‘Eventually it will just be a barcode, won’t it?’ Why Britain’s new stamps are causing outrage and upset

Royal Mail’s stamps are finally entering the digital world, with printed codes that can be used to track letters or linked to videos. Collectors, traditionalists and royalists are not amused


In February, Royal Mail introduced a new design for its standard stamps, which have changed so little since the launch of the Penny Black in 1840 that they are officially known as “definitives”. The new stamps – “plum purple” for first class, “holly green” for second – still feature the same regal profile introduced more than 50 years ago. But what is most bothering purists – and leading Johnson to the brink of direct action – is the addition next to the Queen of a digital barcode

The rectangular codes – which look like QR codes but are apparently not QR codes, which are a particular, and trademarked, kind of code – are designed to stop counterfeiting and to enable the tracking of all letters to improve efficiency. Correspondents will soon be able to share photo or video messages by linking digital content to their coded stamps. Recipients will view it via the Royal Mail app (currently the codes link to a short film featuring Shaun the Sheep and a plasticine postwoman).

The Penny Black, launched in 1840.
The first adhesive postage stamp … the Penny Black, launched in 1840. Photograph: PA

From 1 February 2023, only the new stamps will be accepted. Any old stamps must be used before then or traded in. Christmas and other themed special stamps will remain valid indefinitely. Swapping definitives, which can still be done after the deadline, is free but will involve downloading and printing a form, or requesting one by phone or letter, and posting it to Royal Mail along with the old stamps.


Since the launch of the Penny Black as the world’s first adhesive postage stamp, the sticky squares have become more than a simple proof of purchase: they are collectibles, artists’ canvases, tools of propaganda and cultural icons.

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In the first year of the Penny Black, the number of letters sent more than doubled – then doubled again by 1850. Letter writing stopped being an elite pursuit and the postal service became profitable. Dozens of countries swiftly copied Hill’s example. Stamps were as significant an innovation in communication as telephones or web-connected home computers would be.

The first stamp was also a triumph of design. There was no need to include a country name – there were no stamps anywhere else, after all. Instead, a portrait of Queen Victoria in profile was added. Monarchs and colours have come and gone, and perforations and self-adhesion arrived. But the definitives have changed little in 180 years. The current stamps, originally designed by the artist Arnold Machin, have used the same sculpted profile of Queen Elizabeth II for the past 55 years.

Yet I am not alone in barely using them; the pandemic has only hastened a postal freefall, from a peak of just over 20bn letters sent via Royal Mail in 2005 (in the same year, the proportion of UK households with the internet tipped over 50%), to fewer than 8bn in 2020-21. These figures include commercial post; the smaller number of cards and letters bearing sticky stamps is likely to be in steeper decline.

Two stamps issued in 1995, commemorating Sir Rowland Hill, who proposed the idea of the pre-paid stamp.
Sir Rowland Hill, the schoolmaster who proposed the idea of the pre-paid stamp, was commemorated with a special set of stamps in 1995. Photograph: Kay Roxby/Alamy

“They’re trying to attract the younger generation by throwing in a QR code and a video of Shaun the Sheep,” says Andrew Jackson, 58, a collector and trader who runs Tagula Blue Stamps. Like Jackson, Johnson wonders if the change signals the beginning of the end for stamps. “Eventually it will just be the barcode, won’t it?” she says.


Royal Mail now produces more than a dozen sets of special stamps a year in an attempt to create demand among collectors. This year they include pictures of cats, birds, the Rolling Stones and heroes of the Covid pandemic drawn by children.

Many state-owned postal services are much bolder. In Ukraine in April, queues formed outside post offices when Ukrposhta issued 1m stamps to commemorate the defiance of the soldier who refused to surrender an island soon after the Russian invasion. In the image, the solider is flipping the bird at the Moskva warship, which was later sunk, in a visual representation of the message he had radioed to the ship: “Russian warship, go fuck yourself.”

But the potential for stamps to punch above their weight is doing little to boost demand. Gentleman says he rarely uses more than a pack or two at Christmas, preferring email for everyday correspondence. He’s not sure about the aesthetic appeal of the coded stamps. “I find it difficult to enthuse over them,” he says.

Some critics have been blunter. “Arnold Machin’s profile of the Queen is one of the simplest, purest compositions in the world,” tweeted Samuel West, actor and stamp collector, in March, addressing his next sentence to Royal Mail: “You took one of the great iconic stamp designs, and you fucked it up.” The writer and broadcaster Victoria Coren Mitchell simply said: “THIS IS AWFUL!”

The implications were more practical for some. Many canny letter writers buy stamps in bulk to avoid being hit by future price rises. Royal Mail’s swap scheme is designed so that nobody loses out, but I gather many collectors find themselves in a bind. Old definitives might have a higher value because they are rare. But some of that value comes also because the stamps could theoretically be used. Swap them and you’d throw away all of that value. Keep them and you’d lose much of it anyway. “A lot of value is just going to be lost overnight,” says Gerard McCulloch, an Australian collector better known as the Punk Philatelist.

Meanwhile groups representing older people say that, as well as creating inconvenience, the change risks marginalising those who still rely on “snail mail”. These users are also affected most by price rises (first-class stamps went up by 10p to 95p in April). “It will be chicken and egg,” says Dennis Reed from the campaign group Silver Voices. “Less people will send letters so Royal Mail will say, ‘We won’t have as many collections or post boxes’ – and even fewer people will send letters.”



Source: ‘Eventually it will just be a barcode, won’t it?’ Why Britain’s new stamps are causing outrage and upset | Society | The Guardian

It’s poorly described but a lot of people have huge collections of pretty stamps which they actually use. The value of these will be wiped out.

Robin Edgar

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