Design Through Time

Adhesive Postage Stamp

Original Adhesive Stamp, Dundee City Archives

When posting a letter, we don’t often think about stamps: the familiar little sticker we plonk onto our package before sending it on its way. But did you know that the world-famous adhesive postage stamp was designed in Dundee?

In the early 1800s, letters would take an age to reach their destination. The recipient had to pay the postage fee, with the postal service often losing money if the receiver couldn’t afford—or didn’t want— to pay.

In 1837, James Chalmers, a bookseller, printer, and newspaper publisher from Dundee, wrote to Robert Wallace, MP for Greenock, proposing use of an adhesive stamp to prove postage had been prepaid by the sender. It’s believed Chalmers publicly shared his idea of printing gummed sheets of stamps as early as 1834.

James Chalmers Portrait, public domain

Chalmers was particularly fond of the adhesive design as, unlike ink stamps, an adhesive stamp could seal a letter, removing the extra cost of an envelope. What a thrifty idea!

Officially introduced in 1840, these stamps were a convenient option for both the sender and postal workers, leading to a faster, cost-effective postal system, triggering a huge surge in letter writing. In 1850, approximately 350 million letters were sent across the UK: an increase of over 300%.

Adhesive stamps were quickly adopted as the official prepaid postage mark worldwide. Although each country’s stamps feature unique designs, they all carry the same key elements: a rectangular shape, an indication of its monetary value, and the name of the country where it was issued. The only country exempt from this rule is the UK. We use the reigning monarch’s image, which is why you’re greeted by Queen Elizabeth II when British post drops through your letterbox.

Despite his influential role in the stamp’s creation, Chalmers received little recognition. Instead, Sir Rowland Hill has often been celebrated as the stamp’s designer thanks to his pamphlet Post Office Reform: It’s Importance and Practicability, published in 1837, where he also suggested introducing an adhesive stamp. Consequently, the true identity of the inventor has been hotly debated over the years.

On 3 March 1883, the Town Council of Dundee formally passed the resolution that James Chalmers was the originator of the penny postage scheme. In 1982, Royal Mail also credited Chalmers as the “inventor of the Adhesive Postage Stamp” in a commemorative booklet.

If you look carefully when you visit The Howff, see if you can find both of Chalmers’ headstones: he is the only person to have two stones in the graveyard!

James Chalmers’ graves, Poppy Jarratt

Words and research by Kirsten Murray