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Origins Of Postage Stamps

THOUGH POSTAGE STAMPS AS such are slightly over a century old, private and official correspondence in one form or another has been relayed by various means over the centuries.

In New York, across the facade of the General Post Office at 33rd Steet, the words of Herodotus remind the present generation of the post system of the Persians twenty-five centuries ago: "Neither snow-nor rain-nor heat-nor gloom of night-stays these couriers from the completion of their appointed rounds."

Cyrus had established a relay system of mounted and unmounted couriers that stretched to every part of his domain, and had entrusted its operation to his grandson, Darius. As Superintendent of the Angari, Darius was probably the world's first Postmaster General, and caused to have constructed about 1,500 miles of road winding in and out of the provinces.

These posts, as in later years, were not open to the use of ordinary persons, and seem to have lapsed with the decline of the Persian empire.

The next post system of any import seems to have been that set up by Emperor Augustus in Rome, and known as the "Cursus Publicus." This was not public, either, as the name might imply, but did provide for "positas" or junction places, from which ultimately came the word "posts."

Then, in the thirteenth century we hear of the postal system set up by Marco Polo, whose foot runners traveled day and night, with bells about their necks to announce their arrival in advance.

There was also a courier system set up by the great universities in Europe for students wishing to send messages home, and another in the Hanse towns of Germany and used by businessmen.

Still, none of these posts were available to the average citizen, and, in fact, most of the people at the time were unable to write and therefore really didn't miss the opportunity. It remained for Francis von Taxis, when he failed to receive his royal subsidy, to throw open his private postal system in 1505. This successful move encouraged others to do so throughout most of continental Europe, and for close to two and a half centuries the House of Thurn and Taxis operated public postal systems there.

Services, official and semi-official, opened up in most parts of the world, and with such facilities came the need for lower postage rates, and a sure means of collecting postage for the carrying of mails.

This need apparently became acute in the early 1800s, and in the years between 1837 and 1840 Sir Rowland Hill and others began their development of postage stamps as they exist today.

Prior to 1840 the carriage of letters for private persons and firms was an expensive matter-rates having been based upon distance and weight-and most mail took the form of folded sheets of letter-paper with a wax seal on the back.

Agitation for Universal Penny Postage was successful in 1840, and, within six days after the act providing for a reduced and uniform rate of postage in Great Britain was set up, an advertisement seeking a "stamp" design appeared in the London Times.

Designs submitted were not considered satisfactory, and Sir Rowland Hill appointed to the Treasury to assist in preparations to put penny postage into effect-went to a firm named Perkins, Bacon and Petch. This firm prepared an engraved die of a head of Queen Victoria, facing left, as taken from the "Guildhall" medal by William Wyon.The drawing for the head was done by Henry Corbould and the engraving of the stamp die was the work of either Charles Heath or his son, Frederick.

The first die proving unsatisfactory, a second one was made, and the various processes leading up to the accepted stamp design went on apace. Black was selected as the color for the Id (one penny) value, accounting for its familiar name of "Penny Black," and blue was selected for the companion 2d denomination.

In order to designate the position of the stamp on the large sheet of 240 stamps, as compared to our present sheets of 100, or 70, or even 50, it was decided to use key letters in the lower corners. Since there were 20 rows of twelve stamps, the first row had A in the lower left corner of each stamp, and A, B, C, D, etc. in the lower right corner of the first, second, third and fourth stamps, etc. The second horizontal row all had B in the lower left, and started through the alphabet from A to L in the lower right, and so on down the sheet. Thus a "Penny Black" with E in the lower left, and G in the lower right, would be the seventh stamp in on the fifth row.

The first two plates were registered at Somerset House on April 27, 1840, and by May ist postmasters throughout England had been supplied and were making sales to the public, even though official use was not to start until May 6. Some few copies on covers, or letter-sheets, are known dated earlier than May 6.

The one great problem facing postal clerks was that the stamps did not have perforations, or a means of separating them cleanly and easily. Scissors, knives and any form of straight edged tool were used, many times with unfortunate effect, and it was not long before a perforating device, proposed by Henry Archer, was adopted.

In a sense this "Penny Black" affected all future British stamp issues. Being the world's first postage stamp, and a British invention, it did not occur to the authorities to put the name of the country on it. To this day British stamps do not have the name of the country of originalthough naturally the British Colonial issues do.

Some philatelists feel that there was a Greek adhesive issued in the year "1831" and printed in a sheet form for either postage due or carrier purposes. In 1933 a Mr. P. L. Pemberton, in England, reported the discovery of a block of eight such stamps in complete form, with one partially complete, and established that they had predated the "Penny Black" by nine years. Proof of this was the inscription on the back of the stamps, which bore the month of May, 1831, preceded by a 2 which might have been 2, 12 or 22, and signed by G. Glarakis, then Governor of the Island of Poros. However, until more facts are available, the question of whether this really was the first stamp cannot be definitely answered.

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