Where Was the First Postage Stamp Used?
The first Postage “label” or stamp was used in England in May, 1840, it was the world’s first adhesive postage stamp used in a public postal system. It features a profile of Queen Victoria. Letters had been sent by post since the time of the Egyptians. The Greeks, Romans, Chinese and Arabs all used pigeon-post very effectively. They sent a duplicate letter by a different pigeon in case the first bird met a hawk on the way.
Before the first stamp—the Penny Black of 1840—many marks had been used in Britain to record time and place of receipt, and money paid or owed. Rowland Hill started a movement for Post Office reform. This was founded on pre-payment for letters and a standard charge of one penny, regardless of distance. The idea of a sticky stamp was suggested to Hill by Charles Knight. The design was taken from a medallion showing the head of Queen Victoria, designed by William Wyon.
These first stamps were printed in sheets of 240, since perforations had not been invented; the first job of the day for post office clerks was to cut rows of stamps out of the sheets. They were backed with what was called “cement” and many people found that they were difficult to stick on their letters.
Although the stamps were not officially issued for sale until 6 May 1840, some offices such as those in Bath sold the stamps unofficially before that date. There are covers postmarked 2 May, and a single example is known on cover dated 1 May 1840. All London post offices received official supplies of the new stamps but other offices throughout the United Kingdom did not, continuing to accept payments for postage in cash for a period.
The Penny Black lasted less than a year. A red cancellation was hard to see on the black design and the red ink was easy to remove; both made it possible to re-use cancelled stamps. In February 1841, the Treasury switched to the Penny Red and began using black ink for cancellations instead, which was more effective and harder to remove. However, people still reused stamps by combining the uncancelled parts of two stamps to form an unused whole, so in 1864 as a further safeguard the top corner stars on the Penny Red were replaced by the lower corner check letters in reverse order.
These Penny Black stamps were in use for 11 months. Of the 68 million printed, six million still survive. They are not rare but collectors like to have a good example of the first stamp issued. The total print run was 286,700 sheets, containing a total of 68,808,000 stamps. Many were saved, and in used condition they remain readily available to stamp collectors. The only known complete sheets of the Penny Black are owned by the British Postal Museum.
The rarest stamp in the world was in fact issued 16 years later. This is the British Guiana one cent which was discovered in 1873 by a schoolboy who sold it for six shillings. In 1922 it fetched Pound 7,343. Collectors today make a point of looking for stamps that have been misprinted, since these, being rarer, have a great deal more value. A common misprint is for the perforations to be omitted.