A postage stamp is a small adhesive piece of paper of specified value issued by a national Post Office to be affixed to a letter or parcel to indicate the amount of postage paid.
The item is then processed by the postal system, where a postmark or cancellation mark—in modern usage indicating date and point of origin of mailing—is applied to the stamp and its left and right sides to prevent its reuse. The item is then delivered to its addressee.
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.
The first issued postage stamp began with Great Britain‘s Penny Post. On May 6, 1840, the British Penny Black stamp was released. The Penny Black engraved the profile of Queen Victoria’s head, who remained on all British stamps for the next 60 years. In total, 68,158,080 Penny Blacks were printed – with an estimated survival rate of around 2% (though it may be higher) – so it is not a particularly rare stamp. However, mint examples are scarce so these can command values of several thousand pounds.
Other countries soon followed the United Kingdom with their own stamps. The Canton of Zürich in Switzerland issued the Zurich 4 and 6 rappen on 1 March 1843. Although the Penny black could be used to send a letter less than half an ounce anywhere within the United Kingdom, the Swiss did not initially adopt that system, instead continuing to calculate mail rates based on distance to be delivered. Brazil issued the Bull’s Eye stamp on 1 August 1843. Using the same printer used for the Penny black, Brazil opted for an abstract design instead of the portrait of Emperor Pedro II, so his image would not be disfigured by a postmark.
In 1845, some postmasters in the United States issued their own stamps, but it was not until 1847 that the first official United States stamps were issued: 5 and 10 cent issues depicting Benjamin Franklin and George Washington. A few other countries issued stamps in the late 1840s. The famous Mauritius “Post Office” stamps were issued by Mauritius in September 1847. Many others, such as India, started their use in the 1850s, and by the 1860s most countries issued stamps.
The first stamps did not need to show the issuing country, so no country name was included on them. The United Kingdom remains the only country to omit its name on postage stamps, using the reigning monarch’s head as country identification. Following the introduction of the postage stamp in the United Kingdom, prepaid postage considerably increased the number of letters mailed.
The Universal Postal Union, established in 1874, prescribed that nations shall only issue postage stamps according to the quantity of real use, and no living persons shall be taken as subjects. The latter rule lost its significance after World War I.
After World War II, it became customary in some countries, especially small Arab nations, to issue postage stamps en masse as it was realized how profitable that was.
During the 21st century, the amount of mail — and the use of postage stamps, accordingly — has reduced in the world because of electronic mail and other technological innovations. Iceland has already announced that it will not issue new stamps anymore because the sales have decreased and there are enough stamps in the stock.
A digital stamp in crafting, stamping, card making and scrapbooking is a digital image printed onto paper from the user’s printer.
Stamp collecting is a hobby. Collecting is not the same as philately, which is defined as the study of stamps. The creation of a valuable or comprehensive collection, however, may require some philatelic knowledge.
Stamp collectors are an important source of revenue for some small countries that create limited runs of elaborate stamps designed mainly to be bought by stamp collectors.
The most expensive stamp is the British Guiana, which was bought for $9,480,000 (£5,588,577) at Sotheby’s, New York, on 17 June 2014. The auction price is nearly one billion times the original face value of the stamp.
The most expensive digital stamp sold for $579.85 (€500 / £455.19) and was made and sold by Österreichische Post AG (Austria) in Vienna, Austria on 23 July 2020.
The Kanai collection of 183 pages of the classic issues of Mauritius sold for CHF15,000,000 ($9,982,033 / £6,887,052) in a single sale conducted by Geneva-based auctioneer David Feldman in Switzerland on 3 November 1993. The Kanai collection is named after the Japanese engineer industrialist Hiroyuki Kanai, who collected the classic Mauritian philatelic items that were brought to auction as one collection. Of the 183 items in the Kanai collection, just four items account for 75% of the total value of the collection (two were unused ‘Post Office’ stamps).
The rarest stamps include a British Guiana 1 cent black on magenta of 1856 (last on the market in 1980) and the Swedish 3 skilling-banco yellow colour error of 1855.
The most stamps in a series is 1,606, entitled Chrysanthemums of the World, and was achieved by Kaifeng Branch of China Post Group Corporation (China) in Kaifeng, Henan, China, on 18 October 2016.
The largest stamp issue – A total of 751.25 million of the 1929 Postal Union Congress commemorative stamps were sold.
The largest special stamp measures 4.11 m² (44 ft² 34 in²) and was achieved by The Walt Disney Company Italia, in Lucca, Italy, on 30 October 2019. The stamp was created to celebrate the 85th anniversary of Donald Duck’s birth.
The most words on a postage stamp is 1969, and was achieved by the United Nations Postal Administration (USA) in New York, New York, USA, on 20 October 2017.