The Penny Black was the world's first adhesive postage stamp used in a public postal system. It was issued by the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland on 1 May 1840, for official use from 6 May of that year.
All London post offices received official issues of the new stamps but other offices throughout the United Kingdom did not, continuing to accept postage payments in cash only for a period. Post offices such as those in Bath, began offering the stamp unofficially after 2 May.
The idea of an adhesive stamp to indicate pre-payment of postage was part of Sir Rowland Hill's 1837 proposals to reform the British postal system; it was normal then for the recipient to pay postage on delivery. A companion idea, which Hill disclosed on 13 February 1837 at a government enquiry, was that of a separate sheet that folded to form an enclosure or envelope for carrying letters. At that time postage was charged by the sheet and on the distance travelled.
Hill was given a two-year contract to run the new system, and together with Henry Cole he ran a competition to identify the best way to pre-pay letters. None of the 2,600 entries were good enough, so Hill launched the service in 1840 with an envelope bearing a reproduction of a design created by the artist William Mulready and a stamp bearing a representation of the profile of the reigning British monarch, Queen Victoria. There are also references on the record to covers bearing the Mulready design. All British stamps still bear a picture or silhouette of the monarch somewhere on the design, and are the only postage stamps in the world that do not name their country of origin, leaving the monarch's image to symbolise the United Kingdom.
In 1839, the British Treasury announced a competition to design the new stamps, but none of the submissions was considered suitable. The Treasury chose a rough design endorsed by Rowland Hill, featuring an easily recognisable profile of 15-year-old former Princess Victoria. Hill believed this would be difficult to forge. The head was engraved by Charles and Fredrick Heath based on a sketch provided by Henry Corbould. Corbould's sketch was based on the cameo-like head by William Wyon, which had been designed for a medal used to commemorate the visit of Queen Victoria to the City of London in 1837. The word "POSTAGE" appeared at the top of the stamp (revenue stamps had long been used in the UK) and "ONE PENNY." at the bottom, indicating the amount that had been pre-paid for the transmission of the letter to which it was affixed. The background consisted of finely engraved engine turnings. The two upper corners contained star-like designs and the lower corners contained letters designating the position of the stamp in the printed sheet; "A A" for the stamp at the top left, and "T L" for the bottom right. The sheets, printed by Perkins Bacon, consisted of 240 stamps in 20 rows and 12 columns. As the name suggests, the stamp was printed in black ink.
Although 6 May was the official date that the labels became available, there are covers postmarked 2 May, due to postmasters selling the stamps from 1 May. A single example is known on cover dated 1 May 1840.
The Penny Black was in use for only a little over a year. It was found that a red cancellation was hard to see on a black background and the red ink was easy to remove, making it possible to re-use stamps after they had been cancelled. In 1841, the Treasury switched to the Penny Red and issued cancellation devices with black ink, much more effective as a cancellation and harder to remove. However, the re-use of stamps with the un-cancelled portions of two stamps to form an unused whole impression continued, and in 1864 the stars in the top corners were replaced by the check letters as they appeared in the lower corners, but in reverse order.
When sheets of the Penny Black were first printed various postal and other officials took the liberty of removing various numbers of stamps from their sheets to present as gifts to dignitaries and other important people. These sheet portions are commonly referred to by collectors as "imprimaturs" or "imprimatur sheets". There are approximately 850 of these sheet portions in the British Postal Museum which also include overprints for British Bechuanaland, Oil Rivers, Levant and Zululand and also departmental overprints such as Army and Inland Revenue.
The Penny Black was printed from 11 plates, but as plate 1 was completely overhauled due to excessive wear, it is generally considered to be two separate plates, 1a and 1b. Plate 11 was originally intended solely for the printing of new red stamps, but a small number were printed in black. These are scarce.
The stamps were printed in unperforated sheets, to be cut with scissors for sale and use.
The Penny Black is not a rare stamp. The total print run was 286,700 sheets with 68,808,000 stamps and a substantial number of these have survived, largely because envelopes were not normally used: letters in the form of letter sheets were folded and sealed, with the stamp and the address on the obverse. If the letter was kept, the stamp survived. However, the only known complete sheets of the Penny Black are owned by the British Postal Museum.
The Penny Black is readily available on the collectors' market; a used stamp in poor condition can cost as little as £100 ($200); in 2011, a used stamp in fine condition cost about £1100, an unused example about £1,800, with prices steadily rising. By contrast, a used Penny Red was £0.50.
In addition to the general issue of the Penny Black, a similar stamp was produced with the letters V and R in the top corners replacing the stars, intended for official mail. Following the general public's acceptance of the postage stamps and the ridicule of the Mulready stationery produced at the same time, vast supplies of the letter sheets were given to government departments, such as the tax office, for official use and the idea of introducing an official stamp was abandoned. Only a few postally used examples exist, which probably originated from the Post Office circulars sent out as advance notice that the new stamps would be brought into use. Four are known on covers; all were cut from their envelopes and then replaced. Most of the cancelled examples are from trials which were made of cancellation types, inks, and experiments with their removal. These trials led to the change from black to red stamps, and vice versa for the cancellations.
The VR official is stated to have been made from the original master die. However, this cannot be the case as this die still exists with the original stars intact, in The British Postal Museum & Archive in London. It is believed that the master for this stamp was produced from the transfer roller used for the production of plate 1 with the stars removed from the top corners, as some impressions show traces of these original stars.