Robert Murray Stamp Shop, Edinburgh
Established 1977
Retail shop, auctioneers, mail order

                black stamp    The Penny Black

In 1840, the United Kingdom introduced the penny black, the first adhesive postage stamp issued anywhere in the world.
This page is intended not to give detailed information about the stamp, nor are we presenting definitive advice on collecting these fascinating stamps, or their values; it is here to relate some of the interesting facets of the penny black, and give some general non-specialised information.

Background History  |  James Chalmers  |  May 1840  | Basic Technical Matters  |  Corner Letters  |  Commercial Values  |  Site Links

penny black stampBackground History
For many years the postal service in the U.K. had been a very expensive service for ordinary people to use. The costs were prohibitive, a single letter sometimes costing a working person's full day's wages. The postal system also had many strange anomolies, such as certain categories of mail going free (and being therefore paid for by the charges on others), newspapers going for nothing, most mail being paid for by the addressee rather than by the sender, and so on. There were moves for postal reform for many years, until eventually these moves started gathering some force (through the attention of many, amongst whom Rowland Hill is the best known, and Robert Wallace, MP for Greenock, was instrumental). The story is long and involved, but eventually The Penny Postage Bill was passed by Parliament on 17 August 1839. Some basic elements of the plan were the lowering of postage rates for basic letters to one penny, the removal of certain idiosyncrasies, that prepayment would become normal, and the availability of printed envelopes, lettersheets, and labels to show prepayment. The "labels" were the penny black and twopence blue. 

penny black stampJames Chalmers
A bookseller and printer from Dundee, James Chalmers, holds a strong claim to be the actual inventor of the adhesive postage stamp. He is said to have been interested in postal reform from about 1822, and to have printed samples of his idea for printed gummed labels in August 1834. It seems that, although Hill also presented the idea of adhesive stamps, he was probably keener on the use of standard prepaid letter folders or lettersheets or envelopes, such as were issued in 1840 using a design by William Mulready. [The book James Chalmers Inventor of the Adhesive Postage Stamp edited by W.J. Smith, and published in Dundee in 1970, is a fascinating, if partisan, read.]

penny black stampMay 1840
The new stamps went on sale on 1 May 1840, and were valid for postage from 6 May 1840 (although some were used during the 1-5 May period). The Mulreadies were issued at the same time. Public reaction to these new items was quite the opposite to Rowland Hill's expectations. The labels were well-received and admired; the Mulready design was lambasted and ridiculed. Initial supplies of the stamps were rushed through the printing and distribution process, but supplies soon caught up with requirements.

penny black stampBasic Technical Matters
The stamps were printed in sheets of 240, engraved on steel plates, on gummed paper with a single small crown watermark on each stamp. Eleven different printing plates were used (and plate 1 is usually differentiated into plate 1a and plate 1b), and it is possible in almost every case to work out which plate any individual stamp was printed from by little characteristics. Things like the positioning of the corner letters within their squares, the presence of the "O flaw", which rays of the stars in the upper corners are broken at what points, and so on, can point to a correct plate identification, but more specialised literature is required in order to do this. Some plates are scarcer than others, plate 11 being the scarcest.
[From time to time we run workshops at our shop, and our "Common UK Problems" workshop includes an introduction to plating "blacks". These workshops only happen once or twice per year, but are always noed on our home page.]

penny black stampCorner Letters
Every penny black stamp has letters in the lower two corners. These simply identify what sheet position the stamp occupied. When the printing plates were produced the lower squares were blank, and the letters were punched in by hand. The left square letter shows which horizontal row the stamp was in - the first row being A, the second B, and so on down to the twentieth row with T. The right square letter indicates the vertical column, again with A for the first column, B, C, and so on across to L for the last (twelfth) column. It should be noted therefore that each letter combination is just as common or as scarce as any other.

                black stampCommercial Values
There were 68,158,080 penny blacks issued (yes, 68 million !), and even with only a 2% survival rate, there are likely to be about 1.3 million still in existence. The survival rate may well be considerably higher than 2%, as it should be remembered that in 1840 the use of envelopes was unusual, most letters being written, folded, and sealed with sealing wax; this meant that whenever a letter was filed in a lawyer's office, bank, etc., the whole thing would be kept - letter and outer cover including the adhesive stamp. By the time these files were cleared years after it was already known that people collected these stamps and that they could be sold.
Value depends generally on {1} the condition, {2} which plate the stamp was printed from, and {3} the overall appearance of the stamp.
Aspects of condition; {a} physical condition - any fault such as a thin, tear, crease, or stain will lower the value, and {b} the number, size, and regularity of the margins make a big difference to value. The stamps were not perforated, and had to be separated using scissors or a knife. As there was only about 1mm between one stamp and another, it was very easy to stray just a little and cut into the printed design of the stamp. A stamp with two full margins and perhaps a couple of other part margins is about average. Collectors will pay higher prices for examples with four good, wide, and even margins.
It can be dangerously misleading to suggest values, as some readers of this will be naturally optimistic, others being natural pessimists (or realists !). At any time we might have in our shop retail stock penny blacks as cheap as 20 each (in definitely poor condition), and as expensive as 250 (for one with particular unusual attributes). On average 30 to 50 will buy a "reasonable" penny black, while "nice" ones might cost 80 to 150. Mint examples are notably more valuable, and prices can vary enourmously for these.  [NB our stocks vary much more quickly than this page, which is intended to be semi-permanent, so please do not order anything without checking with us first.]  We hold public stamp auctions approximately monthly, and across the whole range, the average price for penny blacks sold there is probably roughly 35 each. Generally speaking, it is our experience that those penny blacks sold in special presentation folders, with certificates of authenticity, or marketed through the non-philatelic press, tend to be priced at well above market rates.

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penny black
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Page last updated Friday 4 December 2015.

Robert Murray Stamp Shop, Edinburgh
Established 1977
Retail shop, auctioneers, mail order