The Zürich Cantonal Issues 1843

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