Today marks the birthday of the monarch who expanded the British Empire and became the face of the Penny Black, giving birth to a postal Empire.
When Queen Victoria was born on May 24, 1819, there was no such thing as a postage stamp. Middle- and working-class English families dreaded the postman’s knock. Postage, paid by the recipient, sometimes cost more than a day’s wage.
The same year that Queen Victoria took the throne, postal reformer Rowland Hill, inventor of the postage stamp, published Post Office Reform: Its Importance and Practicability (1837), a seminal pamphlet advocating postal reform. One of the first things Victoria did in 1837 was to appoint a Select Committee on Postage, charged to look into the condition of the post with a view towards postal rate reduction. Little did she realize that her silhouette would end up on a postage stamp, humorously dubbed a “Queen’s Head.”
On August 17, 1839, Victoria gave royal assent to the Postage Duties Bill and, in 1840, ushered in Uniform Penny Postage and the enormously popular postage stamp, prepaid by the sender. Beginning January 10, 1840, anyone could post a letter weighing up to ½ ounce anywhere in the UK for only a penny. The postage stamp became commercially available in May 1840. Postal reformer Rowland Hill described his idea for a postage stamp as “a bit of paper just large enough to bear the stamp, and covered at the back with a glutinous wash.” Postage stamps were wildly popular with the Victorians, who stood in lines to buy an innovation equal to today’s iPads and iPhones. The postage stamp and affordable, uniform postage quickly became a model for other nations; the United States, for example, issued its first postage stamps in 1847, featuring George Washington on the ten-cent stamp and Benjamin Franklin on the five-cent stamp.
Hill, influenced by Benjamin Cheverton, chose to put the sovereign’s head on the Penny Black. He commissioned Henry Courbauld, a well-known illustrator and miniaturist, to make a drawing of Queen Victoria’s profile after William Wyon’s 1837 City Medal. Wyon, the premier engraver and medalist of his age, created the City Medal to commemorate Queen Victoria’s first visit to London in 1837. Wyon knew Queen Victoria’s face intimately; he began drawing the princess at age thirteen. The design that graces the Penny Black and remained on the stamp throughout Victoria’s long reign is based on Wyon’s impressions of the young princess from a sitting when she was fifteen years old. Wyon went on to produce other images of Victoria as she grew into womanhood and married glory. The stamp changed color; for example, the Penny Red replaced the Penny Black in 1841. However, the Queen never ages on the British postage stamp. The neoclassical image of a youthful Victoria, which entered nearly every home in her entire kingdom on a daily basis, remained a constant on the postage stamp during Victoria’s entire reign.
While the face of Helen of Troy is said to have launched a thousand ships, the face of Queen Victoria—who was no beauty—in no way resembles that of Emily Blunt, who portrayed her in The Young Victoria. Nonetheless, the “Queen’s Head” launched an ever-widening postal “network”—increasing mail volume especially around Valentine’s Day—and the hobby of stamp collecting, which eventually came to be called philately. According to Rowland Hill, some Victorians proudly put the “Queen's Head” on their letters—but not all. In the words of one Victorian schoolboy, licking a stamp provided the “‘satisfaction of kissing or rather slobbering over Her Majesty's Back.’" An amusing rhyme entitled "Lines on the Post Office Medallion" appearing June 6, 1840 in a weekly scandal sheet called The Town suggests the kiss landed lower on the Queen's "behind:"
You must kiss our fair Queen, or her pictures, that's clear
Or the gummy medallion will never adhere;
You will not kiss her hand, you will readily find
But actually kiss little Vickey's behind.
Stamp collecting quickly surpassed rock and coin collecting in popularity and sparked a Victorian craze called timbromania. One Victorian woman, who collected Queen’s Heads as fervently as Henry VIII decapitated queens, even papered her boudoir with canceled stamps.
The silhouette of young Queen Victoria reigned with calm and grace on British postage stamps for 61 years. Happy Birthday, Queen Victoria. Who would have guessed that “a bit of paper... with a glutinous wash” contained the secret to the Fountain of Youth.
About the Author
Dr. Catherine J. Golden is Professor of English at Skidmore College and author of Posting It: The Victorian Revolution in Letter Writing (2009), now out in paperback. She spoke at the Postal Museum on the 170th anniversary of the Penny Post.