Notes from the Past

The Great Penny Black Collection

As the internet hoaxes show, once an incorrect statement has appeared in print it is one of the most difficult things in the world to eradicate the resulting misinformation.  The story of the million stamps is one of the early stories that would not die.  Like many such stories, it was likely invented by some reporter with space to fill.  The story was reshaped later by reporters for the same purpose.

The story probably originated in a news item in The Times (London) on October 1, 1842, where it was stated that a young lady of Milford, near Lymington, had been promised a dowry of £3,000 on her marriage, provided she collected used postage stamps of that amount.  The 720,000 stamps required caused her to appeal for public help.  (By the mid-20th century, the object had become to wallpaper a room.)

Five days later, The Times reported a number of offers of help, including one from the Baptist Missionary Home in London.  It was also reported that sums of £2,000 and £4,000 pounds had been associated with similar endeavors by churches in England.

Soon everyone was saving stamps.  Punch soon published a satirical verse:

When was a folly so pestilent hit upon
As folks running mad to collect every spit upon
Post Office stamp, that's been sold and been writ upon?
The number of stamps it was hoped to collect soon rose to the round figure of one million, but the identity of the beneficiary as a result of that collection varied widely.  One was to benefit a church, another to provide for an orphan to be admitted to a hospital, others to prevent an angry father from sending his beautiful daughter to a convent.  It was many years before these 'reports' died a natural death.

Since there was no wholesale market for stamps at the time, many of the stamps collected must have been consigned to the fireplace.  Some however probably survived to satisfy the passion of the Penny Black collectors.

Posted July 5, 2000

Editor's Note:  I have willingly excerpted (almost plagiarized) this from Stamps Day By Day, L. N. and M Williams. Blandford Press Ltd, 1950.

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