Small bits of paper, used to send letters and packages across town or around the world, with some denominated value used to cover the cost of postage.
Before stamps, letters would arrive 'Postage Due'. Imagine paying for all the junk mail in your mailbox!
Postage stamps first appeared in Great Britain in 1840. They were tiny black-and-white stamps bearing a picture of Queen Victoria's head and cost a penny, so popularly became known as 'Penny Blacks'. The USA had its first stamps in 1847, bearing portraits of Benjamin Franklin and George Washington. By about 1860, most countries of the world had begun to issue their own postage stamps.
Early stamps featured fancy scrollwork and engraved portraits of national heroes. Every nation besides Great Britain must print the name of the country on their stamps. Great Britain is exempt because they were the first to issue postage stamps so the standard issue British stamp will feature only a portrait of the current ruling monarch and the price paid to cover postage.
Collecting stamps, or philately, is a popular hobby around the world. Some folks collect stamps from a particular country or region. Others are topical collectors, gathering stamps with pictures of birds, fishes, works of art, et cetera. Many collectors keep their stamps in albums, books specially designed to keep the stamps safe from wear and tear while on display.
As well as hobbyists, there are professional philatelists who will trade rare stamps at prices well in excess of their face value. Stamp rarity can stem from low numbers in circulation, their age or even printing errors where, for example, a portrait is printed upside down or the incorrect colour dye was used on a small percentage of issued stamps.
Anyone who believes philately is strictly for kids should be told that a block of 48 two-penny stamps from 1840 were recently valued at 2.75 million pounds sterling.
Follow this link to discover more about philately
A storm arose in the teacup of philately recently when an official UK postage stamp was issued which featured the likenesses of both Freddie Mercury, the singer, and Roger Taylor, the drummer, from the band Queen. The Royal Mail's rules state that only members of the Royal Family may appear on stamps during their lifetime. Roger, not a royal, is still alive.
Read more about the Freddie Mercury Millennium Stamp controversy at The Official Queen Website.