First issued in 1840, the “Penny Black” was the first adhesive postage stamp ever made.
The product of an industrial technology new to the 19th century, the stamp nevertheless conveys the sense of tradition, probity, and decorum we often associate with the Victorian Age.
The stamp’s status as a masterpiece of the engraver’s art lies in its simplicity and elegance. The profile of the young queen Victoria wearing a crown, designed by printer Charles Heath and inspired by a medal struck in her honor following the queen’s first visit to London in 1837, is framed by the words “POSTAGE” and “ONE PENNY” top and bottom, and vertical columns of woven lines. This pattern, and that of the background behind the profile, was adapted from an 1822 machine-made design submitted to the printing firm Perkins Bacon as a trial for a currency design.
The queen’s profile is reminiscent of the cameos of rulers found on coins and, indeed, that was the designer’s intention since the new postage stamp was a type of legal tender. It also was designed to strike the right note of classical authority and confidence.
To complicate the work of counterfeiters, the “Penny Red” succeeded the “Penny Black” in 1841. This copy is cancelled with an “oval obliterator” containing a number. Beginning in 1842, British post offices were issued numerical hand-stamps to identify the point of origin into the mail stream
This introduction of the 1840 Penny Black set a style which was imitated by virtually all of Britain’s colonies and continues to this day in the austere beauty of the “Machin heads”, as the Queen Elizabeth II definitives are known.