A Brief History of Stamps

Before the introduction of posting stamps, sending a message was an extremely difficult task that was almost exclusive to the official government messages only. 

The story of stamps will take us the early times of the Roman empire through the medieval times in Europe, and all the way to the beginning of the 18th and 19th centuries.

Although some collectors have dozens upon dozens of rare and limited edition stamps, many of the stamps collectors have little to no knowledge about the history of stamps.

So without further ado, in this article, we’ll be taking you in a time-travelling journey to have a closer look at the brief history of post mail and stamps. 

Messaging in the Roman Empire

In the past and throughout the vast Roman empire, the Romans ruled an enormous stretch of land. That called for the necessity of having a reliable and specialized service to help the Roman officials and governors send messages between different points of the Roman empire.

The Romans came up with a supervised courier and package transportation service called the “Cursus Publicus”, which translates to the public way. This service had different relay stations throughout the empire that virtually connected every corner of their land.

They were used to transport everything from messages, money, and government officials from one province of the empire to the other.

However, this name might be a bit deceiving as the Circus Publicus wasn’t allowed for the public and was exclusive for the government official messaging only.

The Middle Ages

Even through the middle ages in Europe, the government-mandated courier systems were still locked for the public. They were used only for sending governmental messaging and transporting packages between government officials.

People started to depend more on private messengers and couriers to deliver their mail.

During this time, universities, monasteries, and even townspeople had to send their own private messengers and couriers to send messages and documents.

These private couriers held all the messages and documents in a chain-linked metal bags to secure the documents along the way. The public called them “chain mail”, which is where we got the word “mail” from.

Since most chainmail messengers were paid in advance, it required no proof of payment such stamps to be present.

The Early 1700s

By the early years of the 18th century, the British Royal mail had a mailing service called “The English Postal System”. However, the new mailing system wasn’t only exclusive for royal mailing services and government communication.

For the first time in history, the postal system was available to use by both the government and individuals.

Before the invention of the steam engine, everything was handmade and expensive. This included the price of paper, seals, envelopes, and even the cost of transporting a letter.

In these early days, there were no stamps or letter envelopes used in the mail yet. Paper was a bit more expensive than being used freely, so adding an additional piece of paper to the envelope is was a luxury nobody could afford.

The rare usage of envelopes was another reason that delayed the need for stamps or other methods to confirm the payment of the postal fees.

At these times, if you wanted to send a letter to someone, all you had to do is to protect your privacy was to fold the letter up or roll it in case of parchments, and then you seal it shut with a piece of rope, ribbon, or wax.

The wax hardens in a specific way to make the letter difficult to be opened without showing traces of noticeable tampering in the seal.

When the English Postal System first started, there was no specific way to pay for the letters sent. That meant that while the sender can always pay for the letter in advance, most of the letters at this time were paid for when they’re delivered to the receiver’s end.

However, due to the higher price for everything including delivering these letters, many people refused to accept the letter when they receive it in order to avoid paying for it.

In fact, some people developed a smart way to cheat the English postal system, in which they would use a secret language or signs written on the outer part of the letter that conveyed the meaning of the message.

With this cheat, all the receiver had to do was to read these signs or secret language, and then refuse to accept the letter, and thus he wouldn’t need to pay for it.

This created a problem for the English postal service since these cheating techniques started growing more with time. As a result, the English postal service had to turn all letters into prepaid mail only.

From that moment after, all mail had to be paid for prior to being sent, this required a method to ensure the payment on the letter. It wasn’t until the year 1840 in England when Sir Rowland Hill Invented the first-ever post stamp in history, but more to that later on.

Who Came up with the Idea of Posting Stamps

Before letter senders became required by the English postal system to pay for the letter before it’s being sent to the addressee, paying for the letter in advance was still an option that some people went for.

In most cases, prepaid letters were used in specific situations like urgent letters, and knowing the financial status of the receiving end.

However, to ensure that postage fees have been paid on a prepaid letter, several ideas were adopted by different people. Consequently, crediting one person only for inventing stamps would be a mistake. 

We’ll be exploring the stories of all those who contributed to the idea of stamps by chronological order. Let’s dive in.

Lovrenc Kosir

Also known as Laurenz Koschier, was an Austrian Slovene civil servant who worked at Ljubljana, the capital of modern-day Slovenia.

In 1835, Lovrenc Kosir sent a suggestion to the Department of Commerce in Austria, which had the responsibility of Austrian postal service under its belt.

The suggestion was to use a signature postmark on prepaid letters that he called “aufklebbare brieftax stempel” which translates to “adhesive tax stamps”.

He proposed that these postmarks can be in the form of “pressed paper wafers”. Although the civil officials looked into his suggestion, they ended up refusing to adopt the idea.

However, both modern-day Slovenia and Austria recognize him today as the father of Postal Stamps with his portrait gracing many of their official stamps.

James Chalmers

James Chalmers is claimed by his son, Patrick Chalmers to be the real inventor of postal stamps in 1838, which is two years before Sir Rolan Hill introduced the first Postal stamp.

He even wrote on his grave’s memorial that he is the original owner of the idea of the postal stamp, and the savior of the penny postage scheme of 1840 by Sir Rowland Hill.

The Scotsman claims that his father wrote an essay in 1834 about the description and the idea of the post stamp, but he never published it.

It was then later found that his father sent an essay to the general post office in 1938, in which the essay shows that James was aware of Hill’s plan of a “uniform rate of postage”.

However, whether James truly came up with the idea of a postage stamp, or he was adding minor additions on hill’s scheme, this remains a mystery up to this day.

Sir Rowland Hill

In 1837, Sir Rowland Hill issued a classified message holding the title “Post Office Reform” to Thomas Spring-Rice, the Chancellor of Treasury, to which he responded by inviting Sir Rowland Hill to a meeting at which Hill would discuss his idea.

Hill’s idea was about including a notation that indicates that the postage fees are paid. This notation would be in the form of a tiny piece of paper that should be big enough to carry a stamped mark.

He also stated that this paper should be covered on the back with a “glutinous wash” to stick along with a postmark to prevent it from being used more than once.

With the new postal policy that modifies postal fees depending on the weight, this led to the reduction of the postal fees, and prepaid mail became the rule.

Penny Black: The First-Ever Post Stamp

By the first of May in 1840, the United Kingdom of England and Ireland produced the first-ever documented stamp and it became available for the general public, which was known as the Penny Black. About 70 million stamps were released in the first year of its production.

Two days later, The Two Penny Blue was issued where it was stamped on any letter that weighs less than 1 ounce (30gms) to be sent anywhere inside the kingdom, while the penny black was for anything weight half an ounce.

Final Words

Since the introduction of stamps, they’ve gone through many modifications. They’ve changed in shapes, colors, perforations, and sizes.

The introduction of this densely decorated small pieces of paper not only changed the world by connecting it much easier, but it also made for a very interesting and educational hobby that we all love and enjoy.


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