The History of Postage Stamps

Antique Stamps
Andrew Dernie/ The image Banke

Before adhesive paper stamps came along, letters were hand-stamped or postmarked with ink. Postmarks were invented by Henry Bishop and were at first called "Bishop mark." Bishop marks were first used in 1661 at the London General Post Office. They marked the day and month the letter was mailed.

The First Modern Postage Stamp: Penny Black

The first issued postage stamp began with Great Britain's Penny Post. On May 6, 1840, the British Penny Black stamp was released. The Penny Black engraved the profile of Queen Victoria's head, who remained on all British stamps for the next 60 years. 

Rowland Hill Invents Adhesive Postage Stamps

A schoolmaster from England, Sir Rowland Hill invented the adhesive postage stamp in 1837, an act for which he was knighted. Through his efforts, the first stamp in the world was issued in England in 1840. Roland Hill also created the first uniform postage rates that were based on weight rather than size. Hill's stamps made the prepayment of mail postage possible and practical.

Hill had received a summons to provide evidence before the Commission for Post Office Enquiry in February 1837. In providing his evidence, he read from the letter he wrote to the Chancellor, including a statement the notation of paid postage could be created " using a bit of paper just large enough to bear the stamp and covered at the back with a glutinous wash...". This is the first publication of an unambiguous description of a modern adhesive postage stamp.

Hill’s ideas for postage stamps and charging paid-postage based upon weight soon came to fruition and were adopted in many countries throughout the world. With the new policy of charging by weight, more people began using envelopes to mail documents. Hill’s brother Edwin Hill invented a prototype of the envelope-making machine that folded paper into envelopes quickly enough to match the pace of the growing demand for postage stamps.

Rowland Hill and the postal reforms he introduced to the UK postal system are immortalized on several commemorative postage issues of the United Kingdom.

William Dockwra

In 1680, William Dockwra, an English merchant in London, and his partner Robert Murray established the London Penny Post, a mail system that delivered letters and small parcels inside the city of London for a total of one penny. The postage for the mailed item was prepaid by the use of a hand- stamp to frank the mailed item, confirming payment of postage. 

Shapes and Materials

In addition to the most common rectangular shape, stamps have been printed in geometric (circular, triangular and pentagonal) and irregular shapes. The United States issued its first circular stamp in 2000 as a hologram of the earth. Sierra Leone and Tonga have issued stamps in the shapes of fruit. 

Stamps are most commonly made from paper designed specifically for them and are printed in sheets, rolls or small booklets. Less commonly, postage stamps are made of materials other than paper, such as embossed foil. 

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Your Citation
Bellis, Mary. "The History of Postage Stamps." ThoughtCo, Feb. 16, 2021, Bellis, Mary. (2021, February 16). The History of Postage Stamps. Retrieved from Bellis, Mary. "The History of Postage Stamps." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 26, 2023).