Design Decoded: The Story of the First Postage Stamp


first postage stamp

The Penny Black. The World’s first postage stamp (image: wikimedia commons)

“Philately” (get your mind out of the gutter) is the proper term for the studying of stamps and stamp collecting. It was coined in 1865 by Georges Herpin, who very well may have been the first stamp collector, from the Ancient Greek φιλο (philo), meanning “love of” and ἀτέλεια (atelīa), meaning “without tax.” Of course, because the ancient Greeks didn’t have postage stamps, there was no proper Greek word for the idea. But, as we shall see, the term is actually a reference to the earliest days of paid postage.

Postage can reveal more than the history of a letter, it can reveal the history of a nation. As noted by the National Postal Museum, which celebrates its 20th anniversary this month, “every stamp tells a story”—and, I might add, it sometimes tells how the story should be told (fat Elvis or skinny Elvis?).

The forthcoming book A History of Britain in Thirty-Six Postage Stamps by Chris West tells the story of the stamp. And of Britain. West is himself a philatelist (seriously stop snickering) who inherited a collection from his uncle that included a “Penny Black”—the first postage stamp issued in Britain and, more importantly, the first postage stamp issued anywhere.

The Penny Black bears the image of Queen Victoria, but the first British postal service did not originate in Victorian England. In 1680 an entrepreneur by the name of William Dockwra started a public service that guaranteed the quick delivery of a letter anywhere in London. His system was quickly nationalized with Dockwra in charge. It was far from a perfect system, burdened with seemingly erroneous charges and tariffs that made it unreasonably expensive to send a letter. Worse still, recipients were expected to pay. As you might imagine, this presented some problems—either people weren’t home or flat-out refused to pay. Not to mention the blatant corruption. The system just didn’t work, but it remained in place for far too long.

About 50 years later, an ambitious polymath named Rowland Hill thought he could do better. Hill ran a progressive school, for which he also designed a central heating system, a swimming pool and an observatory. Hill’s skills weren’t just architectural and pedagogical, he was also an accomplished painter, inventor and essayist. In one of his most famous pamphlets, Post Office Reform, its Importance and Practicability, Hill argued for abolishing the postal tariffs and replacing them with a single national rate of one penny, which would be paid by the sender.

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