The Story Of Penny Black – The World's First Adhesive Postage Stamp

"The postage stamp is a flimsy thing
No thicker than a beetle’s wing
And yet it will roam the world for you
Exactly where you tell it to."

It is how the English humorist and writer, Edward Verrall Lucas, described a postage stamp - the small wafer of paper that is purchased and glued on a postal item as a proof of payment for postage -, a description which is both funny and thought provoking at the same time. A postage stamp, usually issued by the postal administration of a country, allows the sender of a postal item to prepay the costs involved for its delivery.

In the early days of postal services, when there was no postage stamp, it was usual for the postage on a letter to be paid by the receiver, at the time of the arrival of the letter. When a receiver refused to accept the delivery of a letter, the postal authorities had no means to collect the cost involved. The cost was also calculated in a complex manner as many factors like the distance involved were taken into consideration. Postage stamps evolved to solve both these issues. This is the story of the earliest specimen of this seemingly simple piece of paper, which standardized the charges for postal delivery and also allowed the postal departments to collect the cost in advance.

An early history of Postal Service

The postal service, which is an integral part of our daily life today, was in the earlier times a privileged service available to the kings and royalty alone. It is generally believed that these services were beyond the grasp of ordinary citizens in the beginning.

When we trace the early history of postal services we can see that there existed systems for carrying letters and messages dating back to the centuries long before the Christian Era. In the civilized kingdoms of ancient Babylonia, Egypt, India, Persia and China there were definite systems, which resemble the modern day postal services, for transferring messages between royalty and government services. Early mail systems involved using methods like mail-runners - who had to traverse non-stop through vast and often dangerous terrain to deliver messages -, mounted couriers – who rode non-stop on horses between mail relay stations – and even carrier pigeons, which utilized the homing ability of pigeons for delivering messages.

The ancient Babylonian clay seals dating back to 3000 BC, are supposed to be affixed to written documents dispatched for official government purposes. Well structured courier services were used by the ancient Egyptians, even in 2400 BC, for the distribution of official documents within their kingdom.

In the Achaemenid Empire, also called the First Persian Empire, in the 5th century BC, we can witness one of the most organized forms of courier services of ancient times. This postal service was based on the Royal Road, an ancient highway rebuilt by the Persian king Darius the Great, which was designed to facilitate rapid communication within the Achaemenid Empire, one of the largest empires in history. Throughout the length of this road there were postal stations named Chapar Khaneh, and mounted couriers were used to rapidly transmit letters and other messages between these stations. These rapid couriers, known as Chapars, were provided with fresh supplies and horses at each station along the way for swift travel. We can find descriptions of this courier system in the The Histories by Herodotus written in 440 BC.

"There is nothing in the world that travels faster than these Persian couriers. Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from covering their allotted stage in the quickest possible time."

In ancient India, during the time of the Mauryan Empire, dating back to 300 BC, there was an excellent system of mail service, which utilized runners, mounted couriers and even mail chariots for the distribution of messages. In the Mauryan Empire this postal system was primarily used for military purposes but was also available for delivering personal messages. Traces of government postal services can be seen in the Zhou Dynasty of the ancient China, dating back to the 1st millennium BC. Ancient Rome had its organized mail and courier service by the name of Cursus publicus , which was developed during the time of Augustus Caesar and was much influenced by the ancient Persian postal system.

In the Islamic world, a government courier system known as the Barīd, was operational in the early Islamic caliphate and its successor states. This system, which was responsible for the delivery of correspondences within the state, also functioned as an intelligence agency informing the caliphs about everything happening inside the state provinces.

With the advent of modern civilizations, fast, reliable and better methods of transportations evolved and they replaced the ancient methods of mail delivery. Now postal services use motor vehicles, air planes, ships and even Internet for distributing mail items.

The Story of Penny Black

By the fifteenth century the postal service’s became more public. In Germany a postal service using horses was created in 1460, by Ruggiero de Tassis of the Thurn and Taxis family connecting Germany, Austria and Italy. The postal services, which usually served the government agencies and rulers until then, opened up for the delivery of private messages of individual citizens. The postal service started by the family became immensely popular with traders and the counts of Thurn and Taxis became the key players in the European postal services until 1800s.

In 1653, Monsieur Jean de Villayer, a member of the French Council of State, organized a postal service, which operated within the city of Paris. Numerous post boxes were placed on the various busy streets of Paris in which people were able to post letters at a prepaid cost of 1 sol. These boxes were cleared twice a day and the letters were delivered inside the city on the same day. A receipt, which was issued to the sender, was attached to the letters as postage and these receipts can be considered as the ancestors of our modern day postage stamps.

During that time the postal services in England were sub contracted to private enterprises and this often resulted in high postal charges. In 1680 William Dockwra, an English merchant and his partner Robert Murray organized a postal system, named the London Penny Post, aimed at delivering letters within London for the sum of one penny.

A newspaper ad of London Penny Post c. 1680

The cost for the delivery was prepaid with a hand-stamp, which was applied directly to the letter. The Penny Post was a success and a number of similar services cropped up across England and continued their service into the early 1800s. These services allowed public to send postal items within a local area for a modest cost, but the general postage for sending items to outside areas was ever increasing. By the early nineteenth century the general postage was so high that the service was beyond the reach of common citizens. The cost was calculated based on factors like the distance that the mail was to travel and the number of sheets contained within the letter. Alvin F. Harlow observes about this increased postage in Paper Chase – The amenities of stamp collecting as follows.

"In the United States in 1800, to send one sheet of paper three hundred miles cost thirty cents, and in England thirty years later, twelve pence. In any country, if there were two sheets in the letter instead of one, the postage was doubled, regardless of the weight."

An interior view of the Lombard Street General Post Office in London, 1809. [Source]

As the postage increased, many of the senders started to mail items with a postage due, and this resulted in an increase in the refusal of letters by the addressees. Rowland Hill, an English businessman, decided to find a solution for these issues, which made postal services out of the grasp of common people and resulted in monetary loss to the postal department.

Rowland Hill, who reformed the British postage system and who introduced the first adhesive postage stamp.

In 1837, he suggested that all the postal items should be sent at a flat rate of one penny for an ounce of weight and the postage should be paid by the sender in advance. For this he put forward the idea of an adhesive label, which is to be affixed on a letter for prepaying the postage. This suggestion, like all great ideas, was initially met with ridicule, but he managed to convince the parliament that his suggestion was a perfect solution to fix the issues in the postal services.

On August 17, 1839, the parliament sanctioned the use of adhesive stamps and suggestions on the design for the first stamp was invited from the public. Nearly 3000 designs were submitted but none of them were selected and eventually a rough sketch done by Rowland was chosen for printing. The printing was done at the printers Perkins, Bacon & Co., and the rough design by Rowland was given finishing touches by the engraver Frederick Heath.

The Penny Black

The stamp, which was issued on 1 May 1840 was called a Penny Black, because of its value of a single penny and the black color. It featured a portrait of the British Queen Victoria and had inscriptions of POSTAGE and ONE PENNY on them. The Penny Black had no perforations and the stamps required cutting by a knife or scissors for separating them from the sheet. The name of the country was not included on the stamp, since no other country at that time had postage stamps. British stamps are still printed without the name of the country.

A Two Pence Mulready letter sheet.

Along with the Penny Black, an intricately designed prepaid envelope and letter sheet called the Mulready stationery was also issued. The illustration on the stationery was done by William Mulready, a famous artist of the time. The general public accepted the concept of postage stamp with great enthusiasm and there was an amazing increase in the volume of letters send by prepaid postage. Soon many countries followed the steps of Great Britain and by 1850 countries like Brazil, USA, Mauritius, France and Belgium started issuing their own stamps.

The first issued Penny Black was short lived as it had one great fault. As the printing was done with a fast ink, it allowed dishonest people to washout the obliterations of the used stamps and re-use them. The stamp was withdrawn after nine months and was replaced by a red colored Penny stamp.

The Penny Black, being the world’s first adhesive postage stamp, has an iconic status among philatelists, - Philately is the study of stamps and a philatelist is a person who collects or studies postage stamps and postal materials as a hobby - as it is a very hard to find stamp. Owning one is an expensive procedure, as rare and unused Penny Blacks are valued at thousands of dollars. The only known unused complete sheets of Penny Blacks are in display at the British Postal Museum.