British Stamps News & Articles

What to Make of those Common Stamps? - A View from 1915

The following text is a chapter taken from a book titled "Peeps at Postage Stamps" written by Mr Stanley Currie Johnson. It deals with "common stamps" like the penny values from the later reign of Queen Victoria and King Edward VII era in Great Britain and compares them to other stamps issued in other European countries. Given the much lower UK population at the time, the statistics given for British mail use in 1913 are very interesting and show just how important the mail was as the mass method of communication for the day.


Probably the twelve commonest stamps which have ever been issued are the following:

1. Great Britain, Queen, 1d. lilac, 1881.

2. Great Britain, King Edward, 1d. scarlet, 1902.

3. Germany, 1880, 10 pfennig (without the final "e") rose.

4. Germany, 1889, 10 pfennig rose.

5. Austria, 5 kr., Francis Joseph, 1857, red.

6. Austria, 5 kr. rose, 1883, double-headed eagle.

7. Austria, 5 kr., Francis Joseph, 1890, red.

8. Belgium, 10 c., Leopold II., 1885, rose.

9. Belgium, 5 c., arms, 1893, green.

10. France, 15 c., Mercury and Commerce, blue, 1877.

11. France, 5 c., Mercury, etc., green, 1877.

12. Hungary, 5 kr., numeral on envelope, rose, 1875.

From the above list it will be seen that all but three of the adhesives are of the penny value, or its foreign equivalent. The presence of the French three-halfpenny (15 c.) stamp is due to the fact that, for many years, this was the rate charged for letters circulating within the Republic.

Of these stamps the Queen's head of Great Britain enjoyed the longest life, whilst the two French specimens took second and third place, they having a prosperous run of sixteen years to their credit.

Whilst speaking of the length of currency enjoyed by stamps, it may be well to say that, of all the adhesive specimens issued throughout the world, the large fivepenny green, New South Wales, remained unchanged for a longer period than any other; whilst the Queen Victoria penny embossed envelope, with a light pink stamp—not, of course, an adhesive—was current still longer, being on sale from 1841 to 1902. Neither of these labels, it should be added, may be reckoned among the commonest varieties.

Of each of the twelve stamps mentioned in the list above prodigious numbers must have been issued. Just how many copies of each were used for franking letters cannot be gauged, but by turning to the postal records published annually by Great Britain some idea may be obtained of their colossal totals. During the year 1913 the General Post Office dealt with—


  • 3,298,300,000 letters.
  • 899,000,000 postcards.
  • 1,079,000,000 halfpenny packets.
  • 202,300,000 newspapers.
  • 130,200,000 parcels.


Of the letters, postcards, and halfpenny packets, it seems fair to assume that three-quarters were franked by halfpenny and penny stamps in the proportion, probably, of two of the former to one of the latter. In other words, roughly 1,500,000,000 penny stamps and 2,500,000,000 halfpenny stamps were used in Great Britain during the year 1913 alone. As the life of our British stamps averages a trifle over ten years, we must multiply the huge figures by ten to obtain a rough estimate of the individual copies which are likely to be printed of these two stamps.

Looked at from the point of view of use, the dozen adhesives mentioned above have undoubtedly scored heavily; but if they be examined from the artistic point of view, little can be said in their favour. The lilac head of Victoria, it is true, is a fine dignified stamp; whilst the two French specimens, depicting Mercury and Commerce, are pleasing. The remainder, however, can claim but little respect, either on the score of design or workmanship. Truly the commonest labels seem to be the least beautiful!

What can we do with our accumulations of valueless stamps? is a question often asked by the young philatelist. A good plan is to collect the various shades of colour and minute variations of design, which are sure to creep into issues that extend over a lengthy period. In this way an interesting assembly of stamps may be secured which might, in time, prove extremely valuable to a collector who specialized. The Georgian stamps of Great Britain, for instance, though they have only been in use a few years, already show numerous variations in design and colour, and thus lend themselves to such work. The halfpenny is known in two or three shades of green; there are at least two different engravings of the penny; the twopenny varies in shade from dark to light orange; whilst the threepenny may be found in dull purple and also vivid purple.

Another good plan is to make what might be called a type collection, with the aid of the accumulations of common stamps. Such a collection should comprise (a) specimens of all known perforations from eight to sixteen; (b) cases of varied perforations—i.e., one gauge for the vertical, another for the horizontal sides; (c) stamps separated by other means than perforations; (d) stamps of every shade of the spectrum, arranged in a line and gradually merging from red through orange, yellow, green, blue, and indigo to violet; (e) labels printed by different processes; (f) labels printed on all the commoner forms of paper; (g) stamps mounted face downwards to reveal the watermarks, etc.

A third form of collection, which helps to use up the valueless stamps, is a historical collection. In such a gathering as we have here in mind, it becomes possible to trace out, by means of postage labels, such interesting matters as the genealogical tables of royal families, the changes which certain Governments have undergone, lists of succession, etc.

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What to Make of those Common Stamps? - A View from 1915

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