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History of stamp collecting

Rob Smit as a boy on a stamp show

first postage stamp in the worldIn the late 1970s a fascinating series of articles written by Mr. K. Kouwenberg about the history of Stamp Collecting, appeared in the Dutch magazine Philatelie. This series has been the source of inspiration for PostBeeld owner Rob Smit to rewrite the history of stamp collecting in instalments. This is Part 1: Introduction and The First Stamp.


In 1978, when I was sixteen, the monthly magazine Philatelie began a series of articles on the history of stamp collecting. I was at that time very much involved with stamps. I collected them, as did many others, from an early age. But soon my collecting led me in another direction. My parents regularly visited stamp exhibitions because my father collected old postcards of Haarlem and also dealt a little in postcards and plaatjesalbums (albums for cigarette cards and cards given away with coffee and tea packs). Of course I went along with them and soon began exchanging stamps, especially concentrating on stamps I really liked. I quite quickly became accepted as a bit of a dealer.

Rob Smit as a boy on a stamp show
Rob aged 12 – already attracting customers at an exhibition

Unlike many collectors and semi-traders in Holland at that time, I not only focused on Dutch stamps, but also stamps from other countries. Sifting through catalogues (then mainly Yvert) took a lot of time, which was not always a good thing for my school grades, but my general knowledge and language skills developed enormously. In addition, I was always interested in history. When I was in primary school and people asked me what I wanted to be, invariably the answer was: “archaeologist”. Besides stamp catalogues I read mostly books on history and geography.

This background also was undoubtedly the reason the series of articles in the Philatelie magazine so greatly interested me. And those articles were probably responsible for me not becoming an archaeologist, but a stamp dealer. They certainly influenced me to start collecting old philatelic publications instead of stamps (although my trading stock actually to this day is a very large collection of stamps).

I was especially attracted by the stories of the philatelic pioneers in the fifty years after the first stamp appeared. How the first catalogue or the first album came about, how people collected, when and how they exchanged information and how they found their stamps? And of course, from my perspective; how did the first traders and publishers fare?

This is the first article of a series in which I hope to address all of these subjects and more and focuses on the philatelic pioneers of the 19th Century. In the coming months Freestampmagazine will follow up with articles on collectors and how the first catalogue was created.

Like Mr Kouwenberg’s articles, this series is not intended to be a scientifically sound history of stamp collecting. It is a reflection of what has previously been written, information found on the internet, and findings from my own large collection of books on the subject.

The First Postage Stamp

The Penny Black

A stamp is actually a receipt of a payment for a service, namely the delivery of the mail. If you take this into consideration, the first stamp appeared in 1653 in Paris. A certain Monsieur de Villayer founded a postal service whereby the sender paid the postage in advance and a receipt was attached to the letter. As soon as the item of mail was delivered, the receipt was removed and destroyed. Presumably to prevent further misuse. No known copies of these receipts exist.

It is well known that the above-depicted Penny Black was the first stamp. Englishman Rowland Hill invented this gummed receipt that could be bought in advance, stuck on a piece of mail, and was rendered unfit for further use by overstamping with ink. Yet there were also a number of others who had already more or less come up with the same idea.

In 1823 the Swede, Treffen von Berg, envisaged a shipping method with special envelopes and difficult-to-copy stamps. The Swedish Post thought his idea absurd and it was never implemented. In 1836 the Austrian Laurenz Kosir came up with the idea to arrange prepayment of mail by purchasing a loose stamp. His idea was also not taken up.

proof-printed stamps

In Scotland, James Chalmers made proof-printed stamps (see above). His son later claimed that Rowland Hill stole the idea for a gummed stamp from Chalmers.

(Keep an eye on the website in future weeks for the next instalment)


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