A postage stamp
is an adhesive paper evidence of pre-paying a fee for postal
services. Usually a small paper rectangle or square that is attached to an envelope
, the postage stamp signifies that the person sending the letter or package may have either fully, or perhaps partly, pre-paid for delivery. Postage stamps are the most popular way of paying for retail mail; alternatives include prepaid-postage envelopes
and postage meters
. The study of postage stamps is known as philately
. Stamp collecting
is the extremely popular hobby
of collecting postage stamps.
Although there have been several claimants to priority, it is generally held that postage stamps were first introduced in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland in May 1 1840 as part of the postal reforms promoted by Rowland Hill. With its introduction the postage fee was now to be paid by the sender and not the recipient as heretofore, though sending mail prepaid was not a requirement. The first postage stamp, the Penny Black, while put on sale on the 1st of May, was postally valid from May 6, 1840; two days later the Two pence blue was issued. Both stamps show an engraving of the young Queen Victoria and were an immediate success though refinements like perforations were instituted with later issues. At the time of the Penny Black, there was no reason to include the United Kingdom's name on the stamp, and to this day the UK remains the only country that does not identify itself on its stamps.
Other countries followed suit by introducing their own postage 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 weighing less than half an ounce anywhere within the United Kingdom, the Swiss continued to calculate mail rates based on the distance travelled. Brazil issued the Bull's Eye stamps on 1 August, 1843. Using the same printer as that used for the Penny Black, the Brazilian government opted for an abstract design instead of an image of emperor Pedro II so that his image would be not be disfigured by the postmark. In 1845 some postmasters in the U.S. issued their own stamps, but the first officially issued stamps came in 1847, with the 5 and 10 cent stamps depicting Benjamin Franklin and George Washington. A few other countries issued stamps in the late 1840s. Many more, such as India, started in the 1850s and by the 1860s most countries of the world had issued postage stamps.
Following the introduction of the postage stamp in the United Kingdom the number of letters mailed increased from 82 million in 1839 to 170 million in 1841. Today an average of 21 billion items are delivered by post every year in the UK alone.
Postage stamp design
Stamps have been issued in other shapes besides the usual square or rectangle, including circular, triangular and pentagonal. Sierra Leone
were among the first countries to have issued self-adhesive stamps
in these instances some in the shapes of fruit; Bhutan
has issued a stamp with its national anthem on a playable record, etc. Stamps have also been made of materials other than paper, commonly embossed
foil (sometimes of gold
made a stamp partly out of lace
and one out of wood
; the United States
produced one made of plastic, and the German Democratic Republic
once issued a stamp made entirely of synthetic chemicals
. In the Netherlands a stamp was issued made of silver foil.
Types of stamps
- Airmail – for payment of airmail service. While the word or words "airmail" or equivalent is usually printed on the stamp, Scott (the dominant U.S. cataloguing firm) has recognised as airmail stamps some U.S. stamps issued in denominations good for then-current international airmail rates, and showing the silhouette of an aircraft. The other three major catalogs do not give any special status to airmail stamps.
- ATM, stamps dispensed by automatic teller machines (ATMs) whose sheets are paper currency sized and of similar thickness.
- carrier's stamp
- certified mail stamp
- coil stamps – tear-off stamps issued individually in a vending machine, or purchased in a roll that often comprise 100 stamps
- commemorative stamp – a limited run of stamp designed to commemorate a particular event
- computer vended postage – advanced secure postage that uses Information-Based Indicia (IBI) technology. IBI uses a 2-dimensional bar code (either Datamatrix or PDF417) to encode the Originating Address, Date of Mailing, Postage Amount, and a Digital signature to verify the stamp's authenticity.
- customised stamp – a stamp the picture or image in which can in some way be chosen by the purchaser, either by sending in a photograph or by use of the computer. Some of these are not truly stamps but are technically meter labels.
- definitive – stamps issued mainly for the everyday payment of postage. They often have less appealing designs than commemoratives. The same design may be used for many years. Definitive stamps are often the same basic size. The use of the same design over an extended period of time often leads to many unintended varieties. This makes them far more interesting to philatelists than commemoratives.
- express mail stamp / special delivery stamp
- late fee stamp – issued to show payment of a fee to allow inclusion of a letter or package in the outgoing dispatch although it has been turned in after the cut-off time
- local post stamps – used on mail in a local post; a postal service that operates only within a limited geographical area, typically a city or a single transportation route. Some local posts have been operated by governments, while others, known as private local posts, have been for-profit companies.
- military stamp – stamps issued specifically for the use of members of a country's armed forces, usually using a special postal system
- official mail stamp – issued for use solely by the government or a government agency or bureau
- occupation stamp – a stamp issued for use by either an occupying army or by the occupying army or authorities for use by the civilian population
- non-denominated postage – postage intended to meet a certain postage rate that retains full validity for that intended postage rate even after the rate is increased. Also known as a "Permanent stamp" or "Forever stamp".
- perforated stamps – while this term can be used to refer to the perforations around the edge of a stamp (used to divide the sheet into individual stamps) it is also a technical term for stamps that have additionally been perforated across the middle with letters or a distinctive pattern or monogram known as perfins. These modified stamps are usually purchased by large corporations to guard against theft by their employees.
- personalised – allow user to add his own personalised picture or photograph
- postage due – a stamp applied showing that the full amount of required postage has not been paid, and indicating the amount of shortage and penalties the recipient will have to pay. (Collectors and philatelists debate whether these should be called stamps, some saying that as they do not pre-pay postage they should be called "labels".) The United States Post Office Department issued "parcel post postage due" stamps.
- postal tax – a stamp indicating that a tax (above the regular postage rate) required for sending letters has been paid. This stamp is often mandatory on all mail issued on a particular day or for a few days only.
- self-adhesive stamp – stamps not requiring licking or moisture to be applied to the back to stick. Self-sticking.
- semi-postal / charity stamp – a stamp issued with an additional charge above the amount needed to pay postage, where the extra charge is used for charitable purposes such as the Red Cross. The usage of semi-postal stamps is entirely at the option of the purchaser. Countries (such as Belgium and Switzerland) that make extensive use of this form of charitable fund-raising design such stamps in a way that makes them more desirable for collectors.
- test stamp – a label not valid for postage, used by postal authorities on sample mail to test various sorting and cancelling machines or machines that can detect the absence or presence of a stamp on an envelope. May also be known as "dummy" or "training" stamps.
- war tax stamp – A variation on the postal tax stamp intended to defray the costs of war.
- water-activated stamp – for many years "water-activated" stamps were the only kind so this term only entered into use with the advent of self-adhesive stamps. The adhesive or gum on the back of the stamp must be moistened (usually it is done by licking, thus the stamps are also known as "lick and stick") to affix it to the envelope or package.
Since their inception there have been numerous innovative developments in how stamps are dispensed and sold. Usually, they can be purchased over the counter or from vending machines at post-offices or selected retail outlets, as "books" or loose stamps. They are traditionally made as a perforated sheet which is gummed on the reverse, so that the purchaser may tear off each stamp, moisten it (frequently by licking), and apply it to the envelope, but self-adhesive stamps are now commonplace.
In the United States, the introduction of Information Based Indicia
(IBI) technology has allowed newer ways to sell stamps. IBI is an encrypted 2-dimensional bar code that makes counterfeiting more difficult and easier to detect, offering value beyond postage. Unlike traditional postage meter indicia, each IBI is unique. The IBI contains security critical data elements as well as other information, such as point of origin and the sender. The IBI is human and machine-readable.
Prior to IBI being introduced, postage vault devices were used on personal computers to allow postage stamps to be printed from one's computer. The postage vault device is a tamper resistant postal security device to disable postage equipment when tampered with. The postage vault can be also identified as the means to store (and keep track of) monetary funds in the postage vault. You can think of this as prepaying for the right to print postage from your personal computer. The Internet is used to reset or replenish funds in the postage vault.
In March 2001, the United States Postal Service authorized Neopost Online and Northrop Grumman Corporation to test an innovative purchasing stamp system. This self-service stamp vending system allows the consumer to peruse through a variety of denominations and quantities, select the desired purchase and swipe his/her credit card to submit a purchase order. The stamp vending system then authorizes the purchase order, prints the stamp sheet(s) and finally dispenses them to the consumer. The ability to peruse, request, authorize, print, and dispense a stamp purchase using the Internet makes these the world's first browser-based stamps. This is the first instance where IBI was utilized on adhesive labels. The product from this self-service stamp vending system is aptly named by collectors as Neopost web-enabled stamps. These stamps were available from March 2001 through August 2003 and were denominated (fixed value) stamps.
In 2002 the United States Postal Service authorized Stamps.com to issue NetStamps. The NetStamps utilizes IBI technology and can be printed from personal computers with postal vaults. In 2004 the United States Postal Service introduced the Automated Postal Centers (APC). These kiosks provided non-denominated ($0.01 to $99.99) stamps. The intent of the APC is to reduce labor required to service consumers at the postal counters. Recently, personal pictures have been paired with IBI technology to provide a personalized stamp for the consumer. These stamps are custom made and require a period of time (days) to produce.
The push towards using IBI technology aids the United States Postal Service in finding new venues to sell stamps. It also reduces the burden of maintaining the mechanical machines to sell stamps. The United States Postal Service still relies on consigning stamps to retailers and banks (via automatic teller machines (ATMs). They must be the same size and thickness as currency in order to be dispensed by the ATM.
Similarly, Royal Mail in the United Kingdom has recently launched a "Print-your-own-postage" service allowing the general public to purchase IBI-style codes online, and print them onto address stickers or directly onto envelopes, in lieu of using First Class postage stamps. This was much remarked-upon in the press as the first time a consumer "stamp" has not featured an image of the reigning monarch. It joins the existing " SmartStamp" subscription service, which performs the same function but is primarily aimed at business customers.
First day covers
On the first day of issue a set of stamps can be purchased attached to an envelope that has been postmarked with a special commemorative postmark. Known as a "First Day Cover", it can also be assembled from the component parts by stamp collectors, who are the most frequent users. These envelopes usually bear a commemorative cachet of the subject for which the stamp was created.
Souvenir or miniature sheets
Postage stamps are sometimes issued in souvenir sheets
or miniature sheet
containing just one or a small number of stamps. Souvenir sheets typically include additional artwork or information printed on the selvage (border surrounding the stamps). Sometimes the stamps make up part of a greater picture. Some countries, and some issues, are produced as individual stamps as well as in the sheet format.
See also Philately
Stamp collecting is a popular hobby, and stamps are often produced as collectibles. Some countries are known for producing stamps intended for collectors rather than postal use. This practice produces a significant portion of the countries' government revenues. This has been condoned by the collecting community for places such as Liechtenstein and Pitcairn Islands that have followed relatively conservative stamp issuing policies. Abuses of this policy, however, are generally condemned. Among the most notable abusers have been Nicholas F. Seebeck and the component states of the United Arab Emirates. Seebeck operated in the 1890s as an agent of Hamilton Bank Note Company when he approached several Latin American countries with an offer to produce their entire postage stamp needs for free. In return he would have the exclusive rights to market the remainders of the stamps to collectors. Each year a new issue of stamps was produced whose postal validity would expire at the end of the year; this assured Seebeck of a continuing supply of remainders. In the 1960s certain stamp printers such as the Barody Stamp Company arranged contracts to produce quantities of stamps for the separate Emirates and other countries. These abuses combined with the sparse population of the desert states earned them the reputation of being known as the "sand dune" countries.
The combination of hundreds of countries, each producing scores of different stamps each year has resulted in a total of some 400,000 different types in existence as of 2000. In recent years, the annual world output has averaged about 10,000 types each year.