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The Penny Black

The World's First Adhesive Postage Stamp

The Penny Black, introduced by the U.K. in 1840, is the world's first adhesive postage stamp, and is perhaps the most famous stamp ever issued. This stamp depicts a likeness of a young Queen Victoria and, because of the stamp's black color and a denomination of one penny, it has come to be known as the "Penny Black".

Prior to 1840, postage rates for delivery of letters in the U.K. depended on the distance traveled and the number of sheets of paper used. Further, the postage was required to be paid by the receiver rather than the sender of the message - there was no system for the prepayment of postage prior to mailing. Since postal rates at that time were quite expensive, many people refused to accept delivery of letters.

In 1837, the U.K. Postmaster General, Sir Rowland Hill, proposed a number of reforms to the domestic postal system. These reforms included the following:

  • mail could be sent to any destination in the U.K. at a uniform rate of a penny per half-ounce of weight, no matter how long the distance involved;
  • postage would be prepaid by the sender of the message prior to mailing, and not by the addressee; and
  • proof of prepayment of the postage was to be evidenced by affixing a small piece of gummed, colored paper (stamp) on the outside of the letter prior to mailing.

Sir Rowland Hill's proposed reforms were passed by Parliament in 1839 in the form of the Penny Postage Act and the printing of the first Penny Black stamps commenced shortly thereafter.

The first stamps were engraved on steel plates and then printed on gummed paper in rectangular sheets of 240 stamps each. For security reasons, each stamp had corner letters on the front corresponding to its position on the plate and a small crown watermark on the reverse. These stamps were imperforate, meaning that the post office had to cut the sheets of stamps with scissors to obtain individual copies for sale. Perforated stamps were not issued in the U.K. until 1854.

The cancellation marks on the Penny Black stamps were initially done in black ink, but this was shortly changed to red ink to make the cancellation marks easier to distinguish.

The Penny Black was made available for sale on May 1, 1840. A two penny blue stamp, of identical design to that of the Penny Black except for its color, went on sale on May 8, 1840 for letters exceeding one-half ounce.

The sending of mail using stamps proved to be extremely popular in the U.K. and many other countries soon began issuing stamps. In 1847, the United States Post Office issued its first stamps, a 5 cent stamp depicting Benjamin Franklin and a 10 cent stamp depicting George Washington.

Although highly regarded by philatelists, Penny Black stamps are not all that rare. About 68 million of these stamps were issued during 1840-41, and it is estimated that about 1.5 million of these survive today. The price of the stamp today varies significantly according to its grade and condition. A fine used copy can be bought for about $125 or less. Fine unused examples are quite rare and can sell for $3,500 or more.

Finally, it is of interest to note that, in honor of the U.K. having issued the world's first adhesive postage stamps, the Universal Postal Union grants it an exemption from its rule that the name of the issuing country must appear on a stamp. No British stamp to date has ever had the country name on it.