It can be a little hard for us stamp collectors to love the Penny Black despite the fact that it is the world’s first postage stamp. For one thing, it’s so common that it lacks the allure of even relative scarcity. For another, although some of my fellow philatelists may disagree, it’s frankly nothing much to look at. Black, as the name suggests, and with an engraved portrait of Queen Victoria in profile, it looks like, well, a postage stamp for the simple reason that every stamp that came after it was based on the archetype of the Penny Black.
Still, I maintain that there is plenty of fun to be had in collecting the Penny Black if you’re willing to dig a little deeper than merely “checking the box” of owning one in decent condition. In my case, I chose one of the 11 plates that were used for printing the Penny Black pretty much at random. I picked Plate #7 (or “Plate VII” if we’re being formal) because seven is my lucky number and have been slowly gathering Penny Blacks from different positions on the plate with the goal of eventually putting together a complete set of 240 (the Penny Black plates printed twelve stamps across and 20 vertically.)
In some ways, this isn’t as hard as it sounds because each of the stamps has two “check letters” on the bottom, one that indicates its horizontal positioning on the plate and the other which indicates its vertical position.
But in one important other way, this isn’t so easy because while you can tell right away where any particular stamp was positioned, you can only tell which plate it came from by observing certain idiosyncratic characteristics in the placement and apparent strike pressure of the check letters which were done by hand. And while a consensus has been slowly building in the philatelic brotherhood (and sisterhood!) about the distinctive traits of each plate’s check numbers, opinion is by no means unanimous, especially regarding the more controversial plates like #IV, #IX, and #X. I’m fortunate that Plate #7 is regarded as a “beginners plate” because frankly I’d have to be a lot more interested in stamp collecting and have a lot more time on my hands to tackle one of those.