Stamp Stories from around the world

Hello all you stamp friends out there. I this blog I will bring you all the exiting stamp stories from around the world. Today I will tell you how it all began. I will tell you the story about the first postage stamp of the world: “The British one penny black” from 1840.

My name is Vagn Juhl-Larsen, I am from Denmark and I have been a stamp collector for more than 50 years.



The history of letters goes thousands of years back. But during “The industrial Revolution” in the last part of the 18. century and the beginning of the 19. century enhanced the need for communication between people and businesses. Letters were transported by ship, railways and on horse carriage. The letters were typically delivered by postmen on foot, who charged the recipients postage according to the distance the letter had been transported.

The picture below (Fig. 1) shows a letter send from Chester to Preston (later changed to Manchester) in 1809. The receiver had to pay 6 penny on delivery. A rather large sum in these days. As you can see on the folded letter in Fig 2. it was also possible to prepay postage. For this letter 3 penny.

Fig. 1. Great Britain1809: Business letter from Chester to Preston. Forwarded to Manchester. The receiver of the letter paid 6 penny.

 Fig. 2: Folded letter from Brixton to London in 1823. Postage of 3 penny was prepaid.


 Sir Rowland Hill

In 1837 the British teacher Sir Rowland Hill (1795 –1879) proposed to simplify the British postal system by issuing an adhesive stamp as pre-payment for postage. Regardless of the distance, a letter up to 14 grams (½ ounce) could be delivered for the flat rate of one penny. Sir Rowland Hill and Henry Cole (1808-1882) was put in charge of the new project – and on 1. May 1840 the worlds first stamp, the “one penny black” was issued, although the stamp was first valid on 6. May 1840.

Fig. 3: Sir Rowland Hill (1795 –1879) and sir Henry Cole (1808-1882) were responsible for issuing the first stamp of the world: the “one penny black”.


Design of the stamp

As you can see below (Fig.4), the one penny black is a very beautiful stamp indeed. The design of the stamp is a portrait of Queen Victoria. In the upper part of the stamp the word “POSTAGE” and below the denomination “ONE PENNY”. In the two upper corners there are a Maltese Cross with a radiant solar disc at their centers. In stamps printed for official use, the letters “V” and “R” were printed in the upper corners instead of the Maltese Crosses (Fig 4). In the lower two corners are letters from A to T. I will tell you about these letters later.

Fig. 4. Ordinary one penny black (left) and stamp for official use (right).


Obliteration of the stamp

The one penny black was first cancelled with a red Maltese Cross. The color was later (February 1841) changed to black, because the red color was rather easy to remove. It was then possible to reuse the stamp and thus cheat the postal authorities (Fig. 5).

Fig 5 : One penny black with red and black Maltese Cross cancel


 Printing of the stamp

The one penny black was printed by the company Perkins Bacon. They used paper with a so called small crown-watermarks (Fig. 6). It was printed in three shades of black.

Fig. 6: Small crown watermark used in the paper of the one penny black.

A total of approx. 287.000 sheets with each 240 stamps were printed (approx. 69 mil. copies). Please notice, that the stamp does not show the name of the issuing country (United Kingdom). The portrait of Queen Victoria was sufficient. As the only country in the world, British stamps still does not show the name of the issuing country.

As you can se from the table below (Fig. 7), 11 plates were used for printing the one penny black. The most rare plate is no. 11 with only 168.000 copies printed.This plate should only have been used to print the one penny red. But because this stamp was not ready for print another 700 sheets of the penny black was printed.

Fig. 7. Approx. 69 mil. penny blacks were printed in less than a year.


The letters in the lower corners show the position of the stamp in the sheet. As mentioned above, the one penny black was printed in sheets of 240 stamps with 20 rows and 12 columns (Fig. 8). Thus the left stamp shown in fig. 5, is from row 16 (P) and column 7 (G).


Fig. 8. The penny black was printed in sheets of 240 copies with 20 rows and 12 columns. The letters in the two lower corners indicate the position in the sheet. 


Collecting one penny blacks.

With 69 mil. copies printed, a cancelled one penny black is not a very rare stamp. It is estimated, that approx. 1.2 mill. copies have survived.

Fig. 9. Small distance between stamps resulted in many bad copies.

Because the distance between stamps in the sheet is very small, at lot of the stamps were cut into when separated with scissors. Many others were badly cancelled. Thus a lot of poor quality one penny blacks exist and can be bought for a few $. A decent copy with 4 margins can be bought at ebay for around 50-100 $. An unused stamp is much more expensive. Prices at auctions are around 3-5.000 $. Official one penny blacks (Fig. 4) are very rare and prices for unused copies go as high as 10-15.000 $.

Penny blacks on covers are valued at around the double of cancelled copies. The exceptional cover shown below, with two blocks of four, was put to sale in December 2020 for no less than 100.000£ as a starting price. But it was not sold.

Fig 7: The iconic Penny Black Cover from 1840 from Limerick, Ireland to Hamburg, Germany.

Advanced collectors try to collect copies from all 11 printings, and still others even try to collect a complete sheet.


Penny black legacy

The worlds first stamp, the British one penny black from 1840, started a postal revolution. By unifying the price, it was made affordable for everyone to send letters. Other countries around the world soon followed the example of Great Britain, and in the years to come, written communication between people was increased dramatically.




The end

That was all for this week. But dont forget to join us next weeks stamp story. Here we present the exciting story of “The inverted Jenny”, the most expensive US-stamp ever sold.

Fig. 8: “The inverted Jenny” – The most famous and expensive US-stamp.


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