, Paris 1999, ISBN 2-08-201058-9 .
  • Vincent Pothion: Catalog de marques postales linéaires, France 1792–1832 et des marques manuscrites des distribution 1792–1818. La Post aux lettres, Paris 1987, ISBN 2-85374-034-X .
  • Manual dictionary of the postal system , published by Bundespost, Frankfurt am Main, 1953, pp. 275–277

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