In a previous post, I wrote about reviving my boyhood hobby of stamp collecting. As a long-time amateur student of history, I especially love the educative value of stamps that commemorate significant events and individuals. Avid collectors often remark that the ways in which stamps tell stories is one of the great appeals of the hobby, and I heartily agree.
In addition, some postage stamps constitute historical markers in and of themselves. I offer as a prime example the Penny Black, the world’s first postage stamp, printed in England during 1840-41. As mail service became an increasingly important part of English life and commerce, a British educator named Rowland Hill proposed an easy way of paying for postage, by using bits of printed paper that could be affixed to envelopes.
Hill’s proposal eventually took hold, and the result was the Penny Black, featuring the profile of Queen Victoria. This marked the beginning of a long British tradition of adorning postage stamps with the profiles of monarchs. However, this took some getting used to, as initially some British subjects found it disrespectful to lick what they regarded as the back of the Queen’s head! Queen Victoria herself intervened to endorse the use of stamps, assuring everyone that no such offense was taken.
For the most part, stamp collecting is a very affordable hobby, at least at my level of engagement. But like any hobby involving collectibles, the rarer, more notable pieces can cost a chunk of change. From an affordability standpoint, the good thing about the Penny Black is that the Brits printed a lot of them, a fair number of which have survived in various conditions. Thus, while select specimens can run into the many thousands of dollars (or pounds, if you’re across the pond!), used Penny Blacks in lesser condition can be obtained at a cost equivalent to picking up the tab for a meal and drinks at a nice restaurant.
Earlier this year, I decided that I wanted a Penny Black as the cornerstone of my budding collection. So, here is my modest specimen, purchased online. It gives me goosebumps to think that this is an authentic piece of Victorian England, having once been affixed to a letter that made its way through the mail system during the 1840s. I can only imagine the story this stamp could tell!