What is a penny black stamp?
The Penny Black stamp was the world’s first adhesive postage stamp used in a public postal system. The plate for the 1d label – The Penny Black (also called One Penny Black) – was ready on 1 April 1840 and features a profile of the Queen Victoria.
Printing of the 1d labels on watermarked paper began on 11 April and on 1 May both it and the Mulready stationery were put on sale in London, becoming valid for postage on 6 May. By then some 600,000 labels were being produced daily. The 2d label followed, printing only beginning on 1 May.
All London post offices received official issues of the new stamps, but other offices in the country did not. Some post offices like in Bath, offered the stamp unofficially after 2 May.
The adhesive stamp
The idea of an adhesive stamp to indicate pre-payment of postage was part of Sir Rowland Hill’s 1837 proposals to reform the British postal system; it was normal then for the recipient to pay postage on delivery. A companion idea, which Hill disclosed on 13 February 1837 at a government enquiry, was that of a separate sheet that folded to form an enclosure or envelope for carrying letters. At that time postage was charged by the sheet and on the distance travelled.
In contrast to the stationery the adhesive labels were extremely popular. To prevent their re-use a cancellation was devised – the Maltese Cross – which was to be used with red ink. Unfortunately it proved possible to remove this without damaging the label, so within a year the colour of the printing ink had to be changed to red-brown and the cancellation to black.
Some 11 plates were used to print the Penny Black. The total print run was 286,700 sheets with 68,808,000 stamps. A mint condition stamp might fetch £ 3,000 – 4,000. Only two plates were made for the 2d value. There was a proposal for government versions with the letters ‘V R’ in the top corners but this was abandoned.
Postal delivery systems using what may have been adhesive stamps existed before the Penny Black. Apparently the idea had at least been suggested earlier in Austria, Sweden, and possibly Greece.
The postal reform that swept the world
Many problems occurred in the production and distribution of the labels and stationary but these were soon overcome. The classic design had taken only five months from concept to issue.
Postal traffic increased vastly as a result of the reduction in postage but, with a change in government, Hill was sacked from his position the following year though his reforms were to sweep the world.
Penny Black: Rarity
The Penny Black stamp was in print for just over a year. Until the introduction of the Penny Red. 68 million were produced, but as there were few collectors most were simply just thrown away. A block of stamps is now valued at 135,000, available from Paul Fraser Collectibles. However, the only known complete sheets of the Penny Black are owned by the British Postal Museum.