A postage stamp is a small piece of paper that is purchased and displayed on an item of mail as evidence of payment of postage. Typically, stamps are made from special paper, with a national designation and denomination (price) on the face, and a gum adhesive on the reverse side. Postage stamps are purchased from a postal administration or other authorized vendor and are used to pay for the costs involved in moving mail as well as other business necessities such as insurance and registration.
The stamp’s shape is usually that of a small rectangle of varying proportions, though triangles or other shapes are occasionally used. The stamp is affixed to an envelope or other postal cover (i.e., packet, box, mailing cylinder) that the customer wishes to send. The item is then processed by the postal system, where a postmark, sometimes known as a cancellation mark, is usually applied over the stamp and cover; this procedure marks the stamp as used, which prevents its reuse. The postmark indicates the date and point of origin of the mailing. The mailed item is then delivered to the address that the customer has applied to the envelope or cover.
Postage stamps have been carrying the mails of the world to their destinations since the 1840s. Before this time, ink and hand-stamps (hence the word 'stamp'), usually made from wood or cork, were often used to frank the mail and confirm the payment of postage. The first adhesive postage stamp, commonly referred to as the Penny Black, was issued in the United Kingdom in 1840. The invention of the stamp was a part of the attempt to reform and improve the postal system in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, which in the early 19th century was in disarray and rife with corruption. There are varying accounts of the inventor or inventors of the stamp.
Before the introduction of postage stamps, mail in the UK was paid for by the recipient, a system that was associated with an irresolvable problem: the costs of delivering mail were not recoverable by the postal service when recipients were unable or unwilling to pay for delivered items, and senders had no incentive to restrict the number, size, or weight of items sent, whether or not they would ultimately be paid for. The postage stamp resolved this issue in a simple and elegant manner, with the additional benefit of room for an element of beauty to be introduced. Later related inventions include postal stationery such as prepaid-postage envelopes, post cards, lettercards, aerogrammes and wrappers, postage meters, and, more recently, specialty boxes and envelopes provided free to the customer by the U.S. postal service for priority or express mailing.
The postage stamp afforded convenience for both the mailer and postal officials, more efficiently recovered costs for the postal service, and ultimately resulted in a better, faster postal system. With the conveniences stamps offered, their use resulted in greatly increased mailings during the 19th and 20th centuries. Postage stamps during this era were the most popular way of paying for mail, but by the end of the 20th century were rapidly being eclipsed by the use of metered postage and bulk mailing by businesses.) The same result with respect to communications by private parties occurred over the last decade of the 20th century and the first decade of the 21st due to declining cost of long distance telephone communications and the development and explosive spread of electronic mailing ("e-mail" via the Internet) and bill paying systems had.
As postage stamps with their engraved imagery began to appear on a widespread basis, historians and collectors began to take notice. The study of postage stamps and their use is referred to as philately. Stamp collecting can be both a hobby and a form of historical study and reference, as government-issued postage stamps and their mailing systems have always been involved with the history of nations.
Throughout modern history various innovations were used to apply or indicate that postage has been paid on a mailed item and as such the invention of the postage stamp has been credited to several different people.
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 the sum 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. Though this 'stamp' was applied to a letter instead of a separate piece of paper it is considered by many historians as the world's first postage stamp.
The Englishman Sir Rowland Hill started to take an interest in postal reform in 1835. In 1836, a Member of Parliament, Robert Wallace, provided Hill with numerous books and documents, which Hill described as a «half hundred weight of material». Hill commenced a detailed study of these documents, which led him to the publication, in early 1837, of a pamphlet entitled «Post Office Reform its Importance and Practicability». He submitted a copy of this to the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Thomas Spring-Rice, on 4 January 1837. This first edition was marked «private and confidential» and was not released to the general public. The Chancellor summoned Hill to a meeting during which the Chancellor suggested improvements and changes to be presented in a supplement, which Hill duly produced and supplied on 28 January 1837.
Rowland Hill then received a summons to give evidence before the Commission for Post Office Enquiry on 13 February 1837. During his evidence, he read from the letter he had written to the Chancellor, which included the statement that a notation of paid postage could be created «…by 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 (though the term "postage stamp" did not yet exist at that time). Shortly afterward, the second edition of Hill’s booklet, dated 22 February 1837, was published, and made available to the general public. This booklet, containing some 28,000 words, incorporated the supplement he gave to the Chancellor and the statements he made to the Commission.
Hansard records that on 15 December 1837, Mr Benjamin Hawes asked the Chancellor of the Exchequer «whether it was the intention of the Government to give effect to the recommendation of the Commissioners of the Post-office, contained in their ninth report relating to the reduction of the rates of postage, and the issuing of penny stamps?»
Hill’s ideas for postage stamps and charging postage based upon weight soon took hold and were adopted in many countries throughout the world. With the new policy of charging by weight, using envelopes for mailing documents became the norm. Hill’s brother, Edwin Hill, invented a prototype 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 commemorated on several postage issues of the United Kingdom.
The claim that the Scotsman James Chalmers was the inventor of the postage stamp first surfaced in 1881 when the book «The Penny Postage Scheme of 1837», written by his son, Patrick Chalmers, was published. In this book, the son claims that James Chalmers first produced an essay describing and advocating for a stamp in August 1834. However, no evidence for this is provided in the book. Patrick Chalmers continued to campaign until he died in 1891 to have his father recognised as the inventor of the postal stamp.
The first independent evidence for Chalmers' claim is the essay and proposal he submitted for adhesive postage stamps to the General Post Office, dated 8 February 1838 and received by the Post Office on 17 February 1838. In this approximately 800-word document about methods of franking letters he states, «Therefore, of Mr Hill’s plan of a uniform rate of postage … I conceive that the most simple and economical mode … would be by Slips … in the hope that Mr Hill’s plan may soon be carried into operation I would suggest that sheets of Stamped Slips should be prepared … then be rubbed over on the back with a strong solution of gum …». Chalmers' original document is now in the UK's National Postal Museum.
As the postage amounts on James Chalmers' essay mirrored those that were proposed by Rowland Hill in February 1837, it is clear that Chalmers was aware of Hill’s proposals. It is unknown whether he had obtained a copy of Hill’s booklet or if he had simply read about it in the Times newspaper, which had, on two occasions, on 25 March 1837 and on 20 December 1837, reported in great detail Hill’s proposals. However, in neither article was there any mention of «a bit of paper just large enough to bear the stamp», so merely reading the Times would not have made Chalmers aware that Hill had already made that proposal; this suggests either that he had read Hill's booklet and was merely elaborating on Hill's idea, or that he in fact independently developed the idea of the modern postage stamp.
James Chalmers organized petitions «for a low and uniform rate of postage». The first such petition was presented in the House of Commons on 4 December 1837 (from Montrose). Further petitions organised by him were presented on 1 May 1838 (from Dunbar and Cupar), 14 May 1838 (from the county of Forfar) and 12 June 1839. Many other people were concurrently organizing petitions and presenting them to Parliament. All these petitions were presented after Hill’s proposals had been published.
In 1835 the Austrian of Slovenian nationality Lovrenc Košir suggested the introduction of «artificially affixed postal tax stamps». His suggestion was looked at in detail and rejected.
Although a number of people laid claim to the concept of the postage stamp, it is well documented that stamps were first introduced in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland on 1 May 1840, as a part of postal reforms promoted by Sir Rowland Hill. With its introduction, the postage fee was now to be paid by the sender and not the recipient, though it was still possible to send mail without prepaying. Postmarks have been applied over stamps since the first postage stamps came into use.
The first stamp, the penny black, was put on sale on 1 May, to be valid as of 6 May 1840; two days later the two pence blue was introduced. Both show an engraving of the young Queen Victoria, with smooth, unperforated edges. At the time, there was no reason to include the United Kingdom’s name on the stamp; the UK remains the only country not to identify itself by name on postal stamps, as it simply uses the current monarch’s head as implicit identification. Following the introduction of the postage stamp in the UK, the number of letters increased dramatically as the use of the stamp rapidly accelerated. Before 1839 the number of letters sent was 76 million. By 1850 this had increased fivefold to 350 million and continued to grow rapidly thereafter, until the end of the 20th century when newer methods drastically reduced the use of delivery systems requiring stamps.
Other countries soon followed with their own stamps. The Canton of Zürich in Switzerland issued the Zurich 4 and 6rappen on 1 March 1843. Although the Penny Black could be used to send a letter less than half an ounce anywhere within the United Kingdom, the Swiss did not initially adopt that system, instead continuing to calculate mail rates based on distance to be delivered. Brazil issued the Bull’s Eye stamp on 1 August 1843. Using the same printer as for the Penny Black, Brazil opted for an abstract design instead of a portrait of Emperor Pedro II, so that his image would be not be disfigured by a postmark. In 1845 some postmasters in the United States issued their own stamps, but it was not until 1847 that the first official U.S. stamps were created, 5 and 10 cent issues depicting Benjamin Franklin and George Washington. A few other countries issued stamps in the late 1840s. Many others, such as India, initiated their use in the 1850s, and by the 1860s most countries had stamps. Perforations began in January 1854, and the first officially perforated stamps were issued in February 1854. However, stamps from Henry Archer's perforation trials had been issued the last few months of 1850, then during the 1851 parliamentary session of 1851, at the House of Commons, and finally in 1853/54 after the government paid Mr. Archer £4,000 for his machine and the patent.
When the first postage stamps premiered in the 1840s, they followed an almost identical standard in their shape, size and general subject matter. They were rectangular in shape. They bore the images of Queens, Presidents and other political figures. They also depicted the denomination of the postage and, with the exception of UK stamps, depicted the name of the country from which it was issued. Nearly all early postage stamps depicted the images of national leaders only, but before long, other subjects and designs began to appear. Sometimes the new designs were welcomed, while at other times changes were widely criticized. For example, in 1869, the U.S. Post Office broke from its tradition of depicting presidents or other famous historical figures on the face of postage and instead used other subjects, for example, a train or a horse. The change was greeted with general disapproval and sometimes harsh criticism from the American public.
Perforations are small holes made between individual postage stamps on a sheet or page of stamps, allowing for the easier separation of individual stamps. The resulting frame-like rippled edge that surrounds the separated stamp has become part of the characteristic appearance of a postage stamp.
For about the first ten years of postage stamp use (depending on the country), stamps were issued without perforations. Scissors or other cutting tools had to be used to separate individual stamps. If cutting tools were not used, individual stamps were torn off, as evidenced by the ragged edges of surviving such examples. This proved to be quite an inconvenience for postal clerks and businesses, both of which had to deal with large numbers of individual stamps on a daily basis. By 1850, various methods such as rouletting wheels were being devised in an effort to make stamp separation more efficient and to allow for large numbers of stamps to be quickly separated.
The Penny Red, 1854 issue. The 1st officially perforated postage stamp
The United Kingdom was the first country to issue postage stamps with perforations, after years of struggle with the unsatisfactory cutting or tearing methods. The first machine specifically designed to perforate postage stamps was invented in London by Henry Archer, an Irish landowner and railroad man from Dublin, Ireland. The 1850 Penny Red. was the first stamp to be perforated in the course of the trials of Archer's perforating machine. After a period of trial and error and modifications of Archer's invention, new machines based on the principles pioneered by Archer were purchased and in 1854 the U.K. postal authorities started continuously issuing perforated postage stamps in the Penny Red and all subsequent designs.
The United States government and the Post Office were quick to follow the lead of the U.K. In the U.S., the use of postage stamps caught on quickly and became more widespread when on March 3, 1851, the last day of its legislative session, Congress passed the Act of March 3, 1851 (An Act to reduce and modify the Rates of Postage in the United States). Similarly introduced on the last day of the Congressional session four years later, the Act of March 3, 1855 required the prepayment of postage on all mailings. Thereafter, postage stamp use in the U.S. quickly doubled, and by 1861 had quadrupled. In 1856, under the direction of Postmaster General James Campbell, Toppan and Carpenter, (commissioned by the U.S. government to print U.S. postage stamps through the 1850s) purchased a rotary machine designed to separate stamps, patented in England in 1854 by William and Henry Bemrose, who were printers in Derby, England. The original machine cut slits into the paper rather than punching holes, but the machine was soon modified. The first stamp issue to be officially perforated, the 3-cent George Washington, was issued by the U.S. Post Office on February 24, 1857. Between 1857 and 1861 all stamps originally issued between 1851 to 1856 were reissued with perforations. Initial capacity was insufficient to perforate all stamps printed, thus perforated issues used between February and July 1857 are scarce and quite valuable.
In addition to the most common rectangular shape, stamps have been issued 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 that are printed on sheets are generally separated by perforations, though, more recently, with the advent of gummed stamps that do not have to be moistened prior to affixing them, designs can incorporate smooth edges.
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 (sometimes of gold). Switzerland made a stamp that contained a bit of lace and one of wood. The United States produced one of plastic. The German Democratic Republic issued a stamp of synthetic chemicals. In the Netherlands a stamp was made of silver foil. Bhutan issued one with its national anthem on a playable record.
The subjects found on the face of postage stamps are generally what defines a particular stamp issue to the public and are often a reason why they are saved by collectors or history enthusiasts. Graphical subjects found on postage stamps have ranged from the early portrayals of kings, queens and presidents to later depictions of ships, birds and satellites,famous people, historical events, comics, dinosaurs, hobbies (knitting, stamp collecting), sports, holiday themes, and a wealth of other subjects too numerous to list.
Artists, designers, engravers and administrative officials are involved with the choice of subject matter and the method of printing stamps. Early stamp images were almost always produced from engravings — a design etched into a steel die, which was then hardened and whose impression was transferred to a printing plate. Using an engraved image was deemed a more secure way of printing stamps as it was nearly impossible to counterfeit a finely detailed image with raised lines unless you were a master engraver. In the mid-20th century, stamp issues produced by other forms of printing began to emerge, such as lithography, photogravure, intaglio and web offset printing. These later printing methods were less expensive and typically produced images of lesser quality.
Airmail stamp — for payment of airmail service. The term «airmail» or an equivalent is usually printed on special airmail stamps. Airmail stamps typically depict images of airplanes and/or famous pilots and were used when airmail was a special type of mail delivery separate from mail delivered by train, ship or automobile. Aside from mail with local destinations, today almost all other mail is transported by aircraft and thus airmail is now the standard method of delivery.Scott has a separate category and listing for U.S. Airmail Postage. Prior to 1940, Scotts Catalogue did not have a special designation for airmail stamps. The various major stamp catalogs have different numbering systems and may not always list airmail stamps the same way.
Customised stamp — a stamp on which the image can be chosen by the purchaser by sending in a photograph or by use of the computer. Some are not true stamps but technically meter labels.
Definitive stamps — stamps for everyday postage and are usually produced to meet current postal rates. They often have less appealing designs than commemoratives, though there are notable exceptions. The same design may be used for many years. The use of the same design over an extended period may lead to unintended color varieties. This may make them just as interesting to philatelists as are commemoratives. A good example would be the US 1903 regular issues, their designs being very picturesque and ornamental. Definitive stamps are often issued in a series of stamps with different denominations.
Late fee stamp — issued to show payment of a fee to allow inclusion of a letter or package in the outgoing dispatch although it has been turned in after the cut-off time.
Local post stamps — used on mail in a local post; a postal service that operates only within a limited geographical area, typically a city or a single transportation route. Some local posts have been operated by governments, while others, known as private local posts, have been operated by for-profit companies.
Official mail stamp — issued for use by the government or a government agency.
Occupation stamp — a stamp for use by an occupying army or by the occupying army or authorities for use by civilians
Non-denominated postage — postage stamp that remains valid even after the price has risen. Also known as a permanent or "forever" stamp.
Overprint - A regularly issued stamp, such as a commemorative or a definitive issue, that has been changed after issuance by "printing over" some part of the stamp. Denominations can be changed in this manner.
Perforated stamps — while this term usually refers to perforations around a stamp to divide a sheet into individual stamps, it can also be used for stamps perforated across the middle with letters or a pattern or monogram, which are known as "perfins." These modified stamps are usually purchased by corporations to guard against theft by employees.
Semi-postal / charity stamp — a stamp with an additional charge for charity. The use of semi-postal stamps is at the option of the purchaser. Countries such as Belgium and Switzerland that often use charitable fund-raising design stamps that are desirable for collectors.
Specimen stamp — sent to postmasters and postal administrations so that they are able to identify valid stamps and to avoid forgeries.
Test stamp — a label not valid for postage, used by postal authorities to test sorting and cancelling machines or machines that can detect a stamp on an envelope. May also be known as dummy or training stamps.
Variable value stamps - dispensed by machines that print the cost of the postage at the time the stamp is dispensed.
War tax stamp — A variation on the postal tax stamp to defray the cost of war.
Water-activated stamp — for many years, water-activated stamps were the only type available, so this term entered into use with the advent of self-adhesive stamps. The adhesive or gum on a water-activated stamp must be moistened (usually by licking, thus the stamps are also known as «lick and stick»).
Postage stamps are first issued on a specific date, often referred to as the First day of issue. A first day cover usually consists of an envelope, a postage stamp and a postmark with the date of the stamp’s first day of issue thereon. Starting in the mid-20th century some countries, including the U.S., began assigning the first day of issue to a place associated with the subject of the stamp design, such as a specific town or city. There are two basic types of First Day Covers (FDCs) noted by collectors. The first and often most desirable type among advanced collectors is a cover sent through the mail in the course of everyday usage, without the intention of the envelope and stamp ever being retrieved and collected. The second type of FDC is often referred to as "Philatelic," that is, an envelope and stamp sent by someone with the intention of retrieving and collecting the mailed item at a later time and place. The envelope used for this type of FDC often bears a printed design or cachet of its own in correspondence with the stamp’s subject and is usually printed well in advance of the first day of issue date. The latter type of FDC is usually far more common, and is usually inexpensive and relatively easy to acquire. Covers that were sent without any secondary purpose are considered non-philatelic and often are much more challenging to find and collect.'
1987 Faroe Islands miniature sheet, in which the stamps form a part of the larger image
Postage stamps are sometimes issued in souvenir sheets or miniature sheets containing one or a small number of stamps. Souvenir sheets typically include additional artwork or information printed on the selvage, the border surrounding the stamps. Sometimes the stamps make up a greater picture. Some countries, and some issues, are produced as individual stamps as well as sheets.
Stamp collecting is a popular hobby. Collecting is not the same as philately, which is defined as the study of stamps. It is not necessary to closely study stamps in order to enjoy collecting them. Many casual collectors enjoy accumulating stamps without worrying about the details. The creation of a valuable or comprehensive collection, however, may require some philatelic knowledge.
Stamp collectors are an important source of revenue for some small countries that create limited runs of elaborate stamps designed mainly to be bought by stamp collectors. The stamps produced by these countries may far exceed their postal needs. Hundreds of countries, each producing scores of different stamps each year, resulted in 400,000 different types of stamps in existence by the year 2000. Annual world output averages about 10,000 types.
Naive or new collectors are vulnerable to exploitation by countries and individuals who authorize the production of postage stamps intended primarily for collectors rather than for postal use. These stamps are often «canceled to order», meaning they are postmarked without ever having passed through the postal system. Most national post offices produce stamps that would not be produced if there were no collectors, some to a far more prolific degree than others. It is up to individual collectors whether this concerns them; collecting such issues is as legitimate an endeavor as any other collection, but is unlikely to result in a collection of any value or to provide a monetary return on an investment (though may be found worthwhile in other ways such as teaching geography or collecting methods to a child, or sheer pleasure in the beauty of some of these issues). Others may argue that since these stamps are virtually worthless, they will be discarded in large numbers and eventually become less common and thus collectable in their own right, though this process would likely take many decades.
Sales of stamps to collectors who do not use them for mailing can result in large profits. Good examples of excessive issues have been (1) the stamps produced by Nicholas F. Seebeck and (2) stamps produced for the component states of the United Arab Emirates. Seebeck operated in the 1890s as an agent of Hamilton Bank Note Company. He approached Latin American countries with an offer to produce their entire postage stamp needs for free. In return he would have exclusive rights to market stamps to collectors. Each year a new issue would be produced, but would expire at the end of the year. This assured Seebeck of a continuing supply of remainders. In the 1960s, printers such as the Barody Stamp Company contracted to produce stamps for the separate Emirates and other countries. The sparse population of the desert states made it wholly unlikely that many of these stamps would ever be used for mailing purposes, and earned them the name of the «sand dune» countries. Another example of what might be considered by some to be excessive issues is that, at the time of the millennium, the United Kingdom issued 96 different stamps over about 24 months, all for pre-existing values with the same four rates for each set.
In the United States there is concern among some collectors that the United States Postal Service has become a promotional agent for the media and entertainment industry, as it has frequently issued entire sets of stamps featuring movie stars and cartoon characters like 'Mickey' Mouse' and 'Bart Simpson.' Over the decades the annual average number of new postage stamp issued by the U.S.P.S. has significantly increased.