Penny Black: History of the Worlds First Postage Stamp

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For many years the postal service in the U.K. had been a very expensive service for ordinary people to use. The costs were prohibitive, a single letter sometimes costing a working person’s full day’s wages. Postage before 1840 was expensive and unreliable. In Great Britain at this time, postage charges were exorbitant to say the least, to send a single small page letter cost four pence to a maximum 20 miles (32km), to send a letter 100 miles (160km) cost nine pence.
In January of 1837 Rowland Hill published his memorable pamphlet, ‘Post Office Reform’. Hill’s main proposal was the introduction of a uniform postage rate of one penny per half ounce in weight. After publishing further editions of ‘Post Office Reform’, he finally published a pamphlet in July 1839 – ‘On the Collection of Postage by means of stamps’. The story is long and involved, but eventually The Penny Postage Bill was passed by Parliament on 17 August 1839, without opposition and was granted the ‘Royal Assent’ by the young Queen Victoria. Some basic elements of the plan were the lowering of postage rates for basic letters to one penny.
The new stamps went on sale on 1 May 1840, and were valid for postage from 6 May 1840 (although some were used during the 1-5 May period) and the worlds first postage stamp was born. However, Hill’s idea reduced mail handling costs in Great Britain and transferred the responsibility of payment to the sender rather than the receiver. The ‘Penny Black’, a stamp of simple design and did not bear an inscription of the Country’s name.

The stamps were printed in sheets of 240, engraved on steel plates, on gummed paper with a single small crown watermark on each stamp. Eleven different printing plates were used during the life cycle of the Penny Black. Every penny black stamp has letters in the lower two corners. These simply identify what sheet position the stamp occupied. There were 68,158,080 penny blacks issued. The stamps were not perforated, and had to be separated using scissors or a knife. As there was only about 1mm between one stamp and another, it was very easy to stray just a little and cut into the printed design of the stamp.

The Penny Black Stamp was only used for one year because the red cancellation mark was hard to see on the black background. As a result of this, the Treasury reprinted the stamp as a red stamp so that the black cancellation marks that are later used are easier to see and harder to remove.

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