Postal reforms brought about the first stamps

May 3, 2021, 7 PM
The world's first adhesive postage stamp is the Penny Black from Great Britain, issued in 1840 following the implementation of massive reforms to the British postal system.

By Michael Baadke

Every country that has ever issued postage stamps can point to a single stamp or set as the first to come from that country.

Great Britain was the first country in the world to issue an adhesive postage stamp. The year was 1840, and the introduction of stamps to verify the prepayment of postage was just part of a much larger revision in Britain's national mail service.There are some wonderful stories associated with many of these first issues, and together they contribute to the history and lore of postage stamps worldwide.

Prior to that year, British postage rates were determined in part by the distance that the letter had to travel, and the responsibility for paying that rate usually fell to the recipient of the letter, rather than to the sender.

The rates were complex and costly, and there was a call throughout the country to straighten out the mail mess and provide a way for people to send letters at a reasonable price.

Rowland Hill is credited as the man who brought about the British postal reforms that included the introduction of the adhesive postage stamp.

A delightful story has been told how Hill was on his way to work one morning when he happened to see a teary-eyed young lass dejectedly declining the delivery of a letter, apparently because she did not have the money to pay for its delivery.

Hill sensed that the girl was being deprived of a message from a distant loved one, and he approached the scene, paid the postman his due and handed the letter to the girl.

To his surprise, she informed him she didn't want the letter, prompting Hill to question her about the exchange.

It turns out that because of the costly postage rates, her sweetheart included a coded message as he addressed the letter, and the girl discerned the message with a glance before handing the mail back to the waiting postman. The story goes that this incident provided Hill with the inspiration to suggest that postage should be paid in advance.

Rowland Hill was a businessman and educator who had previously demonstrated an interest in postal affairs. In 1837 he published a pamphlet titled Post Office Reform: Its Importance and Practicability.

Hill submitted his plan to the British government, and the concept of uniform postage, set at a uniform rate of one penny for a prepaid half-ounce letter, went into effect Jan. 10, 1840.

As these changes were taking place, Hill also had a hand in the development of the postage stamp.

Previously, the rate of postage was simply marked by hand or handstamp upon the outside of the letter, and payment was usually rendered when the letter was delivered.

In 1837, a Scottish printer named James Chalmers suggested that the prepayment of postage could be verified with "Stamped Slips" bearing a design on the front and "rubbed over on the back with a strong solution of gum, or other adhesive substance."

Hill incorporated this idea in a later printing of his pamphlet.

Once the British government approved of the plan, the British Treasury sponsored a competition to create a design for the first adhesive postage stamps.

None of the submitted designs were accepted. Instead, it was decided to use a portrait of Queen Victoria by William Wyon that had appeared on a medal issued in 1837.

The image shows Victoria when she was but a 15-year-old princess.

The assignment for engraving the design was awarded to printer Charles Heath, but most likely it was executed by his son Frederick.

As shown in Figure 1, the 1-penny stamp known as the Penny Black features a line-engraved portrait of Queen Victoria that stands against a black background of delicate engraved lathe-work.

The background design was created by Jacob Perkins, an American inventor living in Great Britain who developed the engine turning lathe, and whose London firm — Perkins, Bacon & Petch — actually printed the first stamps.

Each stamp also includes two letters, one in each lower corner, known as check letters. These letters can be used to determine the original placement of each stamp in a sheet of 240.

Each of the 20 horizontal rows in the sheet contained 12 stamps. All of the stamps in the first row had the letter A in the lower-left corner. The letter in the lower-right corner progressed across the sheet from left to right, beginning with A on the first stamp and ending with L.

In the next horizontal row all of the stamps contained the letter B in the lower-left corner and progressed similarly.

The stamps themselves went on sale May 1, 1840, but they were not accepted for use until May 6.

However, a folded letter sheet now known as the "May 1st cover" exists with the Penny Black affixed and bearing a May 1 postmark.

Because the stamp was used before it was authorized, the cover is marked with a large "2" indicating that the recipient was to pay 2 pence postage due, twice the prepaid rate.

In February 1999 this cover was sold in Switzerland for the equivalent of $404,800 at an auction by David Feldman.

The Penny Black is listed in the 2000 Scott Standard Postage Stamp Catalogue as Great Britain Scott 1.

It was not the world's only postage stamp for long. On May 7, Britain placed on sale a second stamp, the Two-Penny Blue.

Collectors who are not aware of the second country to issue postage stamps are sometimes surprised by the answer.

Less than two years after Britain instituted its sweeping postal reforms, a similar package of changes was approved by the congress of Brazil.

Like Britain, Brazil in the 1830s had a maze of rates that made sending mail long distances a very costly venture.

In the July 1943 issue of the American Philatelist, Lester G. Brookman described the changes in the Brazilian postal system.

"Under the new rate a letter weighing not more than 4 octaves (15 grammes) was carried anywhere in the country by land for 60 reis, or, if carried by sea, for 120 reis. Letters weighing more than 4 octaves but not more than 6 octaves required 90 reis. 30 reis was required to pay carriage on printed matter and on letters, circulars and other papers of the judiciary."

Like Britain, Brazil decided to issue postage stamps that would prove the delivery fee had been paid in advance.

It has been said that Brazil in the 1830s did not have the ability to create a postage stamp that would adequately foil potential stamp forgers, but in 1841 Brazilian customs authorities confiscated an engraving machine that would solve part of the problem.

The later purchase of an engraving transfer machine gave the Brazilian mint the accessories necessary to produce its engraved issues in 1843.

The 30r, 60r and 90r stamps were all released Aug. 1, 1843 — in fact, they were all printed on the same sheet.

The earliest printing of the stamps included 18 each of the three denominations on one 54-stamp sheet. Separate 60-stamp sheets of the 30r and 60r values were printed at a later date.

The 30r stamp, Brazil Scott 1, is shown in Figure 2.

The design of the stamp simply shows the numeral of value in a rounded vignette with engraved background. The shape of the design caused the stamps to be called "Bull's Eyes."

Of the few stamps that were printed, many were intentionally destroyed in 1846 because a new stamp issue had been created. Examples of Brazil's Bull's Eyes are therefore relatively scarce.

The concept of postal reform initiated by Great Britain swept across the globe during the 1840s, and the next nation to follow suit was the United States of America.

Once again, it was a tangle of complicated and costly postage rates that made mailing letters in the United States an expensive and problematic endeavor.

Facing demands in their own country for postal reforms, U.S. postal officials looked at the changes taking place in the British postal system and considered whether such changes would work in America.

One concern was that the reformed British system appeared to lose money in its earliest years, and government officials in the United States were uneasy about the prospect of financial losses.

Private postal companies began operating in the United States during the first half of the 1840s, and several even created their own postage stamps.

Following the initial establishment of reformed postal rates in 1845, the postmaster in New York became the first to offer provisional postage stamps in the United States.

It soon became apparent to federal officials that the postage stamp was clearly the mailing instrument of the future.

In 1847 the U.S. government authorized the use of postage stamps, and the first federally issued stamps were placed on sale July 1, 1847.

Once again, the stamps were printed using engraved designs. Two denominations were issued: a 5¢ red-brown stamp picturing Benjamin Franklin, and a 10¢ black stamp picturing George Washington.

The two stamps are shown together in Figure 3. The 5¢ Franklin is United States Scott 1, the 10¢ Washington is Scott 2.

In The United States Postage Stamps of the 19th Century, Vol. 1, Lester G. Brookman notes "There has been some discussion about the correctness of placing the portrait of Franklin on the first stamp value and that of Washington being relegated to the second value but the reason this was done was no doubt due to the fact that Franklin was the 'father' of the American Postal Service."

Linn's U.S. Stamp Facts 19th Century lists the designers of the two stamps as "not known; attributed to James P. Major." Similarly, the book conditionally lists the engraver as Asher B. Durand.

The earliest-known use of any U.S. postage stamp is a cover mailed July 2, 1847, using two 10¢ Washingtons. No first-day use for either denomination has been discovered.

Just months after the United States issued its first stamps, the island of Mauritius in the Indian Ocean, then a British colony, became the fourth stamp-issuing entity. It was followed by the German state of Bavaria and the country of Belgium, both in 1849, and another 10 countries in 1850.

Though the first stamp of any country is traditionally listed first in most stamp catalogs, this rule is not steadfast.

Denmark issued its first postage stamp April 1, 1851, a brown square adhesive denominated 4 rigsbank-skilling.

The stamp identified as Denmark Scott 1, however, is a 2rbs stamp issued exactly one month later on May 1. The 4rbs brown is listed as Scott 2.

The two stamps are shown together in Figure 4.

The stamps are listed in the same reverse order in the well-known Facit catalog published in Sweden. The Danish AFA Danmark Frimaerkekatalog, however, lists the two stamps following the actual order of their appearance.