Autumn 2007

No strings attached

A random collection of discarded labels reveals traces of past journeys

Each of these labels carries the same information on its back: the scrawled address of the East London building where they were found, discarded in the lobby. Designer Jay Prynne, who collected them, says: ‘The fact that there are so many iterations of a label that ends up at the same destination every day amuses me every time I find one.’ The recycled labels’ printed marks – sometimes violently scribbled out – indicate their earlier purpose, when they were attached to another, different, silvery sack of mail.

Manilla (brown paper) labels were first approved for use on inland mail in the UK in June 1912 by the Post Office. Each has a reinforced hole at one side to tie it to the mailbag, and notched edges show where they were previously joined in a continuous strip. Their colour (typically red, brown or white) denotes different categories of posting, such as metered mail or special delivery. Basic information about the bag’s destination (e.g. Almeida N1) appears in large type, while details of the office it came from (and intermediary offices, such as Stansted Airport) are often included in smaller type.

Colours indicate whether the mail is at first (red) or second (green) class postage rates. A red vertical stripe means it is for processing and delivering within the area of destination. The green vertical stripes show the mail is second class.

Days of the week appear on some labels, as does time. In other cases a driver, or the number of items being delivered may be shown. Codes and letters can be used to highlight a particular service, such as the reversed-out ‘R’ to indicate ‘Rebate posting’ – for business customers sending out bulk mail. But by the time the labels reach Prynne this is history: the real information lies in those ill-formed scrawls on the reverse.