New Transportation Makes Sending Mail Easier:
Written correspondence has been around since ancient times. Until the 19th century the methods of delivery were always the same: foot, horse and sail. But the advent of new forms of transportation, such as the steamship and rail, made it easier to correspond over longer distances. And as education became more widely available, more people from all levels of society began to write each other more frequently.
Mail Before Stamps:
Before 1839, most mail was paid for by a combination of a per-sheet (just letters and paper, no packages yet) and distance traveled charge. There was no common system of rates and practices, and only the most basic of delivery schedules. The recipient paid for all mail, which could sometimes be inconvenient. The move to the modern, uniform shipping model for postage was due to the efforts of British postal reformer and educator, Rowland Hill.
Rowland Hill’s Stamp System:
Hill's system centered on devising a set of universal (Britain-wide) and uniform pricing for postage. Additionally, he proposed a paper covering for the pieces of sent mail, which would go on to become envelopes. And instead making the recipient pay for postage when the item arrived, the sender would prepay with adhesive paper slips, also known as postage stamps.
The First Stamp:
The Penny Black was the first official adhesive stamp. Though a design contest held in 1839 received numerous entries, the government felt that nothing submitted was good enough for this new project. With deadlines approaching, authorities decided to depict Queen Victoria on the stamp, beginning two long-standing British Postal Traditions: the depiction of the current reigning monarch on the stamp, and the lack of the issuing country name on the stamp. The postal service decided to use an image of Queen Victoria taken from a previously-issued medallion, with William Mulready doing the artistic work.
On May 1, 1840, the British postal service sold the first Penny Blacks, and continued to issue the stamps until 1841. The stamp cost 1 pence and was darkly colored, hence the name Penny Black.
The Legacy of the Penny Black:
From this one small stamp developed a new system of processing and delivering mail, soon to include parcels, special delivery, air mail, bulk mail and various other options. By making the price of sending letters uniform and predictable, it became possible to expand written communication to eventually include catalogs and other mail-order shopping options, revolutionizing commerce. The combination of uniform prices, new transportation methods, and more efficient postal systems meant that costs were low enough that almost everyone could afford to write a letter.