Postage can reveal more than the history of a letter, it can reveal the history of a nation.
“Philately” is the proper term coined in 1865 by Georges Herpin for the studying of stamps and stamp collecting. He, who very well may have been the first stamp collector, from the Ancient Greek φιλο (philo), meaning “love of” and ἀτέλεια (atelīa), meaning “without tax.” Of course, because the ancient Greeks didn’t have postage stamps, there was no proper Greek word for the idea.
Before adhesive paper stamps came along, letters were hand-stamped or postmarked with ink. Postmarks were invented by Henry Bishop and were at first called “Bishop mark.” Bishop marks were first used in 1661 at the London General Post Office. They marked the day and month the letter was mailed.
James Chalmers was born in Arbroath, Scotland in 1782 and later worked as a bookseller and printer in Dundee. It is claimed Mr Chalmers thought of the idea of an adhesive stamp in about 1834 and passed his plans to parliament in 1839.
But it was only with the publication of a pamphlet Post Office Reform: its Importance and Practicability by Rowland Hill in 1837. In it he proposed a single rate of postage, tied to the use of adhesive stamps. The result was the penny post, introduced in 1840 alongside the world’s first adhesive postage stamp, the Penny Black, the credit went to Kidderminster man Rowland Hill.
Sir Rowland Hill himself designed the first stamp which cost one penny and bore the profile of Queen Victoria. Because the stamp was printed in black, the 1-cent stamp soon became known as the “Penny Black” — the world’s most popular stamp. These first stamps were imperforate, meaning that people had to cut apart the sheets of stamps. The first perforated stamps did not appear until 1854 (1857 in the United States, 1854 in Great Britain).
Rowland Hill went on to achieve great acclaim, considerable wealth and a knighthood. “It’s always the winners that write history.”
Robert Murray, who owns a stamp shop in Edinburgh, said: “Rowland Hill wasn’t very keen on the idea of adhesive postage stamps; James Chalmers was one person who strongly put forward the idea.
“It seems Rowland Hill only wanted to take the claim for it once they had become popular with the public.
Sir Rowland has since been honored over and over again by postal services throughout the world, in particular on the centenary of his death (1979), the bicentenary of his birth (1995) and the 150th anniversary of the invention of the postage stamp (1990). Among the most beautiful commemorative issues printed on those various occasions are a truly magnificent one from Portugal and others from Chile, Ghana and the United Kingdom.
James’ son, Patrick Chalmers, worked tirelessly throughout his life to have his father’s role in the invention of the adhesive postage stamp recognised. The substance of his campaign is told in the inscription on the gravestone he erected over his father’s grave in 1888: “Originator of the adhesive postal stamp, which saved the penny postage scheme of 1840 from collapse, rendering it an unqualified success, and which has been adopted throughout the postal systems of the world.”
As of 2013 the value of one penny in 1840 ranges from 32p (GBP) to 4.89 (GBP); the latter based on mean income. It would appear that the cost to an established semi-skilled man of sending a letter in 1840 can be represented by approximately 1.00 (GBP) in 2013 values (http://www.measuringworth.com/)
Postage stamps quickly spread from England to the rest of the world. In 1843, they were adopted in Brazil and in the Swiss cantons of Zurich and Geneva, and in 1845 the canton of Basel issued its famous Basel Dove – the first stamp to be printed in three colors. France, Belgium and Bavaria started putting out stamps in 1849, and other countries soon followed suit.
The first stamps were imperforate: perforated stamps, which are easier to detach, were only invented in 1851. The originator of this idea was Henry Ascher – an Englishman as well.
• Patrick Chalmers, Robert Wallace MP and James Chalmers, the Scottish Postal Reformers, published by Effingham Wilson & Co, 1890
• Leah Chalmers, How the adhesive postage stamp was born, London, P S King & Son Ltd, 1939, 33pp
• William J Smith & J E Metcalfe, James Chalmers Inventor of the adhesive postage stamp, David Winter & Son Ltd, 1971, 148pp