The First Ever Stamp: The British Penny Black

It’s now regarded as the “holy grail” by stamp collectors worldwide. It’s the little black stamp that, upon its arrival, made all formats of post affordable to many at the time. Nevertheless, the famed Penny Black, which was first made available for sale 175 years ago, did in fact have a somewhat troubled birth.

Prior to the arrival of the Penny Black, which is the world’s very first adhesive postage stamp, it was only the wealthy among society who were able to afford to use post.  Letters were charged as per the number of sheets of paper that were used in addition to the amount of distance that they had to travel between sender and recipient.

In those days, pre-1840, it was the recipient who had to pay for mail, as opposed to the sender.

In the Victorian era, individuals would make their correspondence in as an efficient manner as possible. They would use a single piece of paper to write both horizontally and vertically. Nevertheless, even a couple of decades prior to the arrival of the postage stamp, it was clear that another method of posting mail was required.

In 1822, a printer and bookseller from Dundee, Scotland, James Chalmers, came up with a novel solution of pre-paid postage stamps. However, it was not until a further 15 years had passed until the MP Robert Wallace made the decision to start using stamps on business envelopes that were of a standard size.

A couple of years later, in 1839, Parliament passed the Penny Postage Bill. The Treasurer, Roland Hill, suggested that a public competition be held in order to find a capable designer of stamps and envelopes. There were some 2,600 entries made to the competition.

Though some winners were in fact announced, including Charles Whiting and Henry Cole, both of whom were already well-established British printers, Hill opted to award an artist – William Mulready – with a commission for designing both envelopes and stamps.

The stamped letter sheet which Mulready came up with was arguably a far better concept than it was in reality. He created an elaborately poetic design which was inspired by the British Empire, together with a figure of Britannia and a lion as the centerpiece. The concept had to be withdrawn, given that it was so widely mocked within society.

A further contender in the competition announced by Roland Hill was that of William Wyon. Wyon came up with a stamp, where it depicted a 15-year-old Queen Victoria, then Queen Regent in Britain. The stamp was engraved by professional engraver Henry Corbould.

The original craftwork included a fine border together with stars in all four corners of the stamp. However, the stamp that went into production – the Penny Black – did not feature all of the original detailing.

Included was the word “Postage” that allowed it to be differentiated from revenue stamps, which prior to then had been used for a number of decades. “Postage” as well as the price of the stamp, one penny, were used in the final printing process.

This was then produced in sheets of 240 stamps at a time, and the sheets were priced at £1 sterling. The stamp represented the very first adhesive stamps, given that there was a glutinous wash used on the rear of the sheets during production.

However, the stamps had to be physically cut from the sheet by the employee behind the post office counter using a pair of scissors, and it was not until a further 14 years had elapsed that perforated sheets arrived.

Interestingly, the reason for the stamp’s name was to also be the reason for its demise. The black ink, which was particularly gloomy given the production processes of the time, very easily disguised the red ink stamp which was utilized to cancel out the Penny Black once it had been used. Thus, it was particularly easy to reuse the Penny Black at least one more time.

Within a matter of a further 12 months, the Treasury had taken measures to reprint the Penny Black in red. They also changed the color of the cancellation stamp over to black ink. Thus, the Penny Red was born.

Nevertheless, it’s the Penny Black that not only remains the most memorable, but also the most valuable of the two early edition stamps. There were only 68 million Penny Blacks ever printed, and a single one is worth anything between £1,800 and £15,000.

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