We finally know why stamps are placed on an envelope’s top-right corner

Placing a stamp on the top-right corner of an envelope is one of those things we do without even thinking about it. Yet, sometimes when we’re staring into space and contemplating the most random of random thoughts, we wonder: Why? What’s so special about the top-right corner?

To get to the bottom of this envelope etiquette, Mental Floss reached out to Daniel Piazza (the Chief Curator of Philately at the Smithsonian National Postal Museum) and he explained, “When postage stamps were first issued in this county in 1847, there appears to have been a great deal of confusion over how to use them and possibly also where to place them, at least for a time.” During these days, stamp placement wasn’t as important because each envelope was hand-checked by postal workers.


Then, things started changing in the 1890s when machines were introduced to the USPS to help with the hand-cancelling process. (Note: hand-cancelling is when a black mark is applied to a stamp to prevent it from being reused later on.) Once machines came into the picture, the postal service needed to establish a set of rules and decided to have the stamp placed in the top-right corner because it correlated with the mail handlers’ dominant, right hand.

As you can imagine, the post office has upgraded their machines so they now use optical scanning. What this means is that stamps do not need to be in a certain position anymore. So, if you decide to rebel against the system, USPS spokesperson Sue Brennan stated, “Your letter wouldn’t be thrown out if you didn’t follow the guidelines, but using them could speed up the processing and subsequent delivery.


Interestingly enough, people used to change the placement of their stamps as a form of code. Young lovers, during the Victorian era, would send an upside-down stamp to show their affection for the recipient. If the stamp was instead sideways, this would suggest that the sender was not interested. Today, prison inmates also use a similar system to keep certain messages secret from the people who check their mail.

In the end, you can break some stamp rules if you so feel like it – but don’t expect your letter to arrive at the speed of light.

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