The Penny Black stamp is one of the most coveted stamps on the market. Its mixture of elegance, detail and beauty make it popular in any era and its story adds just as much to the appeal. To understand why it’s so popular, it’s worth knowing some facts about the Penny Black stamp.
25 Penny Black stamp facts you should know:
1. The Penny Black was first
2. Postal reform drove the Penny Black
3. A competition produced the first stamp (sort of)
4. Two stamps were eventually approved
5. Queen Victoria set the standard
6. Neither stamp showed a country of origin
7. Victoria remained until her death
8. Victoria is on current stamps
9. A teenage Queen was on the stamp
10. The initial design was too small
11. The design was unique
12. The first Penny Black stamps were not perforated
13. London was first to offer the Penny Black
14. The Penny Black was short lived
15. People invented ways to reuse stamps
16. Stamps were used as gifts
17. The Penny Black was popular
18. The Penny Black run was short
19. The Penny Black is not exactly rare
20. There was a government version of the Penny Black
21. Multiple factors affect Penny Black rareness
22. Cancellations are desired
23. Three factors determine value
24. The Penny Black lives on
25. The Penny Black is one of the most accomplished stamps in history
All stamps tell a story. The Penny Black story tells an interesting tale of humble origins, worldwide fame and an untimely demise. Read on to learn about these interesting facts and their back story.
Introduction To The Penny Black Stamp
The Penny Black is one of the most popular and coveted stamps in existence. Every stamp collector above the level of “casual hobby” wants to own one because of its beauty, philatelic history and cultural heritage. Ironically, the Penny Black only ran for one year, doomed by a flaw in its very own beauty.
Postage Before The Penny Black
Prior to 1840, the year the Penny Black stamp was introduced, receiving a parcel was an adventure, at least in terms of payment for said parcel. Postage rates were prohibitively expensive and reserved for the wealthiest and most connected in British society to use.
In some cases, postage was so expensive that it cost the equivalent of a working man’s daily wage. It was calculated by the weight of a parcel and how many miles it traveled to get to its destination.
That had the effect of restricting those using delivery services in the UK to the wealthy or the desperate. Most Englanders couldn’t afford to send even one letter very often. Even the wealthy, however, balked at the prices.
Factors That Affected The Rates
This was partly because there was an arbitrary aspect to what was charged. While all parcel delivery employees would charge about the same, there were variations in rates that were put into place depending on certain variables:
Where The Delivery Was Headed
Wealthy clients were charged more because it was thought they could afford it. Additionally, some destinations had additional charges because they were difficult to navigate or dangerous.
The Time Of Year
Delivery in winter entailed more work and thus could be more expensive than delivery in the other three seasons.
Danger To Deliverers
By the 1800s, the age of the English highwayman had passed, but delivering a parcel to a faraway place had various risks. Robbers still preyed on delivery services and parcels were always easy targets.
What Was Being Delivered
Some items were delivered free of charge. Other items were expensive to ship. Newspapers, somehow, could be sent inexpensively. In addition, most mail was paid for by the person receiving the mail and not the sender.
The exorbitant cost of postage led to people writing a letter then turning the page upside down and writing the next page between the lines. That practice allowed four pages of a letter to be written on one sheet of paper. All of this caused a clamor for reform. The result was the Penny Black.
25 Penny Black Stamp Facts You Should Know
1. The Penny Black Was First
A Penny Black stamp was the first prepaid, adhesive postage. As a matter of history, it changed the way parcel delivery worked by moving the responsibility of payment from the receiver to the sender.
It also set the stage for a “postal service” more in line with what we know today because it centralized a postage authority and provided regulation to an industry that was until that point largely unregulated.
Up until that time, postage had been a form of Cash on Delivery (COD) and the formula used was based on a base rate per mile and per ounce. So, a 1-ounce parcel traveling 1 mile would have a total cost of the base rate for weight multiplied by 1 plus the base rate for mileage multiplied by one.
The Penny Black established a flat rate of a penny for any parcel up to ½ an ounce. Mileage was no longer calculated into the cost. This arrangement set a uniformity in costs that customer could rely on.
2. Postal Reform Drove The Penny Black
If the old system of weight plus distance multiplied by a set rate had worked, there likely would never have been a Penny Black stamp. In fact, if the rates had just been uniform and thus predictable, it is unlikely the Penny Black would have made an appearance.
James Chalmers, a printer and bookseller, had been calling for postal reform as early as 1922. Chalmers advocated for standard prepaid letter folders, letter sheets or envelopes and prepaid postage. He is reputed to have created at least a prototype of the first stamp with adhesive.
In August of 1834, Chalmers created gummed labels. By 1840, his concept of letter folders and sheets were created, using a design by William Mulready.
3. A Competition Produced The First Stamp (Sort Of)
Sir Rowland Hill suggested the UK government implemented prepaid envelopes and stamps. He got a two-year contract for the setup and running of the new system. He promptly announced a competition to design the new stamp, received 2,600 entries and rejected them all.
Instead, he chose a rough design that included a profile of the former Princess Victoria. Because of Victoria’s physical features and the complexity of the design, Hill thought that design would be very difficult to forge.
4. Two Stamps Were Eventually Approved
In 1839, Parliament authorized several details of the new postal delivery concept:
- The basic postal rate for simple letters would cost one penny
- Prepayment would become standard for all postage
- Fulfillment of prepayment would be indicated by “labels” or stamps
- The first two labels or stamps would be the Penny Black and the Two Pence Blue
- Stamps that were used would be “cancelled” upon mailing via a red cancellation mark
5. Queen Victoria Set The Standard
A design created by artist William Mulready of a predominantly black stamp with a reversed visage of Queen Victoria (the image used was when she was still a princess) was adopted. It faced left.
The head of the reigning monarch has been featured on postage stamps since the first Queen Victoria image.
6. Neither Stamp Showed A Country Of Origin
Since the Penny Black and Two Pence Blue stamps were the very first in existence, neither indicated the country of origin. It was not until multiple countries had their own stamp postage systems that country of origin was added to stamps.
To this day, however, the United Kingdom does not include a country imprint on their postage stamps. Britain is the only country in the world not to do this.
7. Victoria Remained Until Her Death
Charles Heath was the engraver of the initial portrait of Victoria, based on a sketch that was based on an 1834 cameo-like head that was on a medal. This medal was used to commemorate Victoria’s 1837 visit to the City of London.
Queen Victoria’s visage remained on British stamps until she died in 1901.
8. Victoria Is On Current Stamps
While the Penny stamp with Victoria’s profile remained for 60 years, stamps today still enjoy her presence. Victoria’s silhouette or portrait is still imprinted somewhere on every British stamp. Frequently, it is not easily identified. This is done as a sign of respect for the monarch.
9. A Teenage Queen Was On The Stamp
The image of Queen Victoria was actually one of her as a teenager. Heath used a prior profile engraving on a medal of a 15-year-old Victoria. As mentioned, this remained the profile for any Victoria stamps up until her death in 1901. Over the years, the age of Victoria has been a topic of interest.
10. The Initial Design Was Too Small
The original design called for a stamp that was ¾ inch square. That, however, did not allow sufficient room to put writing at the bottom. To make room for the writing, the stamp’s dimensions were altered to ¾ inch wide by seven-eighths inch tall.
11. The Design Was Unique
On the top of the design, the word “Postage” was printed, and on the bottom, “ONE PENNY” was inscribed. The Postage designation differentiated a postage stamp from a revenue stamp. A revenue stamp was a stamp that indicated the tax to be paid for a product. It was affixed to that product to alert the customer how much the tax was.
The background is a finely engraved mesh that is sometimes referred to as “engine turnings.” Engine turnings are a pattern that is inscribed in a material that is replicated over and over. The design is extremely complex and finely pointed.
Both of the top corners have Maltese crosses. Each of these then had a radiant solar disk at their center.
Each lower corner has a letter. That letter aligns with a position on a sheet of stamps. The letters range from “AA” to “TL.”
Penny Black stamps were cancelled using a red postmark.
Stamps were printed in rows and columns on a continuous sheet. Each sheet was made up of 240 stamps. These stamps were aligned in 20 rows of 12 columns. 240 pence was the price for the original sheets of stamps, which was one pound at the time. One row of 12 stamps costed one shilling.
The name Penny Black indicated both the price of the stamps and their color. Blue and red stamps at other prices were also printed at roughly the same time as the Penny Black. The printer responsible for Penny Black stamps was Perkins Bacon.
11 plates were used during the one year run of the Penny Black. Plate 1 was replaced, so there was a 1a and 1b plate. Penny Red Stamps were made using Plate 11, but it was used for a few black stamps. A black stamp that was created using plate 11 is exceptionally rare.
12. The First Penny Black Stamps Were Not Perforated
Perforation by machine didn’t exist until 1854. When the Penny Black stamp was released in 1840, sheets of stamps had to be separated by postal employees, using scissors. Trials on alternative methods of separating the stamps were conducted between 1848 and 1854 but hand cutting stamps remained the dominant methods for over a decade.
Hand cutting resulted in a lot of mistakes. Among them were stamps with erratic margins and even no margins. Uniformity was not given much credence because the purpose of the stamp was not geared towards collection but providing standardization and affordability within the industry.
13. London Was First To Offer The Penny Black
The Penny Black was made available on May the 6th, 1840. Before that, many post offices took preorders, and some sold the stamps as they were issued to the post offices 5 days prior. While London post offices received the stamps promptly, post offices outside of London did not and continued to accept cash payments for postage.
14. The Penny Black Was Short Lived
The entire lifespan of the Penny Black was less than one year. It was hard to see the red cancellation on the stamp’s black background. The red ink was also exceptionally easy to remove. This led to a lot of fraud and reuse of the stamps.
By February 1841, the British Treasury opted to switch to a Penny Red design. The cancellation ink for that was black. This was easier to see and much harder to remove.
15. People Invented Ways To Reuse Stamps
The initial Penny Black was easy to reuse by removing or obscuring its red ink cancellation mark. With the Penny Red, the ink cancellation was difficult to remove, but the placement allowed for the splitting of a stamp and using the two uncancelled parts of a stamp to make an unused whole stamp.
This prompted the replacement of the top corner stars. In their place went the check letters from the lower corners, but in reverse order. It effectively ended reuse of the Penny Red.
16. Stamps Were Used As Gifts
An Imprimatur stamp sheet is one of the first sheets pulled at the beginning of a stamp print run. The Imprimatur, which means “Let it be printed,” came from the Inland Revenue office of the government of Britain. The sheets that were pulled as Imprimaturs served two purposes.
Quality control – The sheets were reviewed for adherence to the design scheme. If there was an issue, the print run stopped.
Gifts – Some stamps from each Imprimatur sheet were usually cut out and often served as gifts to public officials, VIPs and dignitaries. Because of this, stamps from Imprimatur sheets can often be found in stamp collections or offered for sale.
17. The Penny Black Was Popular
The first Penny Black stamps were put on sale on May 1, 1840, although, they were not valid until May the 6th. Every London post office was issued the stamps, but most post offices outside of London did not receive any supply of stamps.
Those outlier offices continued to accept cash for postage until batches of stamps and “Mulreadies” – which were sheets of stamps – were distributed. In London and elsewhere, the individual Penny Black stamps were a hit. The Mulreadies were not nearly so popular. In fact, many customers outright rejected them.
Many have surmised why the Mulready was so disliked, but no official record details indicate the reason.
18. The Penny Black Run Was Short
While innovative, immensely popular and even industry changing, the Penny Black stamp was in circulation for a little over one year. This was because of two factors.
The red cancellation mark was very difficult to pick up on the black background. In some cases, the cancellation mark was completely obscured. The red on black was also very easy to tamper with, so the stamp could easily be reused.
It Was Fraud Enabling
The purpose of the Penny Black, at least in part, was to make it impossible to reuse a stamp by tampering with the cancellation mark. In fact, between the red and black issue and the fact that black dye could obscure any cancellation, the Penny Black did little to achieve its intended cancellation goal.
It is fair to ask why anyone would go to a lot of trouble just to reuse a single stamp worth one penny. The answer is that back in 1840, one penny, while not a great deal of money, had more purchasing power than a penny today. The average male worker made 1 shilling a day, or 24 pennies.
If you think about that, depending on mail volume, the cost could add up, especially for the average English citizen. Even spending one penny on a single letter was an investment many must factor into already tight budgets.
By reusing stamps, that penny could be recouped and potentially doubled simply by obscuring the cancellation mark. While the once-a-year mailer might not go through the trouble, for someone who mailed a lot of letters in a year, it could add up.
The answer to the issues with the Penny Black stamp was to switch colors to a red stamp with a black cancellation mark. Black was easier to see and much harder to obscure without wrecking the red background.
19. The Penny Black Is Not Exactly Rare
In all, over 286,000 sheets of Penny Black stamps were printed. This equals over 68, 800,000 stamps. Because of that, a diligent collector can still find the Penny Black stamp on the market today. It is not considered rare or particularly difficult to locate as there are more than 1 million Penny Black stamps in circulation or in collections today.
When you consider the use of envelopes was rare in 1840 (letter writers folded and sealed their letters with wax) the fact there are so many individual Penny Black stamps still out there is amazing.
Not all forms of Penny Black stamps, however, are abundant. Examples of rarities include, but are not limited to:
- Full sheets of stamps
- Blocks of stamps
- Strips of stamps
No blocks or strips are known to exist today. The only known sheets are owned by the British Postal Museum. If one of any of those were ever discovered, it would be worth a lot of money to a collector.
20. There Was A Government Version Of The Penny Black
Called the “VR official,” a version of the Penny Black stamp was designed and printed for official use only. The crosses in the top corners were replaced by the letters “V” and “R” which signified the official nature of the stamp in question.
The VR official never really saw the light of day, though. The general public loved the Penny Black stamps and hated the Mulready stationary, which led the Post Office to use the Mulready sheets for official use. After doing so, Post Office personnel abandoned the notion of having an “official” stamp.
A few VR official stamps were used, and it is surmised that each was affixed on Postal Circulars and used on correspondence announcing the new stamp. Almost all that exist today are from trials of postmarks, inks, ink colors and cancellation symbols. The trials were the impetus behind the switch from black to red stamps and red to black cancelation ink.
21. Multiple Factors Affect Penny Black Rareness
With so many Penny Black stamps out there, finding one that is worth a lot of money is challenging. Multiple factors are usually at play when a Penny Black is hard to find.
The most desirable circulated Penny Black would likely be postmarked May 6th, 1840, the first official day of circulation. Any Penny Blacks with a May postmark, however, are worth more than one that was not used. May postmarks that can command a sizeable amount are those from the Sundays in May of 1840 (10, 17, 24 and 31.)
Another factor is the plate that was used to print a stamp. The rarest come from plate 11 because only 168,000 were printed. Plate 11 was originally planned for red ink, but getting red ink in quantity proved to be an issue, which prompted the run with black ink.
The rarest Penny Blacks are those with VR printed on them. One block of 4 VR Penny Black stamps sold at auction for over $40,000. A single VR Penny Black is valued at around $8,000.
22. Cancellations Are Desired
In many cases, the cancellation on a cover is of as much interest to a collector as the Penny Black stamp. This is because Postmasters had to mix their own cancellation ink, which yielded Maltese Cross cancellation symbols in ruby, brown, rust, orange and even blue.
Other cancellations that are popular are those where the Postmaster created their own cancellation stamp. This happened when the original official stamps were lost or damaged. These are very rare and therefore very valuable.
23. Three Factors Determine Value
As with any stamp, the condition drives the inherent value to a collector. When a stamp is in pristine condition, it’s worth much more than one that’s in bad shape. There are three factors that determine a Penny Black stamp’s value:
- Physical condition
- The printing plate used
- White margins
White margins are valuable because each varied from stamp sheet to stamp sheet and from post office to post office. This is because the stamps were hand cut to separate them from the stamp’s sheet.
24. The Penny Black Lives On
In addition to the traditions surrounding Queen Victoria, the Penny Black stamp has been used from time to time in various forms. There is a pub named the “Penny Black” in Oxfordshire, England. It has also been referenced in movies and television shows and is the focus of at least one crime documentary, called “The Penny Black.”
25. The Penny Black Is One Of The Most Accomplished Stamps In History
While many stamps stand out because of some notable feature, none have so many notable features or historical connotations as the Penny Black stamp. Those include that the Penny Black stamp:
- Was the first adhesive stamp
- Reformed correspondence by making it affordable
- Brought the first flat-rate charges for mail
- Opened up communications by letter
- Unified postage prices
- Reformed cancellation processes
- Set the stage for the postal system as we know it today
The Penny Black stamp made its mark on history. It is arguably one of the most influential stamps ever. If you have the opportunity to purchase one, you should not pass up the opportunity to buy a true gem of the British postal system.