On 6 May 1840, the world’s first adhesive postage stamp was officially valid for use in a public postal system.
It had been issued in the United Kingdom a few days earlier and featured an easily recognisable profile of Queen Victoria
It took the name of Penny Black because of its black colour and its monetary value (a “penny”, the smallest unit of the pound).
In order to solve the problem of the delivery of correspondence, it was invented by Rowland Hill a former schoolmaster, and for this act he was knighted.
His only experience of the public postal system in the 1830s was as a dissatisfied user, so, after a detailed study, in 1837 he proposed a Post Office Reform and devised a system of prepayment, through the use of an adhesive stamp.
Up to then it was the recipient who paid postage on delivery, charged by the sheet and on the distance travelled: a complicated and very expensive pricing formula. On the contrary Members of Parliament could send letters free of charge, it was a privilege widely abused because it seems that by the 1830s, MPs were apparently writing an improbable seven million letters a year.
To avoid paying, some tricks were also devised, for example sending coded messages through small differences in the address. The addressee glanced at the envelope, noticed these slight variations, understood the message, then refused to accept and to pay.
To simplify matters, Sir Rowland Hill proposed an adhesive stamp to indicate pre-payment of postage. Senders would be asked to pay; and it would be cheap – a flat rate of one penny, regardless of distance, for letters of up to half an ounce (14g.).
It cost a lot less, but Hill pointed out that profits would actually go up, because if letters were cheaper to send, people would send more of them. And he was right. because in 1840, the first year of Penny Post, the number of sent letters more than doubled.
It also speeded up delivery times because pre-payment changed the method of distributing mail: it was no longer essential to deliver it by hand to the recipient and this favoured the spread of letter boxes in front of the entrance to the houses.
This portrait of young Victoria remained on British stamps until her death in 1901. British stamps still bear a portrait or silhouette of the monarch somewhere on the design.
The Penny Black lasted less than a year since the red cancellation on the black design was hard to see and the red ink was easily removed. Therefore it was possible to re-use cancelled stamps. In February 1841, the Treasury switched to the Penny Red and began using black ink for cancellations, which was more effective and harder to remove.