The introduction of stamps in Norway

Norway was liberated from the rule of Denmark, and became a separate state beneath the kingdom of Sweden in 1814, when Norway got its own constitution. Before this, Norway was a integrated part of the Danish kingdom, with the main city of Christiania having its name from King Christian VII of Denmark. This separation from Denmark and union with Sweden is considered the birth of modern Norway, although it would be almost a hundred years before Norway became formally independent.

We may loosely consider this as the classical era of Norwegian stamps, ending with the first series of pictorial stamps in 1914, depicting the signing of the constitution at Eidsvoll.

Norway was a fairly poor country in 1814, with trade being hindered by the Napoleon wars ravaging Europe during these times. But this would change towards the 1830s with general economic progress. A desire for freer trade and customs legislation grew, along with a need to connect Norway to Europe on a more regular and faster pace to support this growth.

The work for better means of communication gained momentum in 1845, where professionals were hired to build new roads, and in 1854 the country’s first railway was opened between Christiania and Eidsvoll. At the same time, work on telegraph lines began and uniform postage was introduced. The time for the first Norwegian stamp had arrived.

Trial run for the railroad, from a newspaper in 1853

In the period up to 1900, historians had usually considered Norway to be a poor country relative to other European states, but new studies has challenged this view. Norway had a strong state, even before the break with Denmark. The country did not participate in any wars, but supported other states with goods in trade that was much needed during years of conflict., and had its shipping and fisheries built up. With a strong government, the country early built a rule of law and a bureaucracy, with large public infrastructure projects often financed by private enterprises. New inland roads, the start of the railway and steamships travelling the coastline, all supporting the introduction of companies that exploited natural resources such as minerals, forests, the power of waterfalls and crafts.

DS Constitutionen at the city of Arendal, a major trade port in Norway during the 1840s

The government bought two new steamships to carry correspondence and people between Christiania and Copenhagen in Denmark and Kiel in Germany in 1827. These changes can be seen in the increased use of postal services with foreign countries, based on the export of trade goods of mostly timber and dried fish.

Many of these businesses are the reason we have stamps cancelled within small places in the inner parts of the country, since most of the products were for export to the large coastal cities and abroad. Communication was of key importance to them, and postal services grew naturally up as a basis for all trade.

Education was also in strong growth during this century. 9/10 of the population lived in the countryside in the mid-1800s, so the elementary school in the countryside included the vast majority of children in Norway. In 1837, about 94% of young people in rural areas attended a public school.

In 1860 a new law proclaimed there should now be permanent schools in circles where at least 30 children could come to school. The law established a rule to give the children true Christian education and to provide knowledge that would help the children to become good citizens.

One of the "big four" authors of Norway, Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson, published a story in 1860, "En glad gut" (a happy boy) where education was one of the topics.

In 1860 a new law proclaimed there should now be permanent schools in circles where at least 30 children could come to school. The law established a rule to give the children true Christian education and to provide knowledge that would help the children to become good citizens.

Many families also moved in this time from rural areas to the cities to find work and to create new lives.

All in all this created both the ability to communicate with letters and the need to do so, to keep in contact with family.

The growth of mail sent inland dramatically increases from 1850s to 1900.

Number of letters sent
1857: 2 880 000
1866: 4 707 000
1872: 7 479 000
1877: 12 120 000
1882: 16 718 000
1888: 23 429 000
1894: 34 243 000
1905: 77 024 000
Sent from Tvedestrand 10-10-1853 to Helsingør in Denmark, postage 24 skilling with red pencil in front

By royal decree official postal services started in Norway in January 17, 1647. In the two hundred or so years before the first Norwegian stamp appeared, each letter had a handwritten notation of the cost, and both the sender and receiver had to cover additional carrying costs.

Milestones in the postal history:

  • 1647 – Royal decree given to a privately organised postal system
  • 1758 – Most “postal farmers” receive salaries, and the system of postal operators is formalised.
  • 1814 – Norway has now 25 main post offices, 6 postal expeditions and 97 smaller postal offices.
  • 1827 – The country’s first steamships acquired, the “Constitution” and “Prinds Carl”, to improve the postal service along the coast and abroad.
  • 1827 – The parcel mail service is formally introduced.
  • 1854 – Establishment of the first railway from Christiania to Eidsvoll. The Railways Act of 1848 assumed that the mail should be sent by rail and that the postal operators should be added to the stations.
  • 1855 – The first Norwegian stamp is issued.
  • 1855 – First telegraph line between Christiania and Drammen. Where the telegraph lines ended, normal postal distribution took over.
  • 1872 – The postcard is introduced.
  • 1871 – New Postal Act introduces simplified pricing system with domestic postage, mailboxes at the post offices and mailboxes on the recipients’ doors.

At the start of the official postal system, the older system of postal farmers carrying the mail bags from farm to farm, continued. As “postal farmers” they were free from having to help as much as others on fixing local roads and participating in military service. Only from 1758, they were paid for their work. Still, this method of distribution made for slow going, and it would take up to 6 days for a letter to travel between the two main cities of Christiania (Oslo today) and Bergen. Before the steamships arrived, the mail bags had to travel different routes during summer and winter, with the mountains in southern Norway being unsafe to cross. Farmers were expediting the mail bags along the routes established, using carriages, boats and carrying them on the back.

"Drawing on the Nature of Lost. Published by G.C.C. W. Prahl". Svein Skare. University Museum in Bergen

Rider on “The Trondhjemske Postvei” at Munkebotn. Coloured lithograph from the 1840s. Large parts of this postal road is preserved today. For more information visit

The “Kings road” from 1793 was the first road between east and west. In the 1840s, they built new horse and cart roads on high walls through the steep hills. The road you may walk today dates back to 1843.

At the start only the main cities had its own postal office, but this changed when the cost of sending a letter was cut in half in 1743. The use of postal services increased, and was now regarded as a national service instead of a source of income to the state. Most mail was naturally based on official letters and trade. In 1745 it was allowed to send money as well. This gradual change improved the frequency of mail delivery and of printed news, where newspapers would be an important part of the postal volume.

A new stamp issued 17.4 2020 shows the old postal road.

In 1814 Norway changed from being a part of Denmark to being under the rule of Sweden, though Norway would also establish its own constitution and have control over its own internal affairs. This change included a new Postal Department in Christiania (Oslo) and a new need for connections to the continent of Europe that did not have to travel through Sweden. Such transits would add costs to the delivery of mail.

The first steamships were introduced in 1827, through this need for direct connections and higher speed of delivery. This also ensured delivery through the use of steamships along the coastline.

The map shows the route along the coast of Norway, continuing up to Trondheim and the northern parts of Norway in 1838. You also see the inland routes used.

The steam boats vastly improved the speed of delivery, but it would take time for the whole coastline to have such new and modern ways of distributing the mail. But soon, in the 1840s, much of the direct mail between the larger cities were sent by these ships along the coast. It also made possible the establishment of parcel mail, that now could be stored on the deck of these ships. In 1856 there were eleven such steamships worked along the coasts, and much of their finances were based on postal services, all being officially owned ships. Private enterprises came along only after this first expansion of steamships.

New postal offices were continually established, and a differentiation between them grew up, with three layers of importance:

  • Major postal offices, in the larger cities.
  • Medium size post offices, mail handling stations.
  • A high number of small to very small post offices called “postaabneri” or “mail opening station”, the right to open the mail bag to take out & put in letters.

The major change came with the postal revolution in England in 1840, where the idea of a single uniform cost to send a letter was introduced alongside the introduction of a stamp covering this cost. This change ensured the cost of delivering a letter was known and would be charged up-front by attaching a stamp onto the letter.

It should be noted that up to 25% of all mail were official letters, that was delivered without any payment.

In this post I have used several sources of information, mostly from literature but also online resources. You will find these references where they are used, since that gives you a better insight into what to read and where to go to get more details than offered here.

If you have suggestions for improvements or new sources for information, then do send us a message to Thank you in advance!


  1. Postal museum webpage
  2. Norwegian Postal History Group
  3. Schou, August (1947): Postens historie i Norge (Postal history of Norway)
  4. Gjelsvik, Tore (2009): Statens Postdampere 1827-1870 (Postal Steamships of the State)
  5. Gjelsvik, Tore (1994): “Norway number one. The new Handbook
  6. Jellestad (1955): “4 skilling 1855, Centenary of the Norwegian postage stamp”
  7. Norwegian Philately Union in 1963: “Håndbok over Norges Frimerker, del 1”

The start of prepaid letters

NK1 1855

It took 15 years from the first issue of the penny black in Great Britain, before the first Norwegian stamp was printed and used, 1st of January 1855.

The stamp was handmade and without country name, intended for domestic use only, with the new uniform postal rate of 4 skilling for letters in 1854. The work with choosing the design of the new stamp started the same year, with contacts in both Stockholm and London.

The postal department seems to have approached various firms for suggestions for the printing of the stamp early in 1854, but the first documented approach came 17th of May with a suggestion of a portrait of King Oscar, though this was discarded. More essays followed, and N.A.H. Zarbell´s suggestion of using the lion and crown was accepted. 2nd of June 1854, the postal government ordered 2 million copies of this stamp, with an impression in the paper, a relief watermark of the Norwegian lion holding St.Olaf´s axe. Paper was to be supplied by the firm Bentse Brug. 20th of June the contract was approved.

The first essay engraved with King Oscar of Sweden was quickly discarded, while the essay of the lion and crown was refined and finally accepted.

The value of the stamp was set to 4 skilling, since this was the new cost for sending domestic letters. The department did not consider this stamp to be much used for letters sent to foreign states, but only for inland correspondence.

This is also shown in that the country of origin, Norway, is not mentioned on the stamp. Quite similar to many first issues of the European states.

One should think this lack of country name would created loud outcries when the stamp was available for the public in 1855, with the strong nationalistic movements during this decade, but studies done of newspapers reveals almost no reactions to the stamp itself. People of Norway had enough worries with more importance, with a very harsh winter with many deaths and the ongoing Crimerian war that many feared would affect both business and daily lives, even draw them into it.

Zarbell´s first essay
Zarbell´s second essay
Zarbell´s third essay

It is of interest that the typography used was Antiqua, with small corner ornaments framing the stamps image. These ornaments are partly inherited from the fleur-de-lis, particularly associated with the French monarchy.

The official crest from 10 July 1844

The crowned Lion with st. Olafs axe is an old symbol of Norwegian Kings (from around 1280), and was a natural symbol to attach to the first stamp for internal use in Norway.

This crowned lion was implemented as the crest for the Norwegian state, 10 July 1844, and hence was a natural symbol to use for the stamp since it was already the official design approved by the Swedish King.

The horizontal and vertical lines were added, in part, to make the image more complex and thereby making forgeries more difficult to produce. This seems to have worked, since the first forgeries we know of had too few lines inside the shield.

This first day letter from Lillehammer to Ringsaker illustrates the novelty of the new stamp, with the content mentioning its first day use:

Lillehammer letter, Jarle O. Stensdal 1955, NFT.

The text within the letter: “Postal officer Andersen announced a letterbox today, placed outside the Post office, and when I a while ago bought some stamps, through writing some words to You, I could send You this first letter that you receive with a stamp attached, when I place it in the box.” (loosely translated)

The postal rates were 4 skilling for letters up to 1 lod (15.6 grams), 8 skilling for 2 lod and 12 for 3 lods. It was also allowed to send money, though this added 4 skilling payment upfront in cash. And in the beginning one could only send letters inside the Norwegian borders. The stamps were available earlier for the public to buy them, the adverts indicating 9th of December 1854 as the earliest known date, in Drammen.

A newspaper advert from 4th of January 1855. You could buy single stamps or in volume of 100.

It was not without complications to introduce the new stamp, with one example being the noise of emptying Letterboxes in the morning irritating the citizens. An article, often repeated, gives voice to a critique of the stamps design as well, but for most people this new stamp was just one small addition in between larger events of modernity shaping their lives. Steamships in the fjords, railway being built inland, trade blooming with the European continent and the brand new telegraph line established.

Gradually, the use of stamps was opened for letters going abroad, starting with France, Algeria and Corsica in March, and only 1st of July 1855 to Sweden. This is also the date Sweden got their own stamps.

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