The Penny Black in 20 questions

It’s probably the most famous stamp in history.

Still. After 184 years and counting.

These questions will help you understand the world’s most popular collector’s stamp.

1 - Is the Penny Black the world’s first stamp?

Yes. The Penny Black is the first stamp with a couple of important qualificiations.

It is the word’s first adhesive postal stamp in a universal postage system.

It functions as a prepaid receipt of payment for postage.

Hand stamps had carried out this function before. And paper stamps had been used in tax and revenue systems.

The Penny Black was the first pre-paid stamp that could be stuck on a postal item.

2 - Who invented the Penny Black?

The concepts that made the Black work are in the very large part the work of Sir Rowland Hill.

However, no-one works alone and Hill built on preexisting work and systems. His chief assistant was a civil servant called Sir Henry Cole.

Hill’s system was so successful, and helped spark a revolution in literacy, because it was so simple.

1 penny allowed you to send a letter any distance in the UK.

Payment by the sender not the recipient was also much simpler to administer.

Payment by weight of packet also worked more easily.

A system of gummed stamps that could be stuck to an envelope and “cancelled” with a handstamp worked fantastically well.

Among those whose work preceded Hill’s was the man often called the world’s first stamp collector, John Edward Gray.

John Edward Gray the world's first stamp collector
By buying a block of Penny Blacks to preserve, John Edward Gray became the world's first stamp collector. 

 


3 - Who designed the Penny Black?

What to put on the world’s first stamp, an image designed to be issued in countless millions, was a big question.

Hill and Cole staged an open competition but found no suitable winner (the entries are now a very collectible category in postal history).

Cole may have designed the compromise he and Hill came up with, though Hill suggested a profile of the Queen.


An engraver called Charles Heath engraved the portrait, based on a sketch by artist Henry Corbould, who took his image from an engraving by engraver William Wyon.

This is the Wyon head based on the Wyon Medal, which was produced in 1837 to commemorate Victoria’s visit to the Corporation of London on November 9, 1837.

She was 15 at the time, but this profile was used on stamps throughout her reign and on much of the money issued too.


4 - Who printed the Penny Black?

The Penny Black was printed by Perkins, Bacon & Petch

Jacob Perkins founded the company in 1819 and after some jostling of partners it became Perkins Bacon (with Joshua Butters Bacon) in 1829, then Perkins, Bacon & Petch (with Henry Petch) in 1834.

Perkins was a specialist in banknote printing. He was also a friend of Rowland Hill.

The contract to print the Penny Black at the rate of “seven pence halfpenny per thousand, including gumming.

Perkins used a siderographic plate for Penny Blacks. This method allowed plates to be standardised and reproduced more often. It cut down on forgery (a major concern for early stamp producers).

The stamps were produced in 240-stamp sheets worth a total of £1. Letters were punched into the plates to give each printed stamp a unique identity.

5 - Why is the Penny Black black?

Forgery is behind a lot of stamp making decisions. Postal authorities were concerned about protecting the system from fraud to a degree that may have been paranoid.

The penny black is black because after a series of experiments using different coloured inks, the Rainbow Trials discovered red cancellations on black stamps were the hardest to erase.

6 - What is a Mulready Letter?

Mulready Letter

The complex design of the Mulready Letter didn't go down as well as the simple stamp scheme. Here, unusually, they are seen together. 

The Penny Black was introduced as part of a package of postal reforms including pricing that took place over a period or 2 to 3 years.

The adhesive stamp was an experiment that succeeded.

Alongside it were two that failed.

Mulready Letters were prepaid envelopes with an elaborate design that functioned as protection against forgery and a receipt for postage.

Hill thought they would be the method the public used.

He was wrong. The design was off putting in its complexity and conspiracy theories about the purpose of the envelopes started to spread.

They were abandoned practically after two months and withdrawn after two years.

An embossing tool had also been trialled for the 1840 reforms. This also fell to the all-conquering Penny Black but was reintroduced as a replacement for the Mulready Letters.

Mulready Letters are also prized by philatelists today.

7 - How was a Penny Black used?

The first and most obvious difference between a Penny Black and the stamps we grew up using is that it lacks perforations.

Penny Blacks were cut by hand with scissors on demand at post offices.

It wasn’t until 1857 (initially in the US) that stamp perforation was perfected.

On being affixed to an envelope or postal item the stamp was “cancelled”.

This meant stamping it with hand stamp in the shape of a Maltese cross using red ink.

These processes contribute much to the attraction of Penny Blacks today.

Cutting by hand is variable. Collectors prize regular, large margins on individual stamps.

The cancellations are also variable in visibility, placement, and colour (the ink was mixed to a formula at post offices). The stamping devices were also handmade and can be the focus of a collection too - some can be geographically located, for example, allowing a collector to focus on stamps used in their home city.

8 - What are the Penny Black plates?

Perkins new system of printing with steel plates was much better value for money than the previous copper.

However, they still wore out.

These plates were being put under massive pressure (using steam engines) many, many times over.

Perkins set out with the belief that his machines could make 400,000 impressions from a plate before it started to wear visibly.

This resulted in this production, showing plate numbers, the date they were registered for use and the number of stamps they produced.

 

Plate 1a, 1b was registered on April 15 1840 and printed 10,052,400 stamps
Plate 2; registered April 22, 1840; 7,659,120 stamps.
Plate 3; registered May 9, 1840; 4,786,800 stamps.
Plate 4; registered May 19, 1849; 6,701,760 stamps.
Plate 5; registered June 1, 1840; 8, 616,480 stamps.
Plate 6; registered; June 17, 1840; 9,095,040 stamps.
Plate 7; registered July 8, 1840; 8,137,680 stamps.
Plate 8; registered July 31, 1840; 7,180,320 stamps.
Plate 9; registered November 9, 1840; 3,840,000 stamps.
Plate 10; registered December 9, 1840; 1,920,000 stamps.
Plate 1 was damaged and repaired resulting in what some collectors consider as two distinct plates.

It is possible to track differences in the print result in order to assign most Penny Blacks to a specific plate.

We will discuss rarity and the relatively short-life of the Penny Black elsewhere but you can see that Plate 11 is easily the scarcest and therefore most desirable plate.

9 - How many Penny Blacks are there?

Perkins own history reports that “within a few years, twenty-two thousand million stamps for Great Britain and the Colonies had been printed by the Perkins process.”

That’s a lot of stamps.

Many of them Penny Blacks.

Our plate totals give us a grand total of 64,701,600 stamps. The official total print run is 68,808,000.

Again, a lot.

Penny Blacks are not particularly rare.

It’s not possible to know exactly how many have survived, but experts usually reckon around 5% survive.

That’s maybe as many as 3.5 million. That's a decent high estimate. 

10 - Are Penny Blacks valuable?

Plate 11 Penny Black

This great example from Plate 11 has value for a number of reasons. 

How long is a piece of string?

As we’ve seen there are lots of Penny Blacks.

Rarity is the chief reason why a stamp becomes very valuable.

So most Penny Blacks are not very valuable.

However:

Some are rarer than others - plate 11 stamps for example. Mint Penny Blacks are rare (the experiment was a big success, people bought and used them); stamps used on the first posting day are rare. Experimental and proof printings are valuable.

Condition is very important to value, especially with hand-cut stamps. The way the stamp was cut out and cancelled impacts on its current condition. The gum is almost as important as the face of the stamp, and “mint unused” examples with full gum intact are very sought after.

Penny blacks in groups of blocks or from margins are rarer and more valuable. Sheets? They only exist in museums as far as we know and should never be sold.

11 - Were Penny Blacks really the first stamps?

Penny Blacks were a first.

But, they were part of a package.

And, at exactly the same time as Penny Blacks became available so did 2d Blues.

And so did 1d VRs.

All had first use days of May 6, 1840.

2d blues were for larger letters or parcels

Fewer were needed. Only 6,460,000 were printed So they are far rarer than Penny Blacks.

Apart from the colour they’re exactly the same as Penny Blacks.

1d Black VR Officials are even rare.

These carry a V and an R in the top corners instead of the usual stars.

They were designed to be used for official government business and only a small number were produced before the scheme was scrapped.

12 - How long were Penny Blacks used for?

The Penny Black story feels like one of success after success.

But, in one particular way it’s a failure.

Penny Blacks were withdrawn after only around a year of printing.

And it’s all down to forgery and fraud.

The red cancellations on a black background could be relatively easily removed.

(Whether this was much of a genuine real-world problem was probably exaggerated in the minds of the postal authorities.)

So, the colours were reversed.

A new set of trials was carried out and our went the Penny Black and in came the Penny Red.

21 billion of these were produced from 1841 to 1871 with very little change.

Although it came second, the Penny Red is the real winner of the postal revolution.

13 - What should I do if I find a Penny Black?

Count yourself lucky first of all.

Even if it turns out not to be particularly valuable (and £10 isn’t a bad price for a tiny sheet of paper produced in tens of millions) you own a remarkable historical record.

You should then make sure you’re taking care of it.

Stamps should be handled as little as possible. They shouldn’t be stuck into albums with adhesive hinges, but if yours is seek advice before removing the hinge.

They should be stored in a dark place at the right temperature.

You can see our guide to looking after stamps here.

Its value will depend on some of the factors we’ve discussed here.

Whether it was used.

What condition it is in.

Which plate it is from.

How it was cancelled if it was used.

There’s a lot you can discover on your own with a little help online.

You can also get your stamp properly assessed by experts. You may need to pay for this, so consider whether it’s worth it.

14 - Can I sell my Penny Black?

Penny Blacks will always be in demand.

No good stamp collection should be without one.

It’s very easy to sell anything online now, and eBay, for example, is full of Penny Blacks.

Adding yours isn’t difficult.

If it’s rare or valuable, you should seek out a specialist dealer - like Paul Fraser Collectibles - who can get your stamp to people who will appreciate it. And who may pay higher prices.

Great Britain 1840 1d black (VR official), SGV1var.

The VR lettering makes this a stamp issued for a tiny period of time for government use. That makes it super rare and valuable. 

15 - Is my Penny Black real?

Forgery was always a concern for stamp makers.

And the very first of them set the trend.

It is possible to forge a Penny Black no doubt.

Though in most cases it would hardly be worth it.

It’s only valuable stamps that are worth forging.

If you’re buying a rare or unusual Penny Black you should take the usual precautions.

Buy from reputable sellers.

Look for a certificate of authenticity from a good source.

And ask about provenance, records of sale and so on.

If you have a Penny Black you believe to be rare it’s very important that you protect yourself by keeping any paperwork related to it intact.

16 - What’s the rarest Penny Black?

In the normal run of things a Penny Black from Plate 11 is the rarest.

Mint is almost always rarer than used.

17 - What is the most valuable Penny Black?

You can buy a Penny Black for £10.

That won’t get you a very good example, but if you can pay a few multiples of that figure you’ll get a stamp of good quality.

You may need to go over £1,000 for a mint one.

A Penny Black from plate 1D sold for £348,000 in 2011.

18 - Why should I buy a Penny Black?

A Penny Black belongs to a particular specialist category of stamps: GB Queen Victoria.

But, it’s much more than that.

It’s the first.

It’s the best known.

It’s the stamp.

Most collectors can afford a 1d Black of some variety.

And I think you should get the best one you can afford and add it to your collection.

Just as every record collection should have a copy of Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, every watch collection should have a Rolex Oyster…

19 - how can I collect Penny Blacks?

Every collection should have a Penny Black.

And equally, it’s a grand idea to have a collection that is only Penny Blacks.

Certainly many collectors specialise in this stamp.

Completing a plate is just one option. To do this a collector must try to find one stamp with each unique letter combination for the 240 positions coming from a single plate.

Or to find an example from every plate.

Or to find stamps cancelled very close to the date of issue.

Or in a particular place or set of places.

Penny Black covers are also highly desirable.

As are the many items that help tell the story of the design process that produced this wonderful first.

You could build a collection of world first stamps around a Penny Black. We list some of those dates for you here, here and here.

20 - Can I buy a rare and valuable Penny Black today?

We have an excellent selection of some of the most exciting Penny Blacks anywhere in the world.

Have a look and get in touch if anything takes your eye.

Sign up for our newsletter here and we’ll let you know when we get new items in. You’ll never miss out again.


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