Over the centuries, the city of Zürich grew into an important commercial centre. An official messenger service dates back to the 15th century, and in the early 17th century a regular post office was established in the city.

Prior to unification of the country in 1848, postal services were operated by the larger cantons, who in turn handled the mail for the smaller, neighbouring cantons.
During the period of the Helvetic Republic (1798-1803) the occupying French brought with them greater bureaucracy and the benefits of their own highly developed postal services, resulting in a great improvement in the Swiss Cantonal post.

With the ever-growing importance of the city, it is not surprising that the far-sighted citizens of Zürich were quick to spot the advantages of the adhesive postage stamps that had been introduced in Britain in 1840.

On the 13th August 1842, the Postal Department presented to the Council of State a report showing how the postal organisation could be simplified. Using the recently introduced British pre-payment system as their example, they proposed that the Finance Department should undertake the manufacture of postage stamps.

It was further proposed that postal charges should be based on two separate rates:

  • 4 Rappen for letters circulating within the city – the ‘Local Rayon’
  • 6 Rappen for letters addressed to places in the Canton of Zürich – the ‘Cantonal Rayon’.

1843 Zürich 4 & 6 Rappen

Zürich 4 & 6 Rappen

Zürich 4 & 6 Rappen

The Council studied this proposal and on the 21st January 1843 the scheme was approved. Plans were immediately put in place for the preparation of the stamps, and in a surprisingly short time (less than 6 weeks) they were made available to the public. And so, on the 1st March 1843, Zürich gained the distinction of being the second stamp-issuing nation in the world.

The speed of production, which allowed no time for considering competitive designs, is probably the reason why the design bears such a striking resemblance to the British ‘Penny Black’. While the large figures ‘4’ and ‘6’ replace the Queen’s head, the engine-turned background was not precisely copied. However, the Zürich stamps, printed in black over a background of fine red lines, were, nevertheless, very similar.

The contract for the printing was given to the Zürich firm of Orell Füssli & Co., founded in 1519 and probably the oldest printing establishment in Switzerland. Each design was hand drawn 5 times, giving 5 distinct types of each value. The impressions were repeated on the ‘stone’ in ten double rows of five stamps, making 100 per sheet.

The paper used was white or greyish white. Before printing with the black ink, the paper was covered with faint red lines.

As multiple blocks of these stamps are virtually unknown, it is thought possible that they were sold in horizontal strips, similar to the modern coil strips, and if this could be proved the Zürich stamps might even rank as the first coil stamps in the world!

zurich rosette

zurich rosette

The postmark designed for use on these stamps bears a resemblance to the Maltese Cross used on the ‘Penny Black’, since it consists of the Swiss Cross within an ornamental quatrefoil frame, known as the Zürich ‘Rosette’.

As there were to be the two rates of 4 Rappen and 6 Rappen, it was decided that the rosette mark should be in two colours:

Black for letters within the city of Zürich.

Red, for areas outside the city but within the Canton.

There were a few deviations from the rule and there was the occasional use of blue, or greenish-blue ink believed to have been used in Stäfa, Regensburg and one or two other offices.

Although the postal services were taken over by the Federal Government in 1849, the Zürich stamps remained in use for some time
after this and can be found with later types of postmark, such as the Federal grill, ‘P.P.’ ‘P.D.’ or circular cancellations.
The exact number of stamps printed is not known; they are now rated among the world’s classics and are very desirable items.

To emphasise the importance of Zürich, we need look no further than the number of post offices that existed in 1849, when the Federal Post came into operation. Out of a total of 403 offices, approximately a 100 were located in the canton of Zürich; Bern (the capital) had only 45; and the remainder were spread around the other 20 cantons.

The Society’s Library holds a number of reference books on the subject of the Zurich Cantonal Issues,
including the following:

  • Zurich: A Swiss Pioneer – Caldwell, George (AHPS)
  • The Zurich Forgeries – Shurley, E.
  • How to detect Zurich Forgeries – Spiro, E.H.
  • Zurich Issues of 1843-1849 & their Forgeries – Shurley, E.
  • The Cantonal Stamps – Allender, A.S.
  • Forgeries of the Cantonal Stamps – de Reuterskiold, M.A.
  • Les Timbres Cantonaux de La Suisse et Leurs Falsifications – de Reuterskiold , M.A.
  • Forgeries Of The Cantonal Stamps of Switzerland – Britfuss, F
  • Fournier’s Forgeries of the Swiss Cantonals – Augustin, N (AHPS)
  • Notes on Switzerland and the Cantonal Stamps – Pfenniger, O

The first stamp to be issued by the Geneva Post (Switzerland’s second stamp issue and only the fourth stamp in the world to be issued) resulted from a speech before the Grand Council of Geneva on Monday, 22nd May 1843, by Alphonse de Candolle, professor of botany and council member.

Referring to Great Britain’s success with the adhesive stamp in 1840, he spoke of the advantages of selling stamps as receipts for pre-payment of letter postage, for example:

  • Pre-paid letters ending up in the Dead Letter Office would no longer be considered a financial loss to the post office.
  • Recipients of mail would not feel obliged to pay for letters they could not afford, nor wish to receive.

On the 13th September 1843, Professor de Candolle’s proposal was approved. However, two other recommendations were not adopted. de Candolle had suggested that stores all over town be authorized to sell the stamps, thereby saving trips to the post office for many people. This idea was rejected on the basis of the complex postal rate structure existing at that time. Ordinary shopkeepers could not be expected to keep abreast of all rates and changes. A proposal for lower postal rates was also rejected, leaving the local rate at 5 centimes and the Cantonal rate at 10 centimes. The unique design of the stamp, described below, provided for both rates.

1843 Double Geneva

1843 Double Geneva

1843 Double Geneva

The stamp’s designer is unknown but believed to be Guillaume Pasteur, Director of the Geneva Post at the time. The stamp was printed with black ink on yellow-green paper by the lithographer Charles Alphonse Schmid, in sheets of 50 doubles. Total printing was 1,200 sheets or 60,000 doubles of which only 6,000 were ever used and only about 600 preserved.

The inscription over each double-stamp indicates “Cantonal Postage 10 centimes”, i.e. the rate for a letter from one city to another. Each half-stamp bears the inscription “Port local” (local postage) with a value of 5 centimes.
There is some controversy surrounding the first day of use for the Double Geneva. The Zumstein catalogue records the date as 1st October 1843, but that date was a Sunday. Philatelic experts believe the actual first day was Saturday, 30th September 1843.

Public Notice 77 of Wednesday, 27th September 1843 recorded the 30th September as the day of issue and gave instructions for purchase and use of the stamp. It was to be sold only at the post office and, as a special favour to Professor de Candolle, at a paper shop near his home on the north side of the river.

The public were slow to accept the stamps; very few franked letters are known from late 1843. In an attempt to encourage prepayment of mail, the post office decided on 6th February 1844 to sell the 10 centimes double stamp at 8 centimes and the single stamp at 4 centimes. Unfranked letters were still charged at the normal rates. This action saw a marked improvement in the sale of stamps during the rest of the year.

Throughout 1844 postal rates were the subject of continuing discussion. On 11th January 1845, M. A. Barde, President of the Finance Department, proposed that the rate for cantonal letters be reduced from 10 to 5 centimes. He expected an increased volume of mail to more than compensate for revenue lost by lowering the rate. The Council adopted his proposal and established uniform letter rates for the Canton, rates that for the first time took into consideration the weight of a letter. Effective on 1st April 1845 the rates became:

  • 5 Centimes for a letter up to one ounce;
  • 10 Centimes for a letter weighing between 1 and 3 ounces;
  • For letters over 3 ounces, 10 centimes for the first 3 ounces and 15 centimes per ounce for the excess.

This resulted in the abolition of the ‘Cantonal Post’, and the double-stamp became surplus to requirement. However, the “Double Geneva” was not declared obsolete at the time. Although it was no longer sold by the post office, private stocks were used, either as halves for the new 5c postage rate, or as doubles for heavier letters until 1853.

1845 Small Eagle

1845 Small Eagle

1845 Small Eagle

A new stamp was proposed by Postmaster General Pasteur, to be similar in design to half of the double-stamp but slightly larger and bearing the inscription “Port Cantonal”. The lithographer, Charles Schmid, printed the new design in black on yellow-green paper. The stamps, called the “Small Eagle” because the eagle’s wings do not reach the edge of the shield, were laid out very close to each other on the plate, sometimes touching the next stamp. Because of this copies of the “Small Eagle” with four full frame lines are very difficult to find. A total of 1,200 sheets of 100 stamps or 120,000 stamps were printed. The stamp was in use from 1st April 1845 until the end of 1846.

1846 Large Eagle

Towards the end of 1846, before the supply of “Small Eagles” was exhausted, the lithographer made a new plate

1846 Large Eagle

1846 Large Eagle

1848 Large Eagle

1848 Large Eagle

with a slightly different design. In the new design the wing touches the frame of the shield, resulting in the stamp being called the “Large Eagle”.

Official documents regarding the “Large Eagle” have never been uncovered. It has been estimated that the first printing on yellow-green paper was 100,000 stamps and the second printing on dark green paper was 50,000. A full sheet of the “Large Eagle” on yellow-green paper may be seen at the Philatelic Museum in Bern. It is the only complete sheet of cantonal stamps known to exist.

First known use of the yellow-green stamps is 6th January 1847. The lithographer’s records indicate that the dark green stamps were delivered to the post office on 2nd August 1848 and this is generally regarded as the day of issue for the stamps. All of the cantonal stamps were valid until 30th September 1854.

The Society’s Library holds a number of reference books on the subject of the Geneva Cantonal Issues,
including the following:

  • The Geneva Cantonal Stamps – LaBlonde, C.J. (AHPS)
  • The Cantonal Stamps – Allender, A.S.
  • The Forgeries of the Cantonal Stamps – de Reuterskiold, M.A.
  • Les Timbres Cantonaux de La Suisse et Leurs Falsifications – de Reuterskiold , M.A.
  • The Forgeries Of The Cantonal Stamps of Switzerland – Britfuss, F
  • Fournier’s Forgeries of the Swiss Cantonals – Augustin, N (AHPS)
  • Notes on Switzerland and the Cantonal Stamps – Pfenniger, O
  • Types of 5c Geneva of 1847 – unknown
  • The Geneva Envelope Stamp – unknown
  • Large Geneva Eagle 1846-1848 – Gustave A. von Gross

Basel was the third and last of the Swiss Cantons to issue its own stamps.

In 1843, Johannes Bernoulli, the city’s Postmaster General, put before the State Council a recommendation that the six letter boxes be increased to sixteen, and further proposed that the opportunity should be taken to issue a stamp for the city of Basel.

Although the Council gave approval to Bernoulli’s proposal in January 1844, it was not until the 1st July 1845 that the stamp was issued.
At the time, the monetary unit for the Canton was the Batzen. A Batzen was equal to 10 Rappen. 2½ Rappen was worth 3½ centimes of the recently adopted new currency (the Basel Rappen should not be confused with the Zürich Rappen, which was based on the Heller and Schilling)

A local rate of 2½ Rappen was introduced for letters weighing up to 1 lot (15½ grammes) and carried within the city of Basel, while a cantonal rate of 5 Rappen applied to mail posted outside the city limits.

Basel Dove

Basel Dove

The stamp, designed by the architect Melchior Berri, features a white dove embossed on a field of red and carrying a letter in its beak. A Bishop’s crosier (Basel Coat of Arms) is shown top centre. Basel was once the seat of a Bishopric.

Melchior Berri was an important architect, influencing the late classical period of Swiss architecture in the first half of the nineteenth century. Among his many enterprises, Berri designed decorative letterboxes for the city, six of which are still in use, notably the one located at the Spalentor (Spalen Gate).

Letterbox at the Basel Spalentor

Letterbox at the Basel Spalentor

Engraved and printed by H.B. Krebs of Frankfurt on thick yellowish-white wove paper in sheets of 40 (5 rows of 8 stamps), the stamps were sold to the public in half-sheets of 20 for 5 Batzen (50 Rappen). The “Basel Dove”, as it became known, printed in black, crimson and blue, became the world’s first multi-coloured stamp, and is considered to be one of the most beautiful stamps ever produced.

As with the other Cantonal stamps, the Basel Dove failed to catch the imagination of the public and was withdrawn from use in December 1848. When the Federal Postal Administration came into operation in June 1849, the Cantons of Zürich and Geneva continued to print their own stamps for a short period (the Transitional Issues) until the first Federal stamps appeared in May 1850. Basel, however, did not follow suit.

For many years it was not known how many stamps Krebs had printed, how many were received by the Basel Post Office, nor how many were actually sold to the public. In the early 1930s, an article appeared in the Swiss philatelic press stating the total issued was 20,880. More recent information, provided by expert collectors researching the archives of the Basel Postal Administration and the records of the designer Berri, suggests the total printed was 41,480.

Remainders were used up during the period December 1848 to April 1850, and there are examples of use late into 1850. The Basel Dove can also be found on covers in combination with the light-blue Rayon I, issued in March 1851.