World’s First Postage Stamp Issued
World’s First Postage Stamp Issued
The world’s first postage stamp, the Penny Black, was issued on May 1, 1840.
Sir Rowland Hill, a man credited with inventing the postage stamp, was born on December 3, 1795, in Kidderminster, England. By 1807, young Roland was already a student teacher at the same school where his father taught. Twelve years later, in 1819, Roland founded the Hazlewood School, in nearby Edgbaston. Hazlewood was unique, as it had a science laboratory, swimming pool, gymnasium, library, gas-powered lights and central heating – at a time when other schools were very poor.
During the early 1800s, the cost of sending a letter in England was very expensive. Each letter was weighed individually and priced according to the weight and distance. In addition, the addressee instead of the sender paid for the mail, and the addressee could refuse to pay. This resulted in not only very high operating costs for the Post Office, but heavy annual losses – due to refusal of payment.
Rowland Hill recognized that the recent industrial revolution had significantly increased literacy among English citizens. He knew that this rise in literacy would result in a greater mail volume, if the postage rates were only lowered a bit. So, the reform-minded Hill proposed the use of adhesive postage stamps and stamped envelopes. By making the sender responsible for the delivery fee, the Post Office would stop losing money on refused letters. Plus, the uniform, low rate of one cent per half-ounce would make mailing a letter affordable for the Post Office and the public. Letters wouldn’t have to be weighed and logged individually anymore, cutting the administration costs drastically.
After presenting his idea on February 13, 1837, Hill was given a two-year contract to run his new system. The design of the stamps was open to a competition that received 2,600 entries. However, none were considered suitable, so they selected a profile of Queen Victoria that was used on an 1837 medal (and based on an image of her as a princess).
Each individual Penny Black is scarce due to a special lettering system. Printed in sheets of 240 stamps, two bottom-corner letters were hand-punched onto the printing plate for each stamp. The stamp in the upper-left corner of a sheet was given the letters “AA”, next was “AB”, all the way to “AL.” Below the “AA” stamp was “BA”, and the 2nd row continues to “B.”
Finally, the Penny Black was issued on May 1, 1840, though it wouldn’t officially go on sale until May 6. There are few examples of the stamp on cover with May 1 and May 2 postmarks. The issuance of the Penny Black was the first major step in mass communications. Mail service became affordable to every British citizen for the first time. From that day forward, any Englishman from any walk of life could correspond with any other person anywhere in England.
The postage stamp was so revolutionary that it instantly became popular with collectors. In fact, Dr. John Edward Gray of the British Museum purchased a block of Penny Blacks the very first day they went on sale with the intent of preserving them – making him the world’s first stamp collector. The Queen was so pleased with the stamp’s portrait of herself at age 18, it was used exclusively on Great Britain stamps throughout her 60-year reign!
In 1839, the year before the Penny Black was issued, the British postal service moved 82 million pieces of mail. In 1840, the first year of the issue, the Penny Black more than doubled the mail volume to over 169 million pieces of mail. Soon, other countries would follow with their own first issues.
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