The “Father” Of The Postage Stamp

Sir Rowland Hill

Sir Rowland Hill (1795- 1879) may not have “invented” the postage stamp but his British postal reforms of 1839 recognized the growth of literacy created by the Industrial Age.

The “father” of the adhesive postage stamp was a North London schoolmaster by trade and a self-proclaimed efficiency expert. In 1839, he was commissioned by the deficit-ridden British Post Office to help them straighten out the mess. When Hill presented his proposal to Parliament he was met with considerable skepticism. Not only did the reformer advocate a uniform postal rate based on weight, he actually proposed lowering the postal rates to make the post office solvent! It cost as much as a shilling-a sum out of the reach of most working people-to send a letter through the British post.

The revolution in letters sparked by Hill’s reforms meant that even the poor and isolated were now drawn into the world beyond their doors.

Rowland Hill’s great contribution to history was his recognition of a historical phenomenon that no one had quite understood before-namely that the European Industrial Revolution had led to greater literacy. This meant that many more people would make use of an affordable postal system, guaranteeing income for the Post Office even at reduced rates. The income was further guaranteed with another Hill innovation, the pre-payment of mailing costs through the use of mailing labels-or postage stamps.

Compare the impact of email in our own time on business, commerce, and the creation of “on-line communities” and then we have a good analogue for the impact of Rowland Hill’s innovations on his own time. The postage stamp caught on-with Brazil and Switzerland adopting the technology in 1843 and the United States, somewhat belatedly, in 1847. By 1874, the use of postage stamps had become so widespread that a Universal Postal Union was created in Bern, Switzerland to set international standards for the delivery of mail.