It is very difficult to define just exactly what is, and what is not, a Classic Stamp.
Everyone knows that Penny Blacks are classics, but where do we draw the line? There
is no easy answer. It isn’t just a question of cost. Yes, many of the stamps regarded
as classics are extremely valuable, but at the other end of the scale the British
Penny Red, imperf, is definitely a classic, and a pleasing example will set you back
So, perhaps we should simply say that classic stamps are stamps from the early days,
when the vagaries of the printing and other processes resulted in stamps which broadly
met the specification but could each have their own individual, hand made, characteristics!
The Penny Black, with its partner Twopence Blue, are generally regarded as being
the World's first postage stamps. They were valid for postage from 6th May 1840,
and in the course of the next eight or nine months, more than 70 million of them
passed over the Post Office counters. A Penny Black paid to send a letter of half
an ounce (14g for the metricated among us) anywhere in Great Britain and Ireland.
The Twopence Blue paid for a one ounce letter, and other multiples of the basic rate.
It is a common misconception that Penny Blacks are very rare, they aren't. They are
extremely popular as the subject of collections here and around the world, and this
popularity leads to quite firm prices, but the stamps are definitely not rare. A
good, collectable, stamp such as that illustrated is probably worth about £150. The
Twopenny Blue stamps are much scarcer, but are valued at around two or three times
the price of the Penny stamp. Much depends on the size of the margins, and the clarity
and position of the postmark.
To see a much larger version of the images below, please hover your cursor over the
Strangely, given the extent of the British Empire in the 1840s, the next stamps did
not come from any British territories, but as a purely local issue from Zurich on
1st March 1843, followed by a 'proper' issue from Brazil on 1st August 1843, with
a famous stamp known as the 'Bull's Eye' which was valid for general postage.
Brazil Bull’s Eye
The United States was a relatively late starter with their first stamps coming along
in 1847. After Congress had authorised the issue, a contract was given to Messrs
Rawdon, Wright, Hatch and Edson, of New York, to produce the stamps. These were issued
on 1st July 1847 and remained in use for a number of years. Numbers used were small,
with around 3.7 million of the 5 cent denomination and 870,000 of the 10 cent denomination
USA 10 Cents
At approximately the same time, the Indian Ocean territory of Mauritius issued its
first stamps. These were evidently based on the designs of the first British stamps.
Invitations to a ball at Government House were being prepared, and the Governor's
Lady thought that it would be a novelty if they bore postage stamps to carry them
through the mail. As there were no official issues for Mauritius, Penny and Two Pence
stamps were engraved locally. The invitations arrived on time, but these early issues
are now rare and expensive, but thanks to the marvels of modern science you, too,
can study examples in your own home!
Mauritius One Penny
For a number of years, stamps were relatively staid in their designs, usually featuring
the portrait of a monarch or president, or a coat of arms, or the value of the stamp.
But as the nineteenth century progressed, designs became a little more adventurous.
In 1853, The Cape of Good Hope decided that it took too much effort to cut round
four-sided stamps, and introduced their famous three-sided triangular stamps, while
the New Brunswickians chose to stick with four-sided stamps but turned them round
to stand on their corner. Still in New Brunswick, the Postmaster General became officially
unpopular in 1860 when he ordered up some new 5c stamps with his own portrait instead
of that of Queen Victoria!
New Brunswick Diamond
New Brunswick Connell
Still in North America, we go straight to the Wild West of the United States. A two
cent stamp showing the Pony Express at full gallop was issued by the United States
Then back to the Old World where, after years of pedestrian designs featuring first
Ceres and then the Emperor Napoleon III, France started on its first exploration
of modern artistry with a handsome series issued in 1876, a tradition maintained
in many styles, over many years and many issues.
Meanwhile, back where it all started, the good old General Post Office came up with
a triumph of design for the new penny lilac stamp of 1881. This design lasted for
twenty years until the accession of King Edward VII.
The later stamps of Queen Victoria, and those of King Edward VII, and King George
V, were printed by typography, just like most other printing of the day. The result
was a product which was serviceable, but the process did not lend itself to any great
subtlety either of design or shading. And then photogravure came along. This process
had been pioneered in Bavaria before the first World War, but did not reach the British
stamp buying public until 1934. The Post Office, in yet another fit of forward thinking,
missed the opportunity to produce a range of modern designs to match the modern printing
process, and merely photographed the existing designs. The more things change the
more we can keep them the same!
We have reached the point at which stamps for regular everyday use are recognisably
the same as the ones we use today.