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[[File:Stamp.svg|thumb|right|200px|Stylized stamp with its main parts:

1. the image

2. the perforations

3. the value

4. the country]]A postage stamp is adhesive paper evidence of a fee paid for postal services. Usually a small rectangle attached to an envelope, the stamp signifies the person sending it has fully or partly paid for delivery. Postage stamps are the most popular way of paying for retail mail; alternatives include postal stationery such as prepaid-postage envelopes, post cards, lettercards, aerogrammes and newspaper wrappers in addition to printed postal impressions and postage meters. The study of postage stamps is called philately. Stamp collecting is a hobby.

The invention of the postage stamp

Several people laid claims that they invented the postage stamp.

Rowland Hill

Rowland Hill first started to take a serious interest in postal reforms in 1835. In 1836 Robert Wallace, MP, 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 and this 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, asked for reconsiderations and requested 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 “…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 a very clear description of an adhesive postage stamp. It must be remembered that the phrase postage stamp did not yet exist at that time. Shortly afterwards the second edition of Hill’s booklet, dated 22 February 1837, was published and this was 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?”

James Chalmers

The first documentary evidence for James 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 document, of some 800 words, about methods of franking letters he states “Therefore, if 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 …”. The original of this document is now in the National Postal Museum. The weights and postage amounts on these essays are those that were proposed by Hill in February 1837.

It is clear that James Chalmers was aware of Rowland Hill’s proposals, but it is not clear whether he had obtained a copy of Hill’s booklet or if he had read about it in the Times. The Times had, on two occasions, on 25 March 1837and on 20 December 1837 reported in great detail Hill’s proposals. In neither report was there any mention of “a bit of paper just large enough to bear the stamp”. So if Chalmers had only read the Times he would have been completely unaware that Hill had already made the proposal for “a bit of paper…”.

James Chalmers organised 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 organising petitions and presenting them to Parliament. All these petitions were presented after Hill’s proposals had been published.

The claim that 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 for a stamp in August 1834 but no evidence for this is provided in the book. Patrick Chalmers continued to campaign, to have his father recognised as the inventor, until he died in 1891.

Lovrenc Košir

It is claimed that in 1835 Lovrenc Košir suggested the introduction of adhesive tax postmarks (aufklebbare Brieftaxstempel) to the Department of Commerce in Vienna, he called them gepresste Papieroblate (pressed paper wafers). His suggestion was looked at in detail and rejected. No contemporary documents to substantiate the claim appear to exist.


Although James Chalmers and Lovrenc Košir lay claim to the concept of the postage stamp, postage stamps were first introduced in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Irelandmarker on May 1, 1840, as part of postal reforms promoted by Rowland Hill. With its introduction the postage fee was to be paid by the sender and not the recipient, though sending mail prepaid was not a requirement. The first stamp, the penny black, put on sale on May 1st, was valid from May 6, 1840; two days later came the two pence blue. Both show an engraving of the young Queen Victoria and were a success though refinements like perforation were instituted later. At the time, there was no reason to include the United Kingdom's name on the stamp, and the UK remains the only country not to identify itself by name on the stamps (the monarch's head is used as identification).

Stamps were not officially perforated until January 1854, except in the parliamentary session of 1851, when stamps perforated by Mr. Archer were issued at the House of Commonsmarker. In 1853, the Government paid Mr. Archer £4,000 for the patent.

Other countries followed with their own stamps: the Canton of Zürichmarker in Switzerlandmarker issued the Zurich 4 and 6 rappen on March 1, 1843. Although the Penny Black could send a letter less than half an ounce anywhere within the United Kingdom, the Swiss continued to calculate mail rates on distance. Brazilmarker issued the Bull's Eye stamps on August 1, 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 the postmark. In 1845 some postmasters in the United Statesmarker issued their own stamps, but the first official stamps came in 1847, with 5 and 10 cent stamps depicting Benjamin Franklin and George Washington. A few other countries issued stamps in the late 1840s. Many more, such as India, started in the 1850s and by the 1860s most countries had stamps.

Following the introduction of the stamp in the UK the number of letters increased from 82 million in 1839 to 170 million in 1841. Today 21 billion items are delivered by post every year in the United Kingdom.

Postage stamp design

Stamps have been issued in shapes besides rectangle, including circular, triangular and pentagonal. Sierra Leonemarker and Tongamarker issued stamps in the shapes of fruit; Bhutanmarker issued one with its national anthem on a playable record. Stamps have been made of embossed foil (sometimes of gold); Switzerlandmarker made a stamp partly of lace and one of wood; the United Statesmarker produced one of plastic, and the German Democratic Republicmarker issued a stamp of synthetic chemicals. In the Netherlands a stamp was made of silver foil. On paper, stamps have been produced by a variety of printing techniques such as lithography, line engraving, photogravure, intaglio and web offset printing.

Types of stamps

  • Airmail – for payment of airmail service. While "airmail" or equivalent is usually printed on the stamp, Scott has recognised US airmail stamps showing the silhouette of an aircraft. Other major catalogs do not give special status to airmail stamps.
  • ATM stamps are dispensed by machine whose sheets are paper currency sized and of similar thickness.
  • Booklet stamp – stamps produced and issued in booklet format.
  • Carrier's stamp
  • Certified mail stamp
  • Coil stamps – tear-off stamps issued individually in a vending machine, or purchased in a roll
  • Commemorative stamp – a limited run of stamps to commemorate an event
  • Computer vended postage – advanced secure postage that uses information-based indicia (IBI) technology. IBI uses a two-dimensional bar code (Datamatrix or PDF417) to encode the originating address, date of mailing, postage and a digital signature to verify the stamp.
  • 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 for everyday postage. They often have less appealing designs than commemoratives. The same design may be used for many years. The use of the same design over an extended period may lead to unintended varieties. This may make them more interesting to philatelists than commemoratives. Definitive stamps are often the same size for different denominations.
  • Express mail stamp / special delivery stamp
  • 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 for-profit companies.
  • Military stamp – stamps for a country's armed forces, usually using a special postal system
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • personalised – allow user to add his own picture
  • Postage due – a stamp showing that the full postage has not been paid, and indicating the amount to pay. Collectors and philatelists debate whether these should be called stamps, some saying that as they do not pre-pay postage they should be called labels. ) The United States Post Office Department issued "parcel post postage due" stamps.
  • Postal tax – a stamp indicating that a tax above the postage rate required for sending letters has been paid. This is often mandatory on mail issued on a particular day or for a few days.
  • Self-adhesive stamp – stamps not requiring moisture to stick. Self-sticking.
  • 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 Belgiummarker and Switzerlandmarker that use charitable fund-raising a lot design stamps more desirable for collectors.
  • 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.
  • 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 kind so this term entered into use with the advent of self-adhesive stamps. The adhesive or gum on the stamp must be moistened (usually by licking, thus the stamps are also known as "lick and stick").


There have been numerous developments in how stamps are dispensed and sold. Usually, they can be purchased over the counter or from machines, as books or loose stamps. They are traditionally made as a perforated sheet gummed on the reverse, but self-adhesive stamps are commonplace. In some countries the stamps dispensed by machines are referred to as "variable value stamps".

IBI stamps

In the United States, Information Based Indicia (IBI) allowed newer ways to sell stamps. IBI is an encrypted two-dimensional bar code that makes counterfeiting more difficult and easier to detect. Each IBI is unique. The IBI contains security data elements as point of origin and the sender. The IBI is human- and machine-readable.

Prior to IBI, postage vault devices were used to print stamps by computer. The postage vault device is a tamper-resistant security device to disable postage equipment when tampered with. The postage vault can store and keep track of money in the postage vault. You can think of this as prepaying for the right to print postage from your personal computer. The Internet is used to reset or replenish funds in the vault.

In March 2001, the United States Postal Service authorized Neopost Online and Northrop Grumman Corporation to test a self-service stamp vending system that allows the consumer to select a purchase and swipe a credit card to order. The system authorizes the order, prints the stamp sheet and dispenses them. The ability to request, authorize, print and dispense a stamp using the Internet makes these the world's first browser-based stamps. This is the first instance where IBI was utilized on adhesive labels. The product from this self-service system is named Neopost web-enabled stamps. The stamps were available from March 2001 through August 2003 in fixed values.

In 2002 the USPS authorized to issue NetStamps. NetStamps utilizes IBI technology and can be printed from personal computers with postal vaults. In 2004 USPS introduced automated postal centers (APC). These kiosks provided non-denominated ($0.01 to $99.99) stamps. The intent is to reduce labor at postal counters. Personal pictures paired with IBI technology provide a personalized stamp. These require a number of days to produce.

The push towards IBI aids the USPS in finding venues to sell stamps. It reduces maintenance of machines to sell stamps. The USPS still relies on consigning stamps to retailers and banks via automatic teller machines (ATMs). They must be the same size and thickness as currency to be dispensed by the ATM.

Royal Mail in the United Kingdommarker has launched a print-your-own-postage service to purchase IBI-style codes online, and print them on address stickers or envelopes, in lieu of first-class stamps. This was the first time a stamp had not featured an image of the monarch. It joins the " SmartStamp" subscription service, which performs the same function for businesses.

First day covers

On the first day of issue a set of stamps can be purchased attached to an envelope with a commemorative postmark. Known as a First Day Cover, it can also be assembled from the component parts by stamp collectors, who are the most frequent users. These envelopes usually bear a commemorative cachet of the subject for which the stamp was created.

Souvenir or miniature sheets

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 the study of stamps. A philatelist often does, but need not, collect the objects of study, nor is it necessary to closely study what one collects. Many casual collectors enjoy accumulating stamps without worrying about the tiny details. The creation of a large or comprehensive collection, however, may require some philatelic knowledge.

Stamp collectors are an important source of revenue for some small countries who create limited runs of elaborate stamps designed mainly to be bought by stamp collectors. The stamps produced by these countries far exceed the postal needs of the countries.

The hundreds of countries, each producing scores of different stamps each year, resulted in 400,000 types of stamp by 2000. Annual world output averages about 10,000 types.

Philatelic abuse

Some countries produce stamps intended primarily for collectors rather than for postal use. This contributes to the countries' revenues. This practice is condoned by collectors for places such as Liechtensteinmarker and Pitcairn Islandsmarker that have conservative stamp policies. Abuses, however, are generally condemned. Among the most notable abusers have been Nicholas F. Seebeck and the component states of the United Arab Emiratesmarker. Seebeck operated in the 1890s as agent of Hamilton Bank Note Company and approached Latin American countries with an offer to produce their entire postage stamp needs free. In return he would have exclusive rights to market stamps to collectors. Each year a new issue was produced but it expired 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. These abuses combined with the sparse population of the desert states earned them the reputation of "sand dune" countries.

Some examples include Umm Al Qiwain's series commemorating other countries' national icons, such as the (British) 'Royal Regalia', the Irish 'Blarney Stone' and the Italian 'Pasta types' amongst others.More countries are producing 'special stamps' that appear to be exercises in revenue-creation. For example, the GB 'Millenium Series' issued 96 different stamps over about 24 months, all for pre-existing values with the same four rates for each set.This was viewed by some collectors as being over the top.

Some collectors have taken to philatelic investment. Rare stamps are among the most portable of tangible investments and are easy to store, but somewhat more difficult to keep in truly first-class condition.

Famous stamps

See also


  1. Hill, Rowland & Hill, George Birkbeck, The Life of Sir Rowland Hill and the History of the Penny Post, Thomas De La Rue, 1880, p.242
  2. The Life of Sir Rowland Hill, p.246
  3. Muir, Douglas N, Postal Reform & the Penny Black, National Postal Museum, 1990, p.42
  4. The Life of Sir Rowland Hill, p.264
  5. The Life of Sir Rowland Hill, p.269
  6. The Ninth Report of the Commissioners appointed to inquire into the Management of the Post-office Department, 1837, p.32
  7. Hansard 15 December 1837
  8. James Chalmers essay of 1837
  9. The Times, 25 March 1837
  10. The Times, 20 December 1837
  11. Hansard 4 Dec 1837
  12. Chalmers, Patrick, The Penny Postage Scheme of 1837, Effingham Wilson, 1881
  13. Why has a Postage Stamp a Perforated Edge? - A.M. Encyclopedia - Volume Two - page 1415
  14. Freepatentsonline: United States Patent 5503436 . Retrieved 10 June 2007.

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