American Philatelic Society

History of Stamps
Stamps and Collectors - a little History

The birth of the postage stamp dates back to May 6, 1840, when Britain issued its first stamp, the "Penny Black." But, how did people receive mail before this time, and what led to the idea of using stamps?

Before the Envelope and the Stamp

Primitive message systems have been in place as long as man has been in existence. Until 1840, however, regardless of how primitive or how elaborate, all these systems operated without the benefit of a postage stamp.

In the early days of the postal service, stamps and envelopes did not exist. (For the most part, envelopes were not used because they were considered to be an additional sheet of paper which cost more to send.) When you wanted to send a letter you would fold it up and seal it shut, and the person who received the letter had to pay for the delivery costs. Since rates at that time were very high, many people refused to accept letters. In fact, many people developed secret codes by which they could cheat the postal services. They would place secret marks on the outside of the letter that conveyed their message and all the addressee had to do was read the secret message, refuse to accept the letter, and thus not have to pay for it. Mainly for this reason, postal services turned to a means of prepaying postage.

Post Office Reforms and the Stamp!

In 1837 Sir Rowland Hill, the British Postmaster General, introduced the "Post Office Reforms" whereby the mail could go anywhere in the British Isles at the same rate (a penny a half-ounce); the postage was to be paid by the sender -- not the addressee; and payment was receipted by placing a small piece of colored paper on the outside of the letter -- THE STAMP! Of course Hill's proposal was heavily debated for a few years, but after serious discussion the change was enacted and instituted in 1840. Thus on May 6, 1840 (first date of valid use) the first government-printed postage stamps were born.

Sir Rowland Hill himself designed the first stamp which cost one penny and bore the profile of Queen Victoria. Because the stamp was printed in black, the 1-cent stamp soon became known as the "Penny Black" -- the world's most popular stamp. These first stamps were imperforate, meaning that people had to cut apart the sheets of stamps. The first perforated stamps did not appear until 1854 (1857 in the United States, 1854 in Great Britain).

The popularity of this new system of sending mail and collecting the fee in advance spread fast and it didn't take long for other countries to use similar systems. In 1847, the United States Post Office Department printed its first stamps, a 5-cent stamp picturing Benjamin Franklin and a 10-cent stamp picturing George Washington.

Stamp Collectors

With the birth of stamps came the birth of stamp collectors or philatelists as they have become known. Shortly after adhesive postage stamps were introduced by Great Britain in 1840, people began collecting them. In 1841, a women even placed an advertisement in the London Times in which she requested help in collecting stamps so that she could paper a bedroom wall.

The two terms philately and philatelist, which refer to the collection and study of postage stamps, were derived from the Greek word phileo, meaning "I love" and ateleia, meaning "free of charges", in the sense that postage stamps replaced a cash postal charge. As people began to collect these interesting pieces of paper, no one realized how valuable stamps could become.

The advent of special commemorative stamps greatly increased the popularity of the hobby. The first U.S. stamps issued to specifically commemorate (remember and honor) our history were issued in 1893 to celebrate Christopher Columbus' discovery of the New World. A few of those 1893 Columbian stamps are now worth thousands of dollars!

Stamps have undergone many changes since that first stamp in 1840. They have been perforated, coiled, and printed in many different colors. Stamps have been introduced in many types, formats, and designs.

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