Ever seen a green post box? Senior Curator Julian Stray tells us a brief history of how the post box went from red to green and back again.

Beginnings in Red

The first British pillar boxes were opened for public use on Jersey on 23 November 1852. Shortly after, the Jersey Times, reporting on these new boxes to its readers, informed them that the boxes were “painted red”.

Until 1859, when a design was standardised, local foundries were contracted to both manufacture and paint pillar boxes, so they varied by region. The Postal Museum holds over 200 examples, including the green painted pillar boxes below.

The picture shows Early Mainland pillar box, First National Standard pillar box and Penfold pillar box. They are all Victorian pillar boxes and believed to be painted in an incorrect green.

Early Mainland pillar box, First National Standard pillar box and Penfold pillar box; three green painted Victorian pillar boxes in The Postal Museum collection. The author contends that these are painted the incorrect green, additionally being too dark a shade.

Green Post Boxes in The Postal Museum Collection

What is the Bronzing Technique?

In the Victorian era ‘Bronzing’ was applied to some new post boxes. Bronzing was a technique whereby green paint was applied and then dusted with bronze powder. This highlighted prominent features. On 5 February 1857 the manufacturer Cochrane was contracted to supply 100 pillar boxes ‘painted with four coats of paint, bronzed and delivered to any railway station’.

By 1859, along with a standard design of box, the colour of post boxes appears also to have been generally standardised as green, though there may have been many exceptions where boxes did not
require repainting for a number of years and local variation persisted.

When the question of colour for contrasting collection plates was being debated in September 1862, the Secretary to The Post Office was advised that “doubtful whether plates with a blue ground will contrast so well with the Bronze Green Colour of the Boxes…”

Colours in Vogue

The colour Bronze Green must have meant something to someone. Much more likely, was that it was many hues to many people. ‘Bronze Green’ as a colour would have been very much ‘in vogue’ in the mid-nineteenth century when both local initiatives on pillar boxes and a slightly later standard specification for post boxes were introduced. My efforts to track down any form of defined colour specification within the Post Office of the time has met only partial success.

Looking through contemporary volumes created by the printer De La Rue, who were, admittedly, working with pigments intended for printing on to paper, revealed an almost bewildering array of greens with many different shades and hues, all simply labelled ‘Green’. As well as simply ‘Green’, there is also ‘Olive Green’, ‘Sage Green’ and others, but no ‘Bronze Green’.

Hammersmith Bridge, detail. Painted mid Bronze-Green, ornamentation also has a modern interpretation of Bronzing.

Detail of Hammersmith Bridge, 1887 London. Painted mid-Bronze Green, ornamentation also has a modern interpretation of Bronzing

The colour Bronze Green, and lighter/darker shades of it, appear in reports dating to the early part of the eighteenth century but standardisation of the colour doesn’t seem to appear until the twentieth century when British Standards were introduced and three shades of Bronze Green defined, these are- Light Bronze Green (BS381 – 222), Middle Bronze Green (BS381 – 223) and Deep Bronze Green (BS381 – 224). The extremes of these are extreme indeed. ‘Deep Bronze Green’ was already a middle-dark green hue defined on a particular colour essay for a stamp issue in 1912 .

What Shade of Bronze Green?

Of course, colour is subjective. Not only that, but attempting to show them via a computer monitor/screen is always going to have varied results. But an indication of correct hue of green post boxes is possible. To my mind, if Victorian individuals were referring to ‘Bronze Green’ it is most likely they were referring to the mid-range of that colour, otherwise ‘Light’ or Deep’ would be specified. This can help with taking an educated guess as to what actual green colour post boxes were painted between the late 1850s and 1874.

Hammersmith Bridge, 1887, London. Painted mid-Bronze Green

Hammersmith Bridge, 1887 London. Painted mid-Bronze Green

A Return to Red

It is worth noting that pillar boxes were varnished at that time which would have brightened the overall effect and finish. Despite this, the finish must still have been quite dark and it is not surprising that postal authorities received complaints that post boxes were not distinguishable enough and hard to locate. Such difficulty must have been especially prevalent in rural districts.

In June 1874, one Post Office official recorded he was ‘very much in favour of the red pillars which he considers a great improvement upon the present dingy [green] colour’. The red pillars he was referring to was a small trial being conducted in London. The following month the instruction was given ‘… that the Pillar Letter boxes in London be painted red for the future instead of green as at present’. When the Surveyor General asked if this was to apply to all pillar boxes, the Controller replied on 9 October 1874 ‘please to have this done as repainting is required’. Over the following years, all boxes nationally were repainted red.

Today, just a handful of post boxes can be found on our streets sporting a green livery. There are also a number of green post boxes in The Postal Museum collection. However, there is some variety indicating uncertainty as to the correct green to be used. Royal Mail have agreed that, only where there is historic precedent, will post boxes be painted in any colour other than the current official, standard colour- red. Further information on this can be found in the Joint Policy Statement which was renewed in 2015.

Many pillar boxes are on display in the museum. We look forward to welcoming you once we safely reopen again.

– Julian Stray, Senior Curator

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