Early history of stamps

The early history of postage stamps is a fascinating chapter in the broader narrative of global communication and commerce. Stamps revolutionized the way mail was sent and received, introducing a standardized system for pre-paying postal services.

Before the advent of postage stamps in the United Kingdom, the cost of sending mail was typically borne by the recipient, not the sender, and the amount due was often determined by the distance the letter had traveled and its weight. This system was cumbersome, lacked uniformity, and was ripe for reform.

Illustration of different stamps from imaginary countries.


Before the 1840 launch of the Penny Black, the first adhesive postage stamp, ink and hand-stamps were commonly used to frank mail in the United Kingdom and confirm that postage had been paid. Hence, the word “stamp”.

As early as 1680, William Dockwra and Rober Murray established the London Penny Post. The London Penny Post would deliver letters and small parcels within London for a fixed-fee of one penny, and a hand stamp was used to frank the item, as confirmation of paid postage.

As mentioned above, it was also common in the United Kingdom for postage to be paid by the recipient instead of the sender. This meant that the cost of delivering mail was not recoverable when a recipient was unable or unwilling to pay, or simply could not be found. Also, a sender could send multiple large and heavy objects to someone without caring about the cost, since the sender was not the one paying.

Of course, mail was not just being sent within the United Kingdom, and various attempts were made by people around the world to create better systems. One such person was the civil servant  Lovrenc Košir from Ljubljana in Austria-Hungary (now Slovenia) who, in 1835, suggested the use of “artificially affixed postal tax stamps” made from pressed paper wafers (“gepresste Papieroblate”). Using very thin paper was intendee to prevent reuse. Košir’s suggestion was taken seriously and pondered over by bureaucrats, but was never put into action.

The Penny Black: The World’s First Adhesive Postage Stamp

In the United Kingdom, the concept of a postage stamp was part of broader postal reforms promoted in the country by Rowland Hill, a schoolmaster, inventor, and social reformer. Hill proposed a radical idea in his 1837 pamphlet “Post Office Reform: Its Importance and Practicability“. He advocated for a uniform postage rate, regardless of distance, to be prepaid by the sender. This reform aimed to simplify the postal system, make it more accessible, and encourage more people to use it.

The first postage stamp, known as the “Penny Black,” became available for purchase in the United Kingdom on May 1, 1840, but could not be used until May 6. It featured the profile of Queen Victoria and was priced at one penny. The Penny Black allowed for the prepayment of postage for letters weighing up to half an ounce, regardless of the distance they were to be sent within the UK. 0

A stamp worth two pence became availabe for purchase soon after the Penny Black and this one was also valid from May 6, 1840. It was intended for double-rate letters.

These two stamps drastically increased the efficiency of the postal service within the UK and was quickly adopted in other countries.

Global Adoption and Variations

Following the success of the Penny Black, other countries began to issue their own postage stamps. Brazil issued the “Bull’s Eye” stamps in 1843, while Switzerland and the United States followed suit in 1847. Each country featured its own designs, often depicting national leaders, symbols, or cultural landmarks.

Impact and Evolution

The introduction of postage stamps had a profound impact on society. It democratized communication, enabling people of all social classes to send and receive mail affordably. Stamps also became a means of celebrating national identity, commemorating events, and honoring influential figures and achievements.

Over time, the design and production of stamps evolved significantly. Advances in printing technology allowed for more intricate designs and security features to prevent forgery. Additionally, stamps became collectible items, with philately (stamp collecting) emerging as a popular hobby worldwide.


The early history of postage stamps marks a significant turning point in the history of communication. From the issuance of the Penny Black to the widespread adoption of stamps worldwide, this innovation facilitated a more connected world. Stamps not only simplified the process of sending mail but also reflected cultural values, contributed to national identity, and sparked a lasting interest in philately. The postage stamp’s legacy is a testament to the power of simple, innovative solutions to complex problems, reshaping the way the world communicates.