The History of Stamps

 London Penny Post Plaque,, William Dockwra For as long as man has existed, he has used ways of sending messages.  Historians regard a hand-stamp to frank a mailed item in order to confirm payment of postage as the world’s first postage stamp.  In 1680 William Dockwra from England and his partner established the London Penny Post which was a mail system that delivered letters and small parcels inside the city of London for one penny.  

Until the 1800’s, regardless of the system used, postal services operated without the benefit of recovering the cost of performing the service.  The birth of “real” postage stamps changed this.

WHERE and WHEN did the FIRST Postage Stamp appear?

On 1 May 1840, the first stamps appeared in the United Kingdom. These stamps cost one penny and had Queen Victoria printed on a black background.  For this reason, we refer to the Penny Black.  There were no perforations on these stamps and the stamps had to be cut off a sheet using scissors or they were torn off to save time.  Only four years later did stamps appear with perforations.  The UK was first to come out with perforated stamps in 1853 and the United States followed with their first perforated stamp in 1857.  Henry Archer, an Irish landowner invented a machine to make these perforations and the first stamp to have these perforations was the Penny Red.  He was paid £4000 for the patent to his machine by the British Government.  Both the Penny Black and the Penny Red are very sought after stamps today and are hugely valuable. 

The invention of the postage stamp has been credited to Sir Rowland Hill, British Postmaster General in 1837.  In that year he introduced certain reforms, but it was only 3 years later that his proposal for stamp usage was put into practice.  He held a competition to design all necessary postal “stuff”.  The winning stamp design with Queen Victoria’s profile was designed by William Wyon. 

At the same time that the first stamp was issued, wrappers for mail were also issued by the UK postal service.  Later inventions included prepaid postal stationery, postcards, aerogrammes, and in the modern era, special boxes and envelopes are available.

By the 1860’s most countries were producing their own stamps.  One of the main reasons why stamps came into being was that it was very expensive to send mail.  The receiver had to pay and often refused delivery.  This also led to cheating and ways were found to discover the contents of the letter without taking delivery of it and therefore not paying.  An example is that the sender would write a garbled message on the envelope. The receiver would read the message and then refuse to take delivery of the letter because it was too expensive but he had already actually discovered what the sender wanted to tell him.

From the beginning, postmarks were applied to the stamps mainly to prevent the stamps from being used again.  It just shows us that cheating and stealing are not a modern phenomenon.  They have existed since the beginning.

The first stamps issued did not show a country but for example the UK used the head of the reigning monarch as identification of the country.  Later other subjects were used and special occasions were depicted making the more modern stamps almost more beautiful than the stamps in the first years.

In the UK the price of the stamp to be used depended on the weight of the letter or parcel, however the pricing policy was different in the various countries that issued stamps, e.g. Switzerland calculated the rate on distance travelled. 

Within a year of stamps being used, there were over 70 million letters sent in Britain.  And this figure tripled within two years.

Why do you think stamps are placed in the top right hand corner of an envelope?    According to the National Postal Museum it is because in the 1840’s 80% of the male population was right handed and it was believed that this would help expedite the cancellation process.

Stamps led to stamp collectors and in 1841 an advertisement was even placed in the London Times by a lady who needed help in collecting stamps so that she could paper her bedroom wall.  At that time nobody realised how valuable stamps would become and what a popular hobby stamp collecting or “philately” would become.

Stamp collecting has been called “the king of hobbies and the hobby of kings”.  This is due to the fact that King George V and Edward VIII of Britain, Carol of Romania, Alfonso XIII of Spain and King Farouk of Egypt were all avid stamp enthusiasts.  The most famous non regal head of state philatelist was Franklin D. Roosevelt.

It has been said that American GI’s who entered Hitler’s lair at Berchtesgaden in 1945, found stamp albums there but this has not been confirmed.  There are more than 60 million stamp collectors in the world today.

Very soon new stamps would be issued to commemorate specific happenings, e.g. Columbus’ discovery of the New World, and stamps issued in 1893 to celebrate this, are now worth a lot of money.  So this is where it all started and now with the internet being used more and more, in many countries Post Offices are closing down, where will it all end?


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