India - First Bi-Color Stamps

refer to caption
The 1-anna Queen Victoria stamp was issued in 1854.
4-annas Victoria stamp
The 4-anna Queen Victoria bi-color stamp was issued in 1854.
Image courtesy of Robert A. Siegel Auction Galleries

The East India Company, which had a monopoly on the carriage of mail to and from British India, was still using antiquated hand-struck stamps into the 1850s. A commission reviewing its efficiency suggested the introduction of adhesive stamps, akin to those being used in Great Britain. However, the cost of commissioning Perkins Bacon to engrave copper plates and recess-print these would have been prohibitive, so a cheaper local approach was required.

A decision was made in favor of lithography, a technique which the Survey Office in Calcutta already used in map production. Accordingly, it was the Deputy Surveyor-General, Captain H L Thuillier, who was given the task of producing the new adhesive stamps.

From preliminary sketches, Thuillier commissioned a local engraver to set up dies, and after one abortive attempt at printing he had a 1/2-anna blue stamp and a 1-anna red stamp available for sale on October 1, 1854. Their simple design had a portrait of Queen Victoria in a rectangular frame, with the country name at the top and the value at the bottom.

The authorities immediately gave the Survey Office a new challenge by changing its plans for two further stamps. The anticipated 8a value was to be abandoned in favor of a more versatile 2a green, while the 4a (which would now serve as the top value) was to be printed in two colors, with a red frame surrounding an indigo Queen’s head. At this time, the only stamps to have been issued in more than one color anywhere in the world were from Zürich and Basel, printed using sophisticated techniques in Europe. Thuillier had his work cut out!

Separate copper dies were engraved for the head and an octagonal frame. These were transferred to small lithographic stones, each producing only 12 impressions, widely spaced in three rows of four with a chequer-board of wavy lines separating them. The stamps went on sale in Calcutta’s post office on October 15, 1854. The 4-anna stamp was the first bi-color postage stamp produced and sold in the British Empire. Heavy demand for the value prompted four further printings over the next year, using four different dies for the head and two for the frame. The number of impressions per sheet was also increased from 12 to 24 in the later printings, by closing up the spacing between the stamps and taking out the wavy lines.