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"The little-known stories behind well-known inventions"

What's so interesting about a postage stamp?          By Paul Niemann

"Of all the wild schemes I have ever heard of, this is the most extraordinary!" -- British postmaster general in 1840, reacting to the idea of using postage stamps for mail delivery

[NOV. 16, 2006]  When I was in college, I took some time off and backpacked throughout Europe. For one month I was a typical college bum, and it was fun. When I went, I decided to bring back a souvenir from each country that I visited -- something that was small enough to carry in my backpack and could be found in every country. Quick -- what does each country have that would make a good souvenir and is small enough to fit into a backpack?

Stamps! I decided that stamps would be the perfect souvenir.

So I chose coins instead. Since every country requires you to use their currency when you pass through their borders, I knew it would be easier to collect coins than stamps. Stamps, though, have a history all their own; they tell a story, just like a country music song does.

The very first postal services were set up by kings and governments exclusively for their own use. Later, when ordinary citizens wanted to send mail as well, a system was established that required the person who received the letter to pay for it at the time of delivery. They were charged according to how much the letter weighed as well as the distance that it went. In fact, Ben Franklin invented the odometer to measure the distance that the letter carriers traveled.

Things began to change in 1838 when James Raymond, the postmaster general of New South Wales, Australia, introduced the world's first prepaid postage system by stamping letters. It was set up the same way in which a bank teller stamps your checks.

Two years later, an Englishman named Sir Rowland Hill came up with the idea of using postage stamps. Hill suggested lowering the cost of postage to a penny and, since the stamp was black, it was called the Penny Black. The Penny Black contained an image of Britain's Queen Victoria and was first issued in England in May of 1840. The British postmaster general thought that the postage stamp was a crazy idea at the time. Hill's next great idea was the mailbox, now that postage was being prepaid by the sender. (That Hill thinks of everything, doesn't he?)

Stamps made their way to America in 1847, and Ben Franklin was the first person to appear on a U.S. stamp; he was also our first postmaster general. The 5-cent Franklin stamp was soon followed by the 10-cent George Washington stamp.

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In 1860 the Pony Express opened with a recruitment ad that read: "WANTED: Young skinny wiry fellows not over 18. Must be willing to risk death daily. Orphans preferred. Wages $25 a week."

The Pony Express riders could travel the 2,000 miles from St. Joseph, Mo., to the West Coast in only 10 days, which was half the time that it took to travel the distance by train. One of the riders was 14-year-old William Cody -- as in Buffalo Bill Cody -- who once outran a party of 15 Indians who were trying to rob him. Cody and his fellow riders delivered news of the outbreak of the Civil War the following year. After just 19 months, the Pony Express was replaced by the telegraph.

In case you've always wondered, but were afraid to ask...

  • Even though the English invented the postage stamp, they remain the only country in the world that does not put their country's name on their stamps.

  • The 1-penny stamp from New South Wales, Australia, which showed the seal of the colony, is worth around $5,000 in mint condition today.

  • The first person other than royalty to appear on a British stamp was William Shakespeare in 1964.

  • The best-selling U.S. commemorative stamp of all time is the 1993 Elvis Presley stamp, of which 124 million have been sold.

  • In 1973 the country of Bhutan issued a stamp that looked like a record and would actually play the Bhutanese national anthem.

  • Cats were used for mail service in Belgium in 1879, but this experiment failed because the cats weren't disciplined enough to deliver the mail!

And that's a good one with which to end this story.

[Paul Niemann]

Paul Niemann may be reached at

Copyright Paul Niemann 2006

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