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The History of Stamps


Did people always use stamps? No.


Before stamps, people who received letters had to pay for their delivery. People wanted to prepay postage to speed up their mail. Stamps were invented to stick on letters to show that postage was paid.


In France, a certain Monsieur de Velayer had the idea of creating a small post office, and in 1653, he offered his customers small pieces of paper with the mention “receipt for the payment of transport.” These were to be put into letterboxes that were emptied at more or less regular hours and then sent to their destinations. In 1814, the Sardinian postal service took up de Velayer’s idea and relaunched the “stamped paper” principle, but again it was used only for a short time. It was not until 1840 that the first postage stamp was born when a Great Britain post office initiated the sale of the first stamps for prepayment of postage.  The first stamp was called the Penny Black stamp with the portrait of Queen Victoria. This stamp let people send a letter to any part of the British Isles. Between May 1840 and January 1841, 72 million Penny Blacks were issued.


The first U.S. stamps were both issued on July 1, 1847. One honored George Washington, the other Benjamin Franklin. Benjamin Franklin was the first Postmaster General. By the end of the 1850’s, 80 countries were issuing stamps. Early collectors gathered in open-air markets in London, Paris, and Luxenbourg to trade and buy stamps from all over the world. In 1893, the first women on a stamp in the U.S. was Queen Isabella of Spain. She made Christopher Columbus' first voyage to America possible. The first stamp honoring an American women was the 8¢ Martha Washington stamp in 1902. The first Hispanic American honored on a U.S. stamp was Admiral David Farragut on a one-dollar stamp in 1903. Native Americans were portrayed in a general way on several earlier stamps, but the first to feature a specific individual was 1907’s 5¢ stamp honoring Pocahontas.


In 1893, the U.S. post office issued its first series of commemorative stamps. Commemorative stamps honor special events,  historic anniversaries, or important people. In 1918, the first U.S. postal airmail stamp was used for a mail flight between New York and Washington, D.C. The first African American on a stamp was Booker T. Washington. This was part of the Famous Americans series in 1940. He was also honored in 1956 with a stamp commemorating the centennial of his birth. The United States Postal Services has commemorated individual achievements of African Americans and their contributions to U.S. history on more than 280 postage stamps. On  February 1, 1978, Harriet Tubman was the first African-American woman to be honored. Her stamp was the first in the Black Heritage Series of commemorative postage stamps.


Penny Black Stamp

Ben Franklin and George Washington

Queen Isabella of Spain                                         

Martha Washington

Admiral David Farragut


Booker T. Washington

Harriet Tubman

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