The Penny Black Postage Stamp

The Penny Black was the world’s first postage stamp.  It was first issued in Great Britain on 1 May 1840.  The stamps were not actually for sale until 6 May 1840, but some post offices actually sold some of these stamps unofficially.  There is actually one known example dated 1 May 1840.  It meant that letters of up to 14gr (or 1 oz) could be sent for the rate of 1 penny.  The stamp featured the profile of Queen Victoria.  The portrait of Queen Victoria remained on all British stamps until her death in 1901.  Today all British stamps still bear a portrait or a silhouette of the reigning monarch somewhere on the stamp.

Penny Black Plate Block of 6 from Printing Plate 11

The Penny Black was only in circulation for less than a year.  The reason for this was that it was difficult to see a red cancellation on the black design.  It was also easy to remove the red ink which meant that the stamps could be re-used.  In February 1841, the Penny Black was replaced by the Penny Red with black cancellations which were more difficult to remove.  People then, as now still managed to “buck the system” by combining the uncancelled parts of two stamps to create an unused whole stamp.  For this reason, in 1864, the top corner stars were replaced by the lower check letters in the reverse order.  (There is a block of 6 of these stamps on this site).  A total of about 68 million Penny Black stamps were printed.  The only known complete sheets of this stamp are owned by the British Postal Museum.


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