Whilst I was working on some uncatalogued documents, I came across a file regarding the gumming of postage stamps. Not necessarily the most engaging of topics, you might think, but what attracted my interest was a number of letters to the General Post Office (GPO) dating from the 1950s to the 1970s. These were written by customers complaining about the poor quality of the gum used to affix stamps to mail. Some were very entertaining, and got me thinking about the nature of complaint. It’s a commonly-held belief that modern life in Britain isn’t a patch on “the good old days”, but as these letters show, the people of the past often held the same view.
In the early 1970s, the Post Office decided to switch the adhesive used on stamps from gum Arabic to Polyvinyl alcohol, or PVA. However, this didn’t go down well with the public, as it appeared that the glue was not the best quality, and often came loose from the paper. In 1973, complaints ranged from the light-hearted (“do you think you may spare a lick more glue on 3p stamps?”) to the exasperated (“it is not a habit of mine to write and complain – but this is the last straw!”). A confused postal sorter asked “is it the gum or the lack of spit?” One customer was enraged by the GPO’s reply stating that as 7,000 million stamps were produced per year, some defective ones were bound to “slip through”, and huffily replied that as he had experienced this problem constantly for the past 8 weeks, it seemed rather to be the general standard. It wasn’t just the gum that was causing annoyance; the perforations came in for criticism too: “until now I had been disturbed by the feeling that lavatorial jokes based on the line ‘nothing tears along the dotted edge’ were founded in myth”.
I found it interesting to see how complaints can be timeless; one dissatisfied customer lamented that “the Britain of the past seems to have gone, everything is inferior, most of the employees have no time for doing a proper job for having strikes”. Going back further in time, to the First World War, I discovered a letter from a union of discharged soldiers complaining that men were being refused postal employment in favour of women, who the writer believed were being hired because their wages were cheaper. You can well imagine someone making a similar complaint today.
One of the best things about working at the BPMA is that you can get the chance to see little snippets of human life such as these, as well as the records of policy and administration we hold. It’s a great way of seeing how society has progressed, or, in some cases, has remained exactly the same.
- Robin Sampson, Archives/Records Assistant
Archive material used:
POST 52/1052 – “Complaints about PVA Gum on stamps”
POST 47/64 – “Complaint that Men have been Refused Employment at the Home Depot in Favour of Women”
This blog was researched at the Royal Mail Archive, located at BPMA’s headquarters in Clerkenwell, London. There are millions of stories to uncover at the Royal Mail Archive, see our website for Archive opening hours and visitor information.