In 1837, Sir Rowland Hill proposed an innovative postage scheme, and as part of this, the first adhesive postage stamps were issued in Great Britain on May 6, 1840. This method of prepayment by using stamps quickly gained popularity and was adopted by many countries. Following Britain’s lead, the provinces of Canada, including the Province of Canada, Nova Scotia and New Brunswick (1851), Newfoundland (1857), BC (1860), and Prince Edward Island (1861), began issuing their own stamps, but as they joined Confederation, they ceased to do so and used the Dominion of Canada general issue instead. Newfoundland continued to issue its own stamps until it joined Confederation in 1949.
Sandford Fleming designed Canada’s first postage stamp, the Three-Penny Beaver, which was issued on April 23, 1851, and was the world’s first pictorial stamp. Prior to this, stamps typically featured the head of the ruler or some other official device. Initially, most Canadian stamps were designed by staff artists of various security printers under contract to the Post Office, but in the 1950s, more emphasis was placed on design, and the policy of inviting designs from individual artists was introduced. Since 1969, a Stamp Advisory Committee consisting of experts in fields such as science, art, printing, stamp design, history, social science, and philately has advised on stamp selection.
Postage stamps have a monetary value and are produced only by security printers under strict control to prevent forgery. Until the post-WWII period, almost all Canadian stamps were printed by an engraving process similar to banknotes, but in the late 1960s, multicolored offset lithography techniques were developed, allowing for more flexibility in stamp design. Various papers have been used for stamp production, including laid, wove, and coated varieties. Recently, stamps have been overprinted with a transparent ink that fluoresces when exposed to ultra-violet radiation to assist in the mechanical sorting of different classes of mail. Canada has won major awards for the beauty and production excellence of its stamps since the mid-1990s.
Canadian postage stamps are strictly for postage purposes. However, in some countries, stamps are inscribed “postage and revenue,” which validates them for both postal and excise use. In Canada, special stamps are available for excise purposes by both federal and provincial governments.
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