Almost the world’s most important stamp?

The New Zealand “Penny Universal”

There are certain pages in the Stanley Gibbons Commonwealth Stamp Catalogue that at first glance appear somewhat impenetrable. The New Zealand issues around the turn of the 19th Century do not invite casual browsing, after all philately is a visual hobby and here we have 3 or 4 pages with complex- looking listings and not many pictures!

Take another look and you will see a “One Penny” carmine stamp issued on the 1st January 1901. This is the famous “Penny Universal” stamp launched at the time with an almost unprecedented fanfare! This was an attempt to create a truly universal postage rate, not just within New Zealand but across the globe!

As plans for this ground breaking stamp were circulated internationally only the Australian states amongst the British Empire refused to deliver mail bearing just this 1d stamp. The rest of the world remained to be convinced but with important countries such as Germany, France and the USA already indicating support prior to the next UPU Congress this little stamp looked to be the next great step for communications between the peoples of the world. The culmination of a dream first mooted over 50 years before!

In keeping with the stamps universal nature a design showing the monarchs head was avoided, rather a central female figure of “Zealandia” within an ornate scrollwork frame bearing the words “Universal Postage”, behind her a globe, Mount Egmont and a mail steamer.

Despite adverse press comment regarding the design the stamp proved popular with the public. On its first day of issue the Post Offices were swamped and in the following months the “Penny Universal” drove a surge in mail volumes, a new slightly altered design printed by typography rather than the original recess method was brought in at the end of 1908 and in the intervening years 15 different printing plates were used, giving philatelists a wealth of interesting re-entries & flaws to hunt down!

Back to our Stanley Gibbons catalogue and you will see many different “Penny Universals” identified with different papers, perforations & shades. Perhaps the most unusual might be the so-called “Mixed Perf” issues where faulty perf 14 machinery caused perforations to be run through the designs and rather than destroying the stamps these rogue perfs were ‘patched’ from behind and a new perf 11 line was added in the correct position! This is highly unusual and not something found in listings for other Commonwealth countries.

Another striking area would be the “penny-in-the-slot” machine trial perforations. It became desirable to sell stamps outside of Post Office opening hours, or simply to reduce queuing during the regular business day, and after several machines were submitted for testing the successful inventors stated that “it will be necessary to have the stamps made in a continuous band with sprocket holes at regular distances apart to ensure perfect delivery of each stamp”. So this range of issues was created from imperforate sheets cut and pasted into long strips, with large holes punched to allow correct dispensing but there are also listed two forms of ‘roulette’ perforation (gauges 9½ or 14) which were in fact added by the customer himself – as he tore the stamp from the machine!

We have barely scratched the surface of this fascinating stamp, it is historically significant and philatelically interesting – I hope you will find them as fascinating as we do!

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