The world’s first adhesive postage stamp was issued by Great Britain in 1837. The Penny Black had a substance applied to the back made from potato starch, wheat starch, and acacia gum. For more than a century, most stamps were water activated, meaning they had a gum backing that had to be moistened before use. Collectors soaked these stamps in water to remove the paper the stamp was applied to. (For more information about soaking stamps click here.)
Self-adhesive stamps are issued on a special backing paper. Once peeled off the backing, the adhesive allows the stamps to be affixed without being moistened. If you want to put mint self-adhesive stamps in your collection, don’t remove the backing paper! Just trim it within 1/8” of the edge of your stamp.
The first U.S. self-adhesive stamp was issued in for the 1974 Christmas season. It was more expensive to produce than water-activated stamps and Postal Service officials thought it was being reused. For collectors, the problem occurred over time. They found if they tried to soak the stamp off the paper, the stamp’s paper would separate destroying the stamp. Many collectors just trimmed the paper. After several years, the stamps became discolored because of the unstable adhesive that was used. It would be many years before the U.S. would issue another self-adhesive stamp.
The Postal System tried self-adhesives again in 1989 with greater success. The 1990s and early 2000s marked a transition time. In 1994, less than 10 percent of U.S. stamps
were self-adhesive. By 2013, almost all the stamps were issued with that way.