Though it was given the laugh when it was first introduced by an English Schoolmaster, the civilized world today pays homage to the postage stamp, the friend of humanity, on its hundred and sixty eighth birthday.
Not since the days of printing had there came to humanity such a boon as was launched in England on May 6th, 1840, when the first postage stamps were used. That date in all history marks the beginning of popular communication, placing within the reach of the poorest peasant the means of writing to friends and relatives. It put the people of the world into closer relationship, it encouraged the art of writing and it spread civilization.
Millions of people in this world to day receive letters, tear open the envelopes and seldom glance at the stamp, and should they do so, the pretty piece of paper would represent to them but the cost of transmission.
An incident relative to its inauguration is interesting to relate, Rowland Hill, the schoolmaster was passing through a rural district of northern England. At one inn where he stayed overnight, the postman came along with a letter for one of the girls employed by the inn keeper. The girl took the letter from the carrier’s hand and after looking it over handed it back to him saying that she did not have the one-shilling to pay for its carriage. We might say here that about this time (1835-40) the postal charges were ‘Cash on Delivery’. Hill being of a generous heart paid the postman the postage and the letter was duly delivered. After the carrier had left the girl turned to Hill and thanked him for his kindness, but at the same time told him that his action was entirely unnecessary. She and her brother had arranged a code which was placed on the outside of the envelope and she had read the short message when she had first taken it from the hand of the postman.
Hill was amazed as such a fraud drafted a scheme to combat them. This hastily prepared basis is the forerunner of the present day world postal system, and the secret of their success; prepayment of postage by postage stamps.
Having convinced himself, he had to convince the people. In the year 1837 he made a study of the statistical reports of the then postal “system” and the next year wrote a booklet “The Post Office Reform” in which he advocated a one-penny rate for all letters weighing less than one ounce, that were addressed for delivery in the United Kingdom. Previous to this time, and the same was true of all other countries; the rates of postal charges were based on the distance schedule. Now along came a schoolmaster who claimed to be able to put in use a one-penny rate when the one then in use was a one-shilling, twelve times more.
After the first roars of laughed had rolled away there were some who came forward and openly agreed with him. That was enough. Now he had to spring the plan on Parliament.
The government was slow to appreciate the farsightedness of this gentleman, and even resented the interference as he held no office in the English government. The people and a few newspapers began boosting Hill and his scheme. The Parliament gave way to accept his suggestions.
He claimed that the high cost of mail service was directly due to irregularities of the mail service, such as reckoning the charges by the number of sheets contained in an envelope and rated by the distance schedule, and collecting the charges from the addressee.
In his booklet he called for the one-penny rate, and “any difficulties in that plan”, to quote the booklet, “might be easily settled by using a bit of paper just big enough to bear the stamp and having on the reverse side some sort of glutinous substance which when moistened would hold the stamp to the back of the envelope”.
The invention of the postage stamp dates from his modestly advanced suggestion.
January 10th, 1840, saw the penny postage rate effective in Britain, but it was several months later, May 6th 1840, hundred and sixty eight years ago, that the first postage stamp was put in use.
Roland Hill was knighted for his efforts and received a gift of nine thousand pounds sterling for his work, raised by public subscription, besides a big job in the post office department. In 1854 he was made chief secretary and was retired in 1864. After his retirement he wrote several books on his research. The History of the Penny Post was one of these.
This closes the story of Sir Rowland Hill, but let us says a word of the postal activities in relation to the new postal system.
In 1839 the letters carried totaled 76,000,000; 1840, 169,000,000. Because of the lowered rates the postal revenue fell from pounds 478,000 to pounds 278,000 and the net profit from pounds 326,000 to pound 100,000. It was more than ten years before receipts again totaled those of 1839, but the number of letters carried increased constantly, reaching 350,000,000 in 1850.