11 Stamp Stories Worth Retelling
By David A. Norris
Philately: it's the end-all, be-all of popular hobbies curiously pursued by nobody you know. And while we knew absolutely nothing about stamps when we started this article, we're great at digging up the juiciest dirt on any subject under the sun. Here are 11 great stamp stories guaranteed to have you glued to your seats.
1. The Stamp That Started It All
It's the world's first postage stamp. Issued on May 1, 1840, in Great Britain (but not valid for use until five days later), the "Penny Black" stamp helped England dig itself out of the costly and convoluted mess that was paid postage. Before the Penny Black, the price of mailing a letter varied depending on distance and the number of sheets in the envelope. And rates weren't cheap, either. Postage could cost as much as a shilling—a day's wages for many workers. But here's the kicker: All mail was sent collect, meaning addressees often turned away the mailman because they couldn't cough up enough dough.
Consequently, thousands of letters traveled the world in vain, never to be opened. Members of Parliament, who could send mail for free, were pestered by family, friends, and acquaintances to send letters on their behalf. Those with fewer connections, however, opted for more subversive means, and scams to avoid postage abounded.
To reform the system, British schoolmaster Sir Rowland Hill lobbied Parliament to adopt the "Penny Postage" program. For the first time, it was proposed that postage be paid in advance, using little gummed stickers to show proof of purchase. In addition, letters sent anywhere in the country would cost only a penny. The plan made sending mail affordable for nearly everybody and offered businesses tremendous savings. When presented with the Penny Postage program, many government officials feared the system would wreck the budget, claiming it would take 50 years to break even. But when the plan finally passed, the number of unpaid letters dropped so dramatically that the post office was soon profiting from the system.
There was only one problem. To make sure stamps weren't re-used, postal officials cancelled them with an orange ink marking. Before long, however, news got around that the ink could be easily washed off the black (hence Penny Black) stamps. Postal officials then switched to black ink, which couldn't be washed off "¦ but also didn't show up against the black stamp. After experimenting with different colored stamps, the Penny Black was replaced in 1841 by the Penny Red. The world's second stamp could be cancelled clearly with black ink once and for all.
So, is the Penny Black the ultimate collectible stamp? Not by a long shot. Although it was the first, there were more than 60 million printed, and enough of those are still around to keep the price reasonable.
2. The Stamp That Divided a Nation
Never underestimate the political power of the stamp. When the American Civil War broke out in 1861, the seceding Confederate states snatched up a good bit of government property. This included everything from forts to arsenals to thousands of post offices stocked full of stamps. Not wanting the enemy to profit off their goods, the Union recalled every U.S. stamp ever issued and declared them invalid for postage. Instead, people were allowed to exchange their old stamps for replacements, which the government had quickly printed with new designs.
3. The Stamp Even Bill Gates Couldn't Afford
During the post-World War I era, Germany was wracked by one of the most famous and spectacular bouts of inflation in history. Under the strain of huge war reparations demanded by the victorious Allies, prices for everything from pumpernickel to postage stamps soared out of control. To put things in perspective, consider this: In July of 1923, the rate for someone to mail a letter from Germany to the United States had risen from 300 marks to 900 marks (equal to a little more than half a cent in U.S. money). Only three months later, the cost to mail that same letter was 6,000 marks. The sample shown here was mailed from Berlin to London on October 18, 1923, and cost 15 million marks. But it didn't stop there. By November, the mark had plunged even further, and stamps were being printed at values as high as 20 billion marks.
During this period of runaway inflation, it became harder and harder to cram enough stamps onto letters and documents to pay for postage or revenue stamp fees. According to sources, one Swiss document had to be sent with 10 feet of paper attached to it, just to hold the required amount of revenue stamps. Eventually, the situation became so bad that Germany temporarily stopped requiring stamps to mail letters. Instead, they allowed customers to pay for postage in cash at the post office, and officials would simply mark the letters as paid.
4. The Stamps Made from Stolen Maps
During World War I, the Baltic region of Latvia didn't have much to call its own. It was governed by Russia, and German forces were occupying much of the area. In 1918, however, Latvia gained independence during the chaos and collapse of the Romanov Dynasty. In addition, German forces had retreated "¦ but not without leaving their mark on the new nation. Oddly enough, that mark was on Latvia's stamps.
Latvia suffered devastating damage during the war. Factories were destroyed or moved to Russia, and paper was in short supply. So when the young nation got ready to print its first national stamps, postal officials got creative and used the blank backs of German military maps and unfinished banknotes. Indeed, if you look on the underside of some Latvian stamps from this era, you'll see a tiny sliver of a military map used by the Germans during World War I.
5. The Stamp That Moved the Panama Canal
In 1902, the U.S. Congress was about to pass legislation to link the Pacific Ocean and Caribbean Sea with a canal across—that's right—Nicaragua. That is, until engineer Philipe Bunau-Varilla (and a certain stamp) got involved.
In the 1880s, Bunau-Varilla worked for a French company that had attempted to construct a similar canal across Panama. But engineering difficulties, financial mismanagement, and deadly yellow fever epidemics eventually bankrupted the company and prevented it from completing the project. Still believing Panama (then part of Colombia) presented the best route for such a canal (and still wanting a government contract to construct it), Bunau-Varilla lobbied Congress to switch its plans, claiming Nicaragua's terrain was too unwieldy. Then, in the spring of 1902, nature worked in his favor. Mt. Momotombo, a volcano in Nicaragua, erupted.
Knowing the incident would sway the American canal vote, Nicaraguan officials immediately began denying reports of the eruption, and Bunau-Varilla was left struggling for a way to counter the Nicaraguan cover-up. Fortunately, he remembered once seeing a Nicaraguan postage stamp featuring Mt. Momotombo, conveniently depicted with smoke rising from the top. After rummaging through stamp shops in Washington, he found the one he was looking for and promptly purchased 90 copies. In a matter of days, all 45 U.S. senators had received the Mt. Momotombo stamp, complete with Bunau-Varilla's caption, "An official witness to volcanic activity in Nicaragua." This menacing volcano, they were told, would threaten the canal route. Sure enough, when the Senate voted on June 19, 1902, the Panama route won. Bunau-Varilla ran a sophisticated lobbying campaign to change public opinion and Congressional votes, but he couldn't have sealed the deal without the help of those Nicaraguan stamps.
6. The Stamps That Tried to take a Bite Out of Crime
Ah, the Roaring Twenties. It was a prosperous decade filled with jazz and speakeasies. Of course, it was also an era alive and well with slick crooks such as "Machine Gun" Kelly and "Pretty Boy" Floyd—criminals who loved robbing post offices and mail shipments. That's precisely why, in 1929, the federal government began producing these special stamps. Starting with Kansas and Nebraska, the stamps were marked, or overprinted, with state abbreviations and were only available for purchase in that state of origin. And although they were accepted as postage in all states, the overprinted stamps were designed to make it more difficult for crooks to take stolen stamps across state lines to unload them. Theoretically, large numbers of the out-of-state stamps would make prospective buyers and postal inspectors suspicious.
In practice, however, the overprints seem to have done little to deter postal crime. The program was never expanded to other states and was abandoned shortly after the overprinted issues sold out. In fact, the Kansas-Nebraska issues inspired more illegal activity. As soon as the last of the genuine overprints were sold, counterfeiters began taking ordinary 1920s' U.S. stamps, adding phony "Kans." and "Nebr." overprints and pawning them off to stamp collectors.
Interestingly, the overprinting idea made a short comeback during World War II. In early 1942, the U.S. government feared a Japanese attack might overrun Hawaii, so it began circulating paper money overprinted with "Hawaii." That way, if the Japanese had captured Hawaii, the bills could have been declared void and would have been of no financial use to the enemy.
7. The Stamp That Made CEOs Happy
The filching of office supplies is a longstanding employee tradition. It probably dates to the days when Babylonian scribes were swiping clay tablets and cuneiform styluses. But in the 19th century, stamps were the stolen office supply of choice. Not only could workers use them for free postage, but—at the time—stamps were sometimes accepted as payment for small purchases. To curb employee enthusiasm for stealing, companies began using perfins (short for "perforated initials") to mark ownership of their stamps. That way, if perfin stamps were used on private mail, they could easily be identified as stolen property. Likewise, stores would refuse to accept any stamps with perfins as payment. First authorized in Britain in 1868, perfins were introduced to America in 1908. Coming soon: Perfins on the company Post-ItsÂ®.
8. The Stamp That Almost Started a War
Don't be fooled by its size. A tiny little stamp can cause big trouble. Case in point: This stamp issued by Nicaragua in 1937. Not uncommonly, the stamp featured a map of the country, but it included a large section of land also claimed by neighboring Honduras. Ownership of the region had long been in dispute between the two countries and remained a source of great contention. In 1906, King Alfonso XIII of Spain decided the matter in favor of Honduras, but Nicaragua refused to acknowledge the decision. Tensions grew in the following years, so when Nicaragua released the stamp in 1937, Hondurans were outraged. Government officials, newspapers, and radio stations demanded the stamps be recalled and destroyed. Nicaraguan authorities, however, refused and insisted the map was correct. They also pointed out that they had the courtesy to label the area on the stamp as territorio en litigio. Regardless, in a matter of weeks, anti-Nicaraguan demonstrations erupted in the Honduran capital of Tegucigalpa. Across the border, Nicaraguan radio announcers called for military action, demanding the national army be sent to guard the border region. The public even began a donation drive designed to fund more planes to build up the Nicaraguan Air Force.
At the last minute, the United States, Costa Rica, and Venezuela intervened to defuse the conflict before it escalated into war. Both countries agreed to withdraw their armed forces from the disputed area and stop mobilizing troops. And, naturally, the peace agreement called for withdrawing the offending stamps. They evidently remained in circulation, however, until supplies in private hands ran out. The example shown was postmarked in 1941—four years after their forced recall.
9. The Stamp with All the Right Intentions, and All the Wrong Music
In 1956, East Germany decided to honor the death of native composer Robert Schumann by featuring him on a stamp. The design included a commemorative portrait of the artist against the backdrop of one of his musical scores. All well and good, except the musical manuscript they used was that of fellow composer Franz Schubert. Close, but no cigar. The stamps were recalled and replaced with ones showing music actually written by Schumann.
10. The Stamp That Went Underground
During the early 20th century, the postal delivery system met its biggest challenge since mailman-hating dogs: street traffic. In large cities across Europe and America, mail delivery wagons had to maneuver through swarms of horse-drawn carriages, streetcars, and pedestrians—all of which severely slowed down the postal system. Eventually, post office officials figured that if the mail couldn't get through city traffic, they would try going under it. Thus emerged pneumatic mail tubes, a kind of subway system for letters. In major metropolises such as Paris, Rome, Vienna, Berlin, and New York, mail tubes were constructed underground to link major post offices. Compressed air propelled containers of mail through steel tubes at speeds up to 30 mph, increasing the postal service's delivery pace by leaps and bounds. In most cases, people still used regular stamps for pneumatic mail. Italy, however, printed special pneumatic stamps between 1933 and 1966. Such subterranean mail tubes operated until as recently as the 1980s, but as cities grew and post offices moved around, rerouting the underground mail networks proved too difficult. The tubes were abandoned in most cities, though Prague still has a few pneumatic tubes in use.
11. The Stamps that Stick Without a Lick
Getting stamps to stick hasn't always been a simple task. Most stamps made after 1840 came with an adhesive gum on the back. But the gum—made from various plant products such as cornstarch, sweet potatoes, gum Arabic, and sugar—wasn't always of the highest quality, meaning stamps often fell off letters. The U.S. Postal Service tried various gum formulas to remedy the situation, including special "summer gum" that was resistant to humidity, and "winter gum" that resisted cracking in cold, dry winter air.
Finally, in the 1960s, the South Pacific island kingdom of Tonga broke the mold when it printed a series of self-adhesive stamps. Not only did they not require licking, they came in odd shapes—the most famous of which was this 1969 stamp (below) shaped like a banana. These unusual stamps were a big hit and, for a time, became a significant source of revenue for the country. Collectors went crazy for them. In fact, they became so popular that one dealer ordered more copies of a particular stamp than had been printed. Most countries followed Tonga's lead, and today, the die-cut, peel-and-stick stamps are the most common type of stamps in the United States.
A Penny For Your Mischievous Thoughts
According to legend, Sir Rowland Hill got the idea for the Penny Postage program one day while watching a barmaid tearfully plead with a mailman. Unable to afford the shilling demanded for postage, she begged simply to hold the letter sent by her beloved brother. Hill then watched as the girl scanned the envelope intensely, as if trying to read its contents mentally. Touched, Hill coughed up a shilling and gave her the letter. The girl stopped crying, but instead of being grateful, she became nervous. After the postman left, she confessed that the letter was blank. Her brother's message was contained in secret marks made on the envelope. Apparently, the two had devised a system whereby they could send each other messages through the post for free.