BLACK1 - 1840 Penny Black, Closely Trimmed with Presentation Folder
Item #Black1 – a closely trimmed Penny Black.

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.

270677 - Mint Stamp(s)
Item #Bla1 – A Penny Black Reproduction sheet.

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).

1496245 - Cover
Item #BLACK1xxx – Penny Black with 3-4 margins on cover.

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.

Click the images to add this history to your collection.

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  1. Very interesting article on the first stamp and stamp collecting in general.
    Did not know anything about Sir Rowland Hill and the invention of the first
    postage stamp. Guess we all, as stamp collectors, need to honor him for
    our interest in stamp collecting. Thanks Sir Rowland Hill!

    1. I agree. That was a great invention and started stamp collecting. What a gift to the world.

    2. The strangest thing about this stamp is that a mere 68 million approx. stamps (the largest print run of any stamp) were printed on 11 different plates. yet still has a high catalogue value in any catalogue. Also there is another 1d black printed probably for inclusion in the Royal Stamp Collection, this stamp is lettered Q V Rowland Hill has probably been Commemorated over the years by probably every Postal Authority world wde & most likley many classified in the ‘Cinderella’ or ‘Bogus’ areas.

  2. This is amazing! Never knew how or why postage stamps came into exsistance. Really a great story to share.

  3. Certainly, we’re not using his invention in the same way, and not as frequently as heretofore, but we stamp collectors still celebrate the occasion and the idea.

  4. I commend you, again, for your interesting and informative information on stamps and the history they represent.

    May I suggest, maybe once a month, you do an article on the first stamp issued by major countries. The history Canada’s Scott #1 will enlighten many collectors on our “beaver” and the man who created it. ie Where did world time zones originate?

  5. A picture is worth a thousand words but not in this case. History is such an important part of our lives and too often ignored. I thought the school with the gas lights and central heating in 1819 was interesting and I never though school teachers were paid much.

  6. A great invention that we still use in our every day lives! We need a new stamp to honor Sir Rowland Hill. I did’t hear about him until this article brought us to this detail in stamp history.

  7. Thank you, Mystic, for printing this wonderful article. It is such a fascinating subject. After the Penny Black came the Penny Blue and the Penny Red.

    1. I have 500 years of Royal Mail (Royal Mail Prestige Stamp Booklet) on page stamp pane of Penny Black/Penny Blue/Penny Red.

    2. You failed to mention the hidden plat numbers. I have the penny reds and I list them by that number. Great article Mystic.

  8. It’s funny, I had never really considered how the postage stamp got it’s start. Although, had anyone asked me, I would have thought it’s beginning would have been earlier, say in the late 1700’s, with good old Benjamin Franklin and his starting of the U.S. postal service.

  9. Early British stamps like the penny black and two-pence blue had letters printed in the corners, each sheet of 240 stamps had 240 variations, so it’s good fun to try and collect all 240 combinations and try to reconstruct a full sheet.
    Also here in England collectors like to get a stamp with their own initials, my own is NH.
    So if you are collecting early Great Britain try to get your own initials on a stamp or try to reconstruct a sheet – it’s fun!

  10. A whole barrage of stamps was issued by countries of the British Commonwealth (mostly former colonies of the British Enpire) in 1979, honoring Sir Rowland Hill on the 100th anniversary of his death. Yet in 1995, the 200th anniversary of his birth went philatelically unnoticed. Strange that such a great man’s death should be honored, but not his birth. Several independent countries participated in the 1979 SRH death stamp issue, but the USPS did not participate in either. The US has issued stamps honoring world leaders before, such as Winston Churchill after his death in 1965, so they could very well issue a stamp for Mr. Hill. 2020 will be the 225th anniversary of his birth, 2029 the 150th anniversary of his death.

    1. The United States postal service ruined collecting stamps when they changed to glue so the stamps cannot be removed. I have not collected US stamps since. And I have collected stamps for 70 years. To bad for the young starting out. What a shame.

  11. Very interesting, I have been a stamp collector for 75 years, My birthday is may 1st and my brothers name is Roland. I to, find this article very interesting.

  12. The stamp cost a penny Not a cent, although their value was very close at that time. 1d = a penny. d = denarius as left us by the Romans.

  13. What a genius the inventor was of the Penny Black. To me it’s amazing that the developed nations of the world struggled for so long with the ‘addressee pays’ system. I would have guessed that Ben Franklin had something to do with the first postage stamp. It’s also curious that it took America so long (1847), to follow suit. One of my favorite albums to browse is the Gold Stamp volume which includes a very good replica of all the 19th century American stamps and well into the 20th century.

  14. Thank You, Mr Jim Woodfield. Many stamps, especially those of the British Empire have issued stamps commemorating the birth and death of Sir Roland Hill, as well as the first postage stamps, the ‘Penny Black’, ‘Penny Red’ And Thank You Mr Hohn Hutt. The ‘d’ in the letter denomination of the British Stamps, refers to the the Roman ‘denarius’ used by Roman soldiers during their occupation of Great Britain. In fact, the name: Great Britain, Gran Bretania, in Spanish; with the diacritical mark over the ‘n’, is derived from the Latin name for England: Bretania

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