Susanna McLeod

Susanna McLeod

Glimpses of Canadian History : Email:

Canada’s First Postage Stamp: Three Pence Beaver

Designed by Sandford Fleming, the Three Pence Beaver was considered the first stamp of Canada, years before Confederation. Unique in its design, it set several firsts.

The Three Pence Beaver - Canada Post Corporation

Before a Dominion, Canada was a province, combining Upper Canada and Lower Canada into one entity, called the United Province of Canada. Other provinces of the time were Nova Scotia and New Brunswick, part of the colonies of British North America. Each province had their own postal system and stamps to move the mail across the colonies and to Europe.

Designated as Canada’s first postage

One particular piece of postage is considered to be the first stamp of Canada, issued more than 15 years before Sir John A. Macdonald united the country under Confederation in 1867. Designed by the young Sandford Fleming, a civil engineer at the time, the Three Pence Beaver featured an engraving of a beaver at a rushing river’s edge inside an oval with the words, “Canada Postage Three Pence”, and a crown with flowers and the letters VR (initials of Queen Victoria). It was printed on non-perforated paper in red hues with a “3” in each corner, and issued on April 23, 1851.

The Three Pence Beaver also made of couple of other firsts:

It was an adhesive stamp, not used before in Canada, but was made of “laid paper” which did not stick well.

It was the first official postage to portray an animal instead of a Royal profile.

Queen Victoria and Prince Albert on Canadian postage

Two other stamps were produced of larger denomination in the same year (as mentioned in the Canadian Postal Archives) a six pence stamp portraying His Royal Highness Prince Albert, issued on May 12, 1851, and a portrait of Queen Victoria, issued a month later on June 14. These were also non-perforated and on “laid paper”, so did not stick well. Until Confederation, the first stamps of Canada were printed by an American company.

Collections Canada notes that Sandford Fleming’s use of the beaver for the unique postage stamp was “symbolic of the people in the young country of Canada building their towns, cities, and communities. The secondary purpose of choosing the beaver centred in the original meaning of the beavers skin; it represented a medium of exchange in trade.”

Sir Sandford Fleming knighted

The inventive man was knighted Sir Sandford Fleming in 1897 by Queen Victoria for his work on the construction of the Canadian Railway system, which included the post of Chief Engineer of the Intercontinental Railway, the Canadian Pacific Railway and later the mission to find a route through the Yellowhead Pass of the Rocky Mountains in British Columbia and Alberta. He was also renowned for his devising of time zones, adopted world-wide. Sir Sandford Fleming was Chancellor of Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, serving in that post for 35 years until his death in 1915 at the age of 88.

The Three Pence Beaver slowly opened the door for other unique stamps in Canada. Canada issued its first Christmas stamp on December l7, 1898, depicting a flat earth with countries belonging to the British Empire in red. The words “We hold a vaster empire than has been” were engraved at the bottom, due to Britain holding the largest empire in the world at that time.

The tradition begun in 1851 of finely crafted and unique stamps is continued today by Canada Post.

More on the Christmas stamp, 1898 here.

This article first appeared on in 2007.  Copyright Susanna McLeod

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