Friday, 8 May 2020

Penny Black (1840)

Rare block 4 of four unused Penny Blacks
Introduced May 1840

These days we mostly communicate with each other electronically – at the press of a button a message can be transmitted the anywhere in the world in a fraction of a second. But of course that wasn’t always the case, and not so long ago you would often rely on having to write a letter. On paper, in an envelope and typically written out by hand.

Postal systems had been around since at least 500 BC and possibly even earlier, but they tended to be haphazard, open to corruption and often only accessible to governments. Although this situation improved, by the 19th century most postal systems were still complex and unreliable – sometimes operating on a post-pay principle where the postage would be paid by the receiver, who might decline to pay (sometimes after reading the letter).

Reform was needed and in the spirit of Victorian innovation the government started to look for solutions. Eventually a proposal by Rowland Hill was accepted for an inexpensive, simple-to-use and universal postage system that would become the model for the rest of the world.

Before Hill’s reforms the price of postage depended on the distance the letter had to travel, making the system complicated to use. It was also expensive, so the volume of mail was quite low, and the Post Office was haemorrhaging money as a result. Instead a system was proposed where a letter of up to half an ounce (14 grams) could be sent prepaid for a uniform rate of just one penny, regardless of distance.

Penny Black Detail
To show that postage had been paid, a piece of gummed paper was cut out and stuck to the envelope – called a “stamp”. It was a peculiar thing to call a sticky bit of paper, but it referred to some older postal systems where the envelope was stamped with an actual stamp. This small piece of paper had a portrait of Queen Victoria on it and was black in colour, becoming known as the “Penny Black”.

Introduced in May 1840, the Penny Black and the postal system it represented became the model for every other country, and the stamp itself became an icon. But it didn’t last long. The black colour of the stamp made it very hard to see cancellation marks, meaning that the stamp could sometimes be carefully removed and re-used, so in February 1841 the stamp was redesigned in a red colour – and this version in one form or another continued in production until 1879.

The system was simple to use and inexpensive (one penny in 1840 terms is worth about 42 pence today). It was a huge success, and it allowed people from all classes to communicate with anyone else in the country, reliably and for a modest amount of money. Over the next few years the same model was adapted by most other countries, and an era of low-cost and reliable communication was born.

Today of course the Penny Black is very collectable, with prices typically starting at about £50 for a used one in decent condition and then heading upwards to thousands or tens of thousands of pounds. Given the short period of time that the Penny Black had been available, combined with the fact that the hobby of stamp collecting didn’t really exist until stamps did, it does add a certain rarity value to these stamps – but every semi-serious collector will either own one or aspire to it. Alternatively you could buy the modern day equivalent – a British first-class stamp currently costs 76p which is 182.4 times more expensive than the original.

Image Credits: [1] [2] 
Metropolitan Museum of Art via Wikimedia Commons - CC0 1.0

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