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A postage stamp is a small piece of paper that is purchased and displayed on an item of mail as evidence of payment of postage. Typically, stamps are printed on special custom-made paper, show a national designation and a denomination (value) on the front, and have an adhesive gum on the back or are self-adhesive. Postage stamps are purchased from a postal administration (post office) or other authorized vendor, and are used to pay for the costs involved in moving mail, as well as other business necessities such as insurance and registration. They are sometimes a source of net profit to the issuing agency, especially when sold to collectors who will not actually use them for postage.
Stamps are usually rectangular, but triangles or other shapes are occasionally used. The stamp is affixed to an envelope or other postal cover (e.g., packet, box, mailing cylinder) the customer wishes to send. The item is then processed by the postal system, where a postmark, sometimes known as a cancellation mark, is usually applied in overlapping manner to stamp and cover. This procedure marks the stamp as used to prevent its reuse. In modern usage, postmarks generally indicate the date and point of origin of the mailing. The mailed item is then delivered to the address the customer has applied to the envelope or parcel.
The study of postage stamps and their use is referred to as philately. Stamp collecting can be both a hobby and a form of historical study and reference, as government-issued postage stamps and their mailing systems have always been involved with the history of nations.
Throughout modern history, numerous innovations were used to apply or indicate that postage has been paid on a mailed item, hence the invention of the postage stamp has been accredited to several different people.
In 1680 William Dockwra, an English merchant in London, and his partner Robert Murray established the London Penny Post, a mail system that delivered letters and small parcels inside the city of London for the sum of one penny. The postage for the mailed item was prepaid by the use of a hand-stamp to frank the mailed item, confirming payment of postage. Though this 'stamp' was applied to a letter instead of a separate piece of paper it is considered by many historians as the world's first postage stamp.
In 1835, the Slovene civil servant Lovrenc Košir from Ljubljana in Austria-Hungary (now Slovenia), suggested the use of "artificially affixed postal tax stamps" using "gepresste papieroblate" which translates as "pressed paper wafers" but although the suggestion was looked at in detail, it was not adopted.
The Englishman Sir Rowland Hill began interest in postal reform in 1835. In 1836, a Member of Parliament, Robert Wallace, 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, leading him to the 1837 publication 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 and changes to be presented in 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 wrote to the Chancellor, including a statement the notation of paid postage could be created "...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 an unambiguous description of a modern adhesive postage stamp (though the term "postage stamp" did not yet exist at that time). Shortly afterward, the second edition of Hill’s booklet, dated 22 February 1837, was published, and made available to the general public. This booklet, containing some 28,000 words, incorporated the supplement given to the Chancellor, and statements he made to the Commission.
Hansard records that on 15 December 1837, Benjamin Hawes inquired to 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?"
Hill’s ideas for postage stamps and charging paid-postage based upon weight soon took hold, and were adopted in many countries throughout the world. With the new policy of charging by weight, using envelopes for mailing documents became the norm. Hill’s brother Edwin Hill invented a prototype envelope-making machine that folded paper into envelopes quickly enough to match the pace of the growing demand for postage stamps.
Rowland Hill and the postal reforms he introduced to the UK postal system are commemorated on several commemorative postage issues of the United Kingdom.
Scotsman Patrick Chalmers asserted the claim that his father, James Chalmers, was the inventor of the first postage stamp in the 1881 publication "The Penny Postage Scheme of 1837." In this book, the son claims James Chalmers first produced an essay describing and advocating a stamp in August 1834; however, no evidence for this is provided in the book. Until his death in 1891, Patrick Chalmers campaigned to gain recognition for his father as the inventor of the postage stamp.
The first independent evidence for 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 approximately 800-word document concerning methods of indication letters postage-paid he states, "Therefore, of 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 ...". Chalmers' original document is now in the UK's National Postal Museum.
Given the postage denominations stated in James Chalmers' essay mirrored those proposed by Rowland Hill in February 1837, it is clear Chalmers was aware of Hill’s proposals. It is unknown whether Chalmers obtained a copy of Hill’s booklet, or simply read about it in The Times newspaper that on two occasions - 25 March 1837, 20 December 1837 - reported in great detail Hill’s proposals. Neither of Hill's articles mention of "a bit of paper just large enough to bear the stamp," hence available information at the time via the Times' article could not have made Chalmers aware Hill previously made such a proposal. This suggests either Chalmers previously read Hill's booklet and was merely expounding on Hill's idea, or he concurrently and independently developed the idea of the modern postage stamp.
James Chalmers organized 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. In this period of time, other groups organized petitions and presented them to Parliament. All petitions for consumer-oriented, low-cost, volume based postal rates following the disclosure of Hill's proposals.
Other claimants include or have included
Although a number of people laid claim to the concept of the postage stamp, it is well documented that stamps were first introduced in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland on 1 May 1840 as a part of postal reforms promoted by Sir Rowland Hill. With its introduction, the postage fee was paid by the sender and not the recipient, though it was still possible to send mail without prepaying. From when the first postage stamps were used, postmarks were applied to prevent the stamps being used again.
The first stamp, the "Penny black", became available for purchase 1 May 1840, to be valid as of 6 May 1840. Two days later, 8 May 1840, the Two penny blue was introduced. The Penny black was sufficient for a letter less than half an ounce to be sent anywhere within the UK. Both stamps included an engraving of the young Queen Victoria, without perforations, as the first stamps were separated from their sheets by cutting them with scissors.
The first stamps did not need to show the issuing country, so no country name was included on them. The UK remains the only country to omit its name on postage stamps, using the reigning monarch’s head as country identification. Following the introduction of the postage stamp in the UK, prepaid postage considerably increased the number of letters mailed. Before 1839, the number of letters sent in the UK was typically 76 million. By 1850 this increased five-fold to 350 million, continuing to grow rapidly until the end of the 20th century when newer methods of indicating the payment of postage reduced the use of stamps.
Other countries soon followed the UK with their own stamps. The Canton of Zürich in Switzerland issued the Zurich 4 and 6 rappen on 1 March 1843. Although the Penny black could be used to send a letter less than half an ounce anywhere within the UK, the Swiss did not initially adopt that system, instead continuing to calculate mail rates based on distance to be delivered. Brazil issued the Bull’s Eye stamp on 1 August 1843. Using the same printer used for the Penny black, Brazil opted for an abstract design instead of the portrait of Emperor Pedro II, so his image would not be disfigured by a postmark.
In 1845 some postmasters in the United States issued their own stamps, but it was not until 1847 that the first official U.S. stamps were issued: 5 and 10 cent issues depicting Benjamin Franklin and George Washington. A few other countries issued stamps in the late 1840s. The famous Mauritius "Post Office" stamps were issued by Mauritius in September 1847. Many others, such as India, started their use in the 1850s, and by the 1860s most countries issued stamps.
Perforation of postage stamps began in January 1854. The first officially perforated stamps were issued in February 1854. Stamps from Henry Archer's perforation trials were issued in the last few months of 1850; during the 1851 parliamentary session at the House of Commons of the United Kingdom; and finally in 1853/54 after the UK government paid Mr. Archer £4,000 for his machine and the patent.
When the first postage stamps were issued in the 1840s, they followed an almost identical standard in shape, size and general subject matter. They were rectangular in shape. They bore the images of Queens, Presidents and other political figures. They also depicted the denomination of the postage-paid, and with the exception of the United Kingdom, depicted the name of the country from which issued. Nearly all early postage stamps depict images of national leaders only.
Soon after the introduction of the postage stamp, other subjects and designs began to appear. Some designs were welcome, others widely criticized. For example, in 1869, the U.S. Post Office broke tradition of depicting presidents or other famous historical figures, instead using other subjects including a train, and horse. (See: 1869 Pictorial Issue.) The change was greeted with general disapproval, and sometimes harsh criticism from the American public.
Perforations are small holes made between individual postage stamps on a sheet of stamps, facilitating separation of a desired number of stamps. The resulting frame-like, rippled edge surrounding the separated stamp defines a characteristic meme for the appearance of a postage stamp.
In the first decade of postage stamps' existence (depending on the country), stamps were issued without perforations. Scissors or other cutting mechanisms were required to separate a desired number of stamps from a full sheet. If cutting tools were not used, individual stamps were torn off. This is evidenced by the ragged edges of surviving examples. Mechanically separating stamps from a sheet proved an inconvenience for postal clerks and businesses, both dealing with large numbers of individual stamps on a daily basis. By 1850, methods such as rouletting wheels were being devised in efforts of making stamp separation more convenient, and less time consuming.
The United Kingdom was the first country to issue postage stamps with perforations. The first machine specifically designed to perforate sheets of postage stamps was invented in London by Henry Archer, an Irish landowner and railroad man from Dublin, Ireland. The 1850 Penny Red was the first stamp to be perforated during trial course of Archer's perforating machine. After a period of trial and error and modifications of Archer's invention, new machines based on the principles pioneered by Archer were purchased and in 1854 the U.K. postal authorities started continuously issuing perforated postage stamps in the Penny Red and all subsequent designs.
In the U.S. the use of postage stamps caught on quickly and became more widespread when on March 3, 1851, the last day of its legislative session, Congress passed the Act of March 3, 1851 (An Act to reduce and modify the Rates of Postage in the United States). Similarly introduced on the last day of the Congressional session four years later, the Act of March 3, 1855 required the prepayment of postage on all mailings. Thereafter, postage stamp use in the U.S. quickly doubled, and by 1861 had quadrupled.
In 1856, under the direction of Postmaster General James Campbell, Toppan and Carpenter, (commissioned by the U.S. government to print U.S. postage stamps through the 1850s) purchased a rotary machine designed to separate stamps, patented in England in 1854 by William and Henry Bemrose, who were printers in Derby, England. The original machine cut slits into the paper rather than punching holes, but the machine was soon modified.
The first stamp issue to be officially perforated, the 3-cent George Washington, was issued by the U.S. Post Office on February 24, 1857. Between 1857 and 1861 all stamps originally issued between 1851 and 1856 were reissued with perforations. Initial capacity was insufficient to perforate all stamps printed, thus perforated issues used between February and July 1857 are scarce and quite valuable.
In addition to the most common rectangular shape, stamps have been issued in geometric (circular, triangular and pentagonal) and irregular shapes. The United States issued its first circular stamp in 2000 as a hologram of the earth. Sierra Leone and Tonga have issued stamps in the shapes of fruit. Stamps that are printed on sheets are generally separated by perforations, though, more recently, with the advent of gummed stamps that do not have to be moistened prior to affixing them, designs can incorporate smooth edges (although a purely decorative perforated edge is often present).
Stamps are most commonly made from paper designed specifically for them, and are printed in sheets, rolls, or small booklets. Less commonly, postage stamps are made of materials other than paper, such as embossed foil (sometimes of gold). Switzerland made a stamp that contained a bit of lace and one of wood. The United States produced one of plastic. East Germany issued a stamp of synthetic chemicals. In the Netherlands a stamp was made of silver foil. Bhutan issued one with its national anthem on a playable record.
The subjects found on the face of postage stamps are generally what defines a particular stamp issue to the public and are often a reason why they are saved by collectors or history enthusiasts. Graphical subjects found on postage stamps have ranged from the early portrayals of kings, queens and presidents to later depictions of ships, birds and satellites, famous people, historical events, comics, dinosaurs, hobbies (knitting, stamp collecting), sports, holiday themes, and a wealth of other subjects too numerous to list.
Artists, designers, engravers and administrative officials are involved with the choice of subject matter and the method of printing stamps. Early stamp images were almost always produced from engravings — a design etched into a steel die, which was then hardened and whose impression was transferred to a printing plate. Using an engraved image was deemed a more secure way of printing stamps as it was nearly impossible to counterfeit a finely detailed image with raised lines unless you were a master engraver. In the mid-20th century, stamp issues produced by other forms of printing began to emerge, such as lithography, photogravure, intaglio and web offset printing. These later printing methods were less expensive and typically produced images of lesser quality.
Apart from these, there are also Revenue (used to collect taxes or fees on items such as documents, tobacco, alcoholic drinks, hunting licenses and medicines) and Telegraph stamps (for sending telegrams), which fall in a separate category from postage stamps.
Postage stamps are first issued on a specific date, often referred to as the First day of issue. A first day cover usually consists of an envelope, a postage stamp and a postmark with the date of the stamp’s first day of issue thereon. Starting in the mid-20th century some countries began assigning the first day of issue to a place associated with the subject of the stamp design, such as a specific town or city. There are two basic types of First Day Covers (FDCs) noted by collectors. The first and often most desirable type among advanced collectors is a cover sent through the mail in the course of everyday usage, without the intention of the envelope and stamp ever being retrieved and collected. The second type of FDC is often referred to as "Philatelic," that is, an envelope and stamp sent by someone with the intention of retrieving and collecting the mailed item at a later time and place. The envelope used for this type of FDC often bears a printed design or cachet of its own in correspondence with the stamp’s subject and is usually printed well in advance of the first day of issue date. The latter type of FDC is usually far more common, and is usually inexpensive and relatively easy to acquire. Covers that were sent without any secondary purpose are considered non-philatelic and often are much more challenging to find and collect.'
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 defined as the study of stamps. It is not necessary to closely study stamps in order to enjoy collecting them. Many casual collectors enjoy accumulating stamps without worrying about the details. The creation of a valuable or comprehensive collection, however, may require some philatelic knowledge.
Stamp collectors are an important source of revenue for some small countries that create limited runs of elaborate stamps designed mainly to be bought by stamp collectors. The stamps produced by these countries may far exceed their postal needs. Hundreds of countries, each producing scores of different stamps each year, resulted in 400,000 different types of stamps in existence by the year 2000. Annual world output averages about 10,000 types.
Some countries authorize the production of postage stamps that have no postal use, but are intended instead solely for collectors. Other countries issue large numbers of low denomination stamps that are bundled together in starter packs for new collectors. Official reprints are often printed by companies who have purchased or contacted for those rights and such reprints see no postal use. All of these stamps are often found "canceled to order", meaning they are postmarked without ever having passed through the postal system. Most national post offices produce stamps that would not be produced if there were no collectors, some to a far more prolific degree than others. It is up to individual collectors whether this concerns them; collecting such issues is as legitimate an endeavor as any other collection, but is unlikely to result in a collection of any value or to provide a monetary return on an investment (though it may be found worthwhile in other ways, such as teaching geography or collecting methods to a child, or sheer pleasure in the beauty of some of these issues). Others may argue that since these stamps are virtually worthless, they will be discarded in large numbers and eventually become less common and thus collectable in their own right, though this process would likely take many decades.
Sales of stamps to collectors who do not use them for mailing can result in large profits. Good examples of excessive issues have been (1) the stamps produced by Nicholas F. Seebeck and (2) stamps produced for the component states of the United Arab Emirates. Seebeck operated in the 1890s as an agent of Hamilton Bank Note Company. He approached Latin American countries with an offer to produce their entire postage stamp needs for free. In return he would have exclusive rights to market stamps to collectors. Each year a new issue would be produced, but would expire 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. The sparse population of the desert states made it wholly unlikely that many of these stamps would ever be used for mailing purposes, and earned them the name of the "sand dune" countries. Another example of what might be considered by some to be excessive issues is that, at the time of the millennium, the United Kingdom issued 96 different stamps over about 24 months, all for pre-existing values with the same four rates for each set.
In the United States there is concern among some collectors that the United States Postal Service has become a promotional agent for the media and entertainment industry, as it has frequently issued entire sets of stamps featuring movie stars and cartoon characters like Mickey Mouse and Bart Simpson Over the decades the annual average number of new postage stamp issued by the U.S.P.S. has significantly increased.
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