OTD: ‘Penny Black,’ world’s first stamp, issued by U.K.

On today’s date in 1840, post offices in the United Kingdom began issuing the world’s first postage stamp, the “Penny Black,” which didn’t become valid for postal use until several days later on May 6.

A few years earlier, in the latter half of the 1830s, Britain began introducing reforms to remedy the high cost of postage, the post office’s unwieldy workforce and its lack of fiscal control. These measures included the uniform penny post, which was introduced less than six months before the world’s first postage stamps were issued in 1840; however, before these changes, the cost of mailing a letter was based on distance and sheets of paper.

“This is an extreme letter,” said Tom Slemons, a U.S.-based director of the Great Britain Collectors Club, about a  595-gram correspondence that would have cost about £650 (or $1,000 Cdn.) to mail in today’s money.

“It was not ordinary, but it shows you how ridiculous it could be to mail a letter.”


The first “real reform” of Great Britain’s postal system came in December 1839, when the uniform four-penny post was implemented.

The short-lived change, which was in effect for only 36 days – from Dec. 5 until Jan. 9, 1840 – saw the end of rates calculated by distance. Instead, postage was now charged based on weight – fourpence for pre-paid letters up to half an ounce – and there was no penalty for multiple sheets. What’s more, for mail with rates already less than fourpence, the existing lower rates applied.

Before the uniform four-penny post was implemented, the Select Committee, of which Sir Rowland Hill was a member, did an “amazing investigation of the number of letters mailed,” said Slemons.

The committee analyzed how many letters were mailed at a specific time in a certain town or county. After learning how many letters the postmasters were handling, it determined how many of those letters were sent from each post office at each of the different rates.

“These postmasters had to keep track of it – there were no calculators or database – and count these things to send in the information,” said Slemons, who’s also a Fellow of the Royal Philatelic Society London.

The post office ultimately determined its plans for reform were feasible, and Jan. 10, 1840, marked the beginning of the uniform penny post, which allowed letters to be sent anywhere in Britain for a penny.

Later that year, on May 1, 1840, the Penny Black was issued, although it wasn’t valid for use until May 6.


In 2017, a cover featuring a first-day usage of the Penny Black nearly doubled its low estimate at a Spink and Son auction, realizing £45,600 (nearly $75,000 Cdn.). The cover, which is dated May 6, 1840, was offered as Lot 2137 of Spink’s Great Britain Stamps and Postal History Sale featuring the Charles Hamilton Collection. It had a pre-sale estimate of between £25,000 and £30,000 (upwards of $49,725 Cdn.).


About a century after U.S. Founding Father and noted polymath Benjamin Franklin established pre-Confederation Canada’s first post office in Halifax, official steamboat mail service was established between Montreal and Quebec. By 1850, steam service had all but overtaken sail service as the most widely used method of moving mail through Canada’s waterways.

A few years later, the first mail cars were installed aboard trains (although this railway mail service was eventually abandoned in 1971). By the end of the 1850s, these specially equipped cars – called railway post offices (RPOs) – reduced the delivery time for a letter from Quebec to Windsor, Ont., from 10 days to about two days. These RPOs – and the steamboats and sailboats that preceded them – allowed more mail to be carried more quickly and over longer distances. What’s more, it allowed sorting to take place en route, diminishing further the amount of time required for delivery.

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