The Fabulous Story of the Postage Stamp

Penny Black
Penny Black

On May the sixth 1840, the «One-Penny-Black», the first postage stamp, was introduced to the world by Great Britain.The appearance of this stamp would revolutionize the world of communications.Following a postal reform by Minister Rowland Hill, postal fees would now be paid in advance, instead of being paid upon receipt of delivery.

Communication Problems

The sending of information has long been a great challenge for mankind.The slowness of communication often caused many inconveniences and problems.Sometimes families only learned of the death of a family member years after the fact.Lack of a good communication system sometimes resulted in catastrophe, for example, armies were sent out to fight bloody battles even though a peace treaty had already been signed.

The First Communication Systems


As the ancient nomads were crossing great distances in order to survive, the first written messages appeared.These ones would engrave symbols on rocks or trees in the hope that one day they would be noticed by passers-by.The oldest postal documents go back more than 3000 years B.C., and were written on clay tablets.They were carried by messengers who travelled by foot, and who were almost exclusively employed by kings and emperors.There were few innovations over the following millennia, except for the use of horses, postal relays, and military routes.

The Industrial Revolution

At the dawn of the 19th century, the industrial revolution forced many nations to organize a national postal system in order to ensure better communication.At this time, the cost of a dispatch was extremely high, and so the high costs led to fraud and the theft of payrolls.Many would refuse to accept expensive letters, and private messenger companies also began to illegally price-gouge the state-run postal service.Legend has it that Rowland Hill’s eyes were opened to the negative aspects of the system when one day, in an inn, he noticed a waitress receiving a letter from her fiancé.The young woman seemed unable to pay for the dispatch, and so Hill took it upon himself to pay the bill.Unable to deceive him, the woman admitted that in order to correspond free of charge, her fiancé and herself had devised a system of small symbols which they would draw on the outside of the letter in order to get a message across without having to actually pay the messenger.

Postal Reform…by the Brits!

Rowland Hill
Rowland Hill

In 1837, the afore-mentioned Rowland Hill, within his role as minister of the government, suggested creating small vignettes which could be pasted onto envelopes, so that the postal tax was paid at the message’s departure, as opposed to its arrival.He proposed that the price be dropped to 1 penny, which was 50 times less than the current rate, no matter what distance the message travelled.This postal reform took three years to take effect due to opposition from the postal administrators of the time, who were unable to envision the positive effects on commerce and industry—they could only see the initial loss of revenue.Despite this, the reforms took place on May 6, 1840.

Cancellation In Order to Orevent Fraud

The one penny stamp attracted fraud from the beginning. Even though it represented an important savings compared to the previous rates, one penny was still the equivalent of one hour’s salary for the average worker.In order to prevent counterfeits, the postal system put in place various printing techniques similar to existing money printing safeguards.In order to get around the system, counterfeiters no longer tried reproducing the stamp, but simply reused it many times.Postal authorities fought back by introducing the «cancellation»–an ink mark stamped onto the surface to prevent re-usage.

A successful Venture Copied

The success of the postage stamp in the United Kingdom led to other countries adopting the method.The following countries were the first to reform their postal system and issue postage stamps:

1843 : the Swiss suburbs of Zurich and Geneva and the nation of Brazil ;

1847 : the United States of America and Mauritius ;

1849 : France, Belgium, and Germany ;

1851 : Canada.

Canada Innovates

Canada 1851 Beaver
Canada 1851 Beaver

The year 1851 marked the birth of Canada’s first illustrated stamp: the «Threepence Beaver». This stamp honoured the beaver, the trading of whose pelts had permitted the establishment of the first colonies in Canada.Sir Sandford Fleming, the stamp’s creator, realized early on that these stamps would eventually acquire an artistic and historic value.Today, all countries of the world use stamps to commemorate their history and great battles, to honour their heroes, and pay tribute to popular figures, be they real or fictional.

Small Works of Art Appreciated By Collectors

Countries entrust the creation of new postage stamps to some of their greatest artists.Charmed by these tiny works of art, many amateur collectors build up impressive collections.Philately is rapidly becoming one of the most popular hobbies on the planet.Some philatelists privilege stamps issued by a specific country, others opt to collect stamps on a specific theme, such as the Olympics, animals, space or fictional characters.

9 thoughts on “The Fabulous Story of the Postage Stamp”

  1. It would be great to have an up-dated postal history of Canada written. The same is true of stamps from all over the world. Recently I was looking through the stamp albums of a friend. He had written information about the various stamps/sets of stamps under the stamps in his albums. All of a sudden the miniature works of art took on life and new meaning.

  2. My daughter and I are looking for info about the first woman pictured on a U.S. postage stamp, her school has the answer in her homework sheet as the “Queen Isabella of Spain”, is it true? I can’t find the info, anywhere….
    Thank you so Much.
    Allie and Nattie Araya.

  3. Yes, the first American stamp featuring a woman was introduced in 1893. Part of a series commemorating the 400th anniversary of Columbus’s discovery of the new world, the stamp (Scott # 234) pictured Columbus soliciting funds for his voyage from Queen Isabella of Spain. Also, the first American woman commemorated by a US stamp (Scott # 306) was none other than the First Lady — Martha Washington. This stamp was introduced in 1902.
    US #234 Columbus soliciting aid of Queen Isabella of Spain
    US #306  Martha Washington


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