As the name implies, these are stamps issued by the British Post Office. In 1510, a postal system was set up in order to handle the King’s royal post. Two centuries later, a general post office was created in London. Initially, the cost of sending a letter was a function of the distance it had to travel, and the total number of pieces of paper in the envelope. So, a single letter going up to fifteen miles was four pennies, while sending one from London to Edinburgh, Scotland would run just over a shilling. That might not sound like much, but for the average worker that was a day’s pay back then!
Also, in a rather unique twist, the postage was paid by the receiver instead of the sender. This had the potential for trouble, if the person getting the letter was less than enthusiastic about forking over a substantial portion of their weekly take home pay. Thus it was decided to eliminate that whole issue by selling stamps that the sender would buy and then glue to the outside of the envelope. In May of 1840, the world’s first prepaid adhesive postage stamp, the Black Penny, was offered for sale. As it was during the reign of Queen Victoria, her portrait was used on it, as it would be easily recognizable by the general public.
As a little side trivia, the portrait used was taken from the Wyon City Medal of 1837 that William Wyon created in 1834, when (then) Princess Victoria was only fifteen years old.
Since the Black Penny was the very first stamp, the postal service decided not to include the name of the country. This is a tradition that continues to this day; no British stamps ever have the country’s name appear on them. Another custom is to have the monarch facing to the left. The British are quite tradition-minded. And, unlike the United States, they allow a living person’s face to appear on a stamp. Normally, it is the reining monarch’s likeness.
The man principally responsible for the creation of the stamp was Rowland Hill. He wrote a report in 1837 saying that envelopes and stamps should be standardized. The success of his program is evident by the sheer volume of letters the postal system carried. In 1839, it was just under seventy-five million. By 1850, it was nearly three hundred and fifty million! He also advocated putting mail boxes on every home to make it easier for the mail to be delivered.
These results were not lost on the rest of the world. During the 1840’s, Brazil, the United States, France and Belgium all started issuing postage stamps. By 1850, close to eighty-five countries and other entities were selling stamps.
Today, it is done worldwide, and some places – like Vatican City – actually generate considerable income from the sale of stamps. Of course, with the advent of the Internet and e-mail, the need for stamps has decreased slightly in industrialized nations. But, not to worry, stamps will continue to be used throughout the world for some time to come. After all, the same thing was said when the telegraph was invented, and when the telephone went into widespread use. So, stamp collectors everywhere will have colorful and artistic stamps to fill their books, for years to come.