The Post Office and Stamps

Themes to explore:

  • Stamps - their purpose and history.
  • Art and design.
  • Printing and production. 
  • Collecting stamps.

Postage stamps are the little pieces of coloured paper that you stick on your letters to show the Post Office you have paid to have them delivered to their destination. What more is to be said about them? Well, a lot more actually so take a moment to think a bit about stamps!


The first ever postage stamp was the famous Penny Black. It was issued in 1840 and showed the head of the monarch of the time, Queen Victoria. The stamp showed that payment had been made for delivering the letter. Before the Penny Black, most letters were delivered by the postman who asked for payment from the person receiving the letter. Changes in the way the Post Office charged for delivering letters meant that posting letters became much cheaper and it made sense to ask people to buy a stamp, or label as it was called at first, and stick it on their letters. These early stamps had to be cut out from a large sheet of 240 with a scissors and then glued onto the envelope. The man who invented a machine for perforating the sheets of stamps – that is putting in the little holes that allow you to tear off a stamp easily – was a Dublin man called Henry Archer. The Post Office paid him a lot of money at the time for his invention.

When Ireland became independent from Britain in 1922, it began to issue its own Irish stamps. The first Irish stamp issued by the Post Office was twopenny green one showing a map of Ireland. Since then many stamps have been issued by the Post Office. There are ordinary day-to-day ones, called definitives, which stay in use for some years and there are other special ones, commemoratives, which mark people or events of particular significance and which are not on sale for very long. Every year people write in to An Post and suggest subjects that might be suitable for stamp issues. Independent committees made up of experts in various fields decide on the best subjects and designs. When the stamps are issued, they become for a time representatives of Irish culture and may travel thousands of miles throughout the world as paper ambassadors of Ireland – as well, of course, as getting your letter or packet from A to B! 

Designing stamps calls on particular artistic and imaginative skills. Working on such a small object is very different from painting a large picture, for instance, and the artist has to include the name of the country and the value of the stamp, suitable lettering perhaps as well as a design that will be attractive and meaningful. Printing methods, too, have changed greatly over the years and today work is often done by designers on a computer instead and to some extent, clever software has replaced traditional pen an ink drawingand engraving. Stamps are generally printed using technology that is quite different from the large, heavy, metal printing plates and rollers that were used in the past. The An Post Museum has some of these plates on display and there is also an interactive unit which allows you to try designing your own stamp. 


Collecting stamps was once the most popular hobby in the world and everyone from kings and presidents to school boys and girls would have a stamp album into which they would stick their latest stamps. There is a broader range of new and exciting hobbies now but stamp collecting still remains popular and it is still a great way to learn about something of particular interest to you. People can collect a country (Ireland, Sweden or Malta) or a theme maybe (football, music, Antarctic exploration) or else look for stamps and envelopes that have some special historical association (mail carried by airship, letters from wartime or first flight covers). There is really no limit to how a collection can be created. Joining a stamp club and talking to other stamp collectors is a good way to learn more and provides an opportunity for people to swop stamps for ones that are of more immediate interest to your own collection.

There’s lots of information available on the internet too, as well as stamps to buy, but you need to be careful about this and it is always best to deal with reputable stamp dealers who will be happy to share their experience and expert knowledge with new collectors.    


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