The History of Postage Stamps: A Closer Look at Over 100 Years of Postage

The postage stamp has been a part of society for generations. We often take it for granted, forgetting that there was a time before stamps. Back when we couldn’t run to the post office or a kiosk to buy postage.

Before Adhesive Postage Stamps
English merchant William Dockwra is credited with helping to form the mail system we know today. He and his partner Robert Murray founded the London Penny Post in 1680. The system could be used to deliver letters and small parcels throughout the city of its namesake. When mailed, a hand stamp was used to confirm payment of postage.

The UK Creates the First Adhesive Postage Stamps
Inventor, English teacher, and social reformer Sir Rowland Hill campaigned for reform of the United Kingdom’s postal system. His approach required the sender to pay the postage fee rather than the recipient. The first postage stamp was named the Penny black and featured the profile of Queen Victoria based on a sketch provided by Henry Corbould. It was issued on 1 May 1840 but was not officially used until 6 May.

Along with the first adhesive stamp, Sir Hill also provided the first uniform postage rates based on weight instead of size. This made the mail system much more practical.

A New System with New Stamps
Hill was summoned to provide evidence for his system before the Commission for Post Office Enquiry in 1837. During his meeting, he read from a letter he wrote to the Chancellor. His words provided the world with the first description of a modern adhesive stamp. He stated that paid postage could be created “by using a bit of paper just large enough to bear the stamp, and covered at the back with a glutinous wash.”

To ensure that fees were paid for each parcel, postmarks were applied. This helped identify a used stamp so that it could not be reused.

The Adhesive Postage Stamp Concept Gains New Ground
Other countries saw the success of postage stamps in the UK and decided to create their own systems. The Swiss Canton of Zurich issue the four and six rappen in March 1843. The former could be used to mail letters within Zurich, and the latter would carry mail anywhere in the canton.

More postage stamps appeared soon after. Brazil created its Bull’s Eye stamp in 1843. The country used the same printer that produced the U.K.’s Penny black, but featured an abstract design. They chose to not print an image of Emperor Pedro II because the postmark would disfigure his portrait.

The United States began issuing postage stamps in 1845. However, it took a couple of years before the first official U.S. postage stamps were issued. These included five and ten cent postage with images of Benjamin Franklin and George Washington.

Modern Postage Stamps
Postage stamps are a common find all over the modern world. People can use them to send letters to just about anywhere. Some countries have even experimented with the design, introducing new images and themes. The U.S. created a circular stamp in 2000 that displayed a hologram of Earth. Tonga and Sierra Leone issued stamps that are shaped like fruit. Today’s stamp collectors have a huge and eclectic catalog of postage to choose from thanks to the diversity and wild popularity of the adhesive stamp.