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The Story of the First Postage Stamp

Postage stamps can reveal more than the history of a letter, they can reveal the history of a nation

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first postage stamp

The Penny Black. The World’s first postage stamp (image: wikimedia commons)

“Philately” (get your mind out of the gutter) is the proper term for the studying of stamps and stamp collecting. It was coined in 1865 by Georges Herpin, who very well may have been the first stamp collector, from the Ancient Greek φιλο (philo), meaning “love of” and ἀτέλεια (atelīa), meaning “without tax.” Of course, because the ancient Greeks didn’t have postage stamps, there was no proper Greek word for the idea. But, as we shall see, the term is actually a reference to the earliest days of paid postage.

Postage can reveal more than the history of a letter, it can reveal the history of a nation. As noted by the National Postal Museum, which celebrates its 20th anniversary this month, “every stamp tells a story”—and, I might add, it sometimes tells how the story should be told (fat Elvis or skinny Elvis?).

The National Postal Museum’s stamp galleries (image: National Postal Museum)

The forthcoming book A History of Britain in Thirty-Six Postage Stamps by Chris West tells the story of the stamp. And of Britain. West is himself a philatelist (seriously stop snickering) who inherited a collection from his uncle that included a “Penny Black”—the first postage stamp issued in Britain and, more importantly, the first postage stamp issued anywhere.

The Penny Black bears the image of Queen Victoria, but the first British postal service did not originate in Victorian England. In 1680 an entrepreneur by the name of William Dockwra started a public service that guaranteed the quick delivery of a letter anywhere in London. His system was quickly nationalized with Dockwra in charge. It was far from a perfect system, burdened with seemingly erroneous charges and tariffs that made it unreasonably expensive to send a letter. Worse still, recipients were expected to pay. As you might imagine, this presented some problems—either people weren’t home or flat-out refused to pay. Not to mention the blatant corruption. The system just didn’t work, but it remained in place for far too long.

About 50 years later, an ambitious polymath named Rowland Hill thought he could do better. Hill ran a progressive school, for which he also designed a central heating system, a swimming pool and an observatory. Hill’s skills weren’t just architectural and pedagogical, he was also an accomplished painter, inventor and essayist. In one of his most famous pamphlets, Post Office Reform, its Importance and Practicability, Hill argued for abolishing the postal tariffs and replacing them with a single national rate of one penny, which would be paid by the sender.

When the post office ignored Hill’s ideas, he self-published his essay and it quickly gained ground among the public. Hill was then summoned by Postmaster General Lord Lichfield to discuss postal reform and, during their subsequent meeting, the two men conceived of an adhesive label that could be applied to envelopes to indicate payment. Though it had gained momentum with the public who longed for an affordable way to connect with distant friends and family, officials still were’t convinced, calling it “extraordinary” (in a bad way) and “preposterous,” and probably saying things like “crikey!” and “I say!” and “what hufflepuffery!” and other such exclamations popular among the blustery Victorian bureaucrat set. Thankfully, Hill was far from alone in his passion for reform. He eventually earned enough support from other like-minded individuals, like Henry Cole, founding director of the Victoria and Albert Museum, as well as larger, powerful organizations, to convince Parliament to implement his system.

In 1839, Hill held a competition to design all the necessary postal paraphernalia. The winning stamp entry depicting the young Queen’s profile came from one William Wyon, who based the design on a medal he created to celebrate her first visit to London earlier that year. Hill worked with artist Henry Corbould to refine the portrait and develop the stamp’s intricate background pattern. After deciding to produce the stamps through line engraving, engravers George Rushall and Charles and Frederick Heath prepared the design for printing.

The Penny Black and the Penny Red (image: wikimedia commons)

The “penny black” stamp went on sale May 1, 1840. It was an immediate hit. Suddenly, the country seemed a lot smaller. Over the next year, 70 million letters were sent. Two years later, the number had more than tripled. Other countries soon followed suit. The Penny Black’s design was so well received, it remained in use for forty years, though, as the National Postal Museum notes, “it underwent color changes (1841), adopted perforations (1848), and acquired check letters in all four corners (1858)…and most of those designs were retained for Victoria’s successor, Edward VII, (1901) with his profile being substituted.”

The National Postal Museum also shares some insight into why we put stamps on the upper right corner of envelopes. The answer is refreshingly utilitarian: the location of the stamp was decided because over 80 percent of London’s male population was right-handed and it was believed this would help expedite the postmarking/cancellation process.

“Stamps can be a good way of establishing a ‘national brand,’” says West. Indeed, a nation’s stamps express the identity and the ambitions of a country. Few countries understood this better than Czechoslovakia, whose government hired noted artist and graphic designer Alphonse Mucha to design its stamps—as well as its money, and almost every other official piece of paper—when the country gained its independence after World War I. West cites other examples, noting how Germany, after World War II, focused on the country’s positive contribution to European culture, while modern America illustrates its history, diversity and individual achievement with its numerous stamps celebrating famous artists and innovators.

A History of Britain in Thirty-Six Postage Stamps lives up to its title. Though stamps may be the subject of the book, its content is full of insight into the full history of the British Empire, from Queen Victoria to Kate Middleton. Through West’s book, we get fascinating stories and anecdotes about wars, celebrations, the mercurial fortunes of Britain’s royalty, the rise and fall of its empire and, of course, design. All told a penny at a time.

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