Story: Postage stamps

Page 1. Stamps, 1855 to 1940

All images & media in this story

First stamps

The world’s first postage stamp, the penny black, was issued in the UK in 1840. English schoolmaster Rowland Hill came up with the idea of standardising the rate of postage in the form of a stamp, as he realised that the major costs of postage were associated with processing letters rather than the distance of delivery.

Licking the queen

The Māori name for stamps is pane kuini (‘queen’s head’). Māori initially found the concept confusing, as in Māori culture the head is sacred and licking the head of the most prestigious person in the Empire seemed odd.

Queen’s head

New Zealand’s first postage stamps were issued on 18 July 1855. They were called ‘full-face queens’ or ‘Chalon heads’ as they show a frontal view of Queen Victoria at her 1837 coronation based on a painting by Edward Chalon. Issues up until 1862 had no perforations to help tear them – the stamps were cut from sheets with scissors. Reprints occurred on different papers and in different colours but by 1870 the printing plates were worn out. A stamp featuring the queen in profile, a ‘side-face queen,’ was issued in 1874, and this was the main stamp format for the next 25 years. The first stamps prepared and produced in New Zealand were part of this series – the two-shilling and five-shilling varieties in 1878. However, most New Zealand stamps were actually printed in England until well into the 20th century.

First pictorials

The first pictorial stamps, in 1898, recognised that stamps had propaganda value – they could showcase the country’s scenic beauty and attractions. New Zealand was one of the first countries to dedicate a definitive set of stamps (13 in all) to landscapes and birds. Stamps featured birds such as huia and kākā, and landscapes such as Lake Wakatipu and Mt Cook. A competition for designs had been opened up to the public and 2,400 submissions were received – varying from crude drawings to high art. The eightpence stamp featuring a waka (canoe) was the first stamp recognising Māori culture. Images of Māori carvings and patterns were also employed in the decorative borders. Though Māori imagery appeared in some individual stamps of the pictorial sets (1898, 1935 and 1960), it was only in the late 1980s that stamp issues solely dedicated to Māori culture were printed.

One-penny universal

The one-penny universal, introduced in 1901, meant that a letter could be sent to the UK and 70 other countries for the standard postage of one penny. This cut the rate for a letter to the UK down from two-and-a-half pence. Revenue went down initially, but the deficit was recovered in just two years as more letters were posted. By 1912 New Zealanders posted an average of 139 items per person each year– the highest rate in the Universal Postal Union (a global grouping of countries that agreed to deliver each other’s mail).

Airmail and express delivery

The first airmail stamps were issued in 1931, although few letters went by air until the later 1930s. The first official airmail from Australia to New Zealand arrived at Bell Block aerodrome, New Plymouth, on 12 April 1934.

Express-delivery stamps of sixpence denomination were first issued in 1903 and these lasted until 1948 – they were meant to be delivered as soon as possible after arriving at the destination post office.


Early stamps were printed in one colour only. The first two-colour stamp, a one-penny stamp featuring Lake Taupō, appeared in the 1898 pictorial issue. Two-colour stamps remained rare, but appeared again in the 1906 New Zealand Exhibition and 1935 pictorial issue. Multicoloured stamps became the norm from the 1950s. Stamp design is a specialised art, and for much of the 20th century two artists – James Berry and Leonard C. Mitchell – dominated stamp designs.

Health stamps

Health stamps are one of New Zealand’s distinctive features – they have been issued every year since 1929. The face value for postal purposes was one penny, but the stamp cost twopence, so buyers made a 50% donation which was used to fund children’s health camps. Over time the percentage that went to charity declined – by 2010 a 50-cent health stamp cost 60 cents, so only 10 cents went to charity.

The 1943 health stamps featured royal princesses, Margaret and Elizabeth, on the country’s first triangular stamps – a shape that did not appear again until 1995.

How to cite this page:

Carl Walrond, 'Postage stamps - Stamps, 1855 to 1940', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 14 July 2024)

Story by Carl Walrond, published 20 Jun 2012