We feature classic or contemporary stamps that have an interesting story behind them. Click on the thumbnail images to see a larger scan.
WARNING: Do not try to soak these gems off your monitor for your collection. This will waste your time AND ruin the monitor!
Syracuse's First Postage Stamp
The Pan-American Series (#294-299), intended to promote an international exhibition then being held in Buffalo, New York, was released on 1 May 1901. The stamps had been more than six years in the making, and a Post Office Department report in 1900 expressed the hope that they would "at once delight the eye and . . . gratify the Department and the public." Neither the Department nor the public was disappointed.
Series designer Raymond Ostrander Smith and the Bureau of Engraving and Printing delivered a beautifully engraved series attractively printed in two colors. Vignettes of cutting edge modes of transportation made the Pan-Americans an instant hit with the general public, while collectors appreciated that an entire set of singles could be had for only 30¢. (The Trans-Mississippi issue of 1898 had cost $3.80 and the Columbians of 1893 a whopping $16.34!)
In March 1861, the newly reelected president of Mexico, Benito Juárez, stopped paying his country’s European creditors. That autumn, Britain, Spain, and France landed troops at Vera Cruz, on Mexico’s eastern shore, in a show of force designed to intimidate Juárez into paying up.
Although Britain and Spain eventually withdrew from Mexico, France fought Juárez’s government for two years in an attempt to create a second French empire in the Americas. Briefly successful at placing the Archduke Maximilian on the Mexican throne, the French Foreign Legion nonetheless suffered several disastrous defeats at the hands of the Mexicans. One of these, at Puebla on 5 May 1862 (Cinco de Mayo), is legendary; another, less well known, took place at Hacienda Camarón on 30 April 1863.
Early that morning, 65 Legionnaires were attacked by three battalions of Mexicans outside Palo Verde. The ranking French officer, Jean Danjou, commanded a fighting retreat to the fortified ranch (hacienda) of Camarón. Once inside, he and his men swore an oath to fight to the death. Though Danjou was mortally wounded around noon, his men fought on until 6:00 p.m. and managed to inflict heavy losses on their enemy. When only five survivors remained, they fixed bayonets and charged the Mexican line, but were spared for their bravery.
According to the French Embassy’s web site, “This battle, whose name adorns every Legion flag, remains the symbol of a mission carried out to the bitter end.” To this day, 30 April is celebrated in every Legion unit as “le jour de Camerone.” Author John Lafflin describes the ceremonies this way:
The Legion and the Oath of Camarón were finally commemorated 121 years later on a French stamp.
John Lafflin, The French Foreign Legion. New York: Barnes and Noble, 1974.
United States, 2005
In 1988, the Organization of Chinese Americans began lobbying the U.S. Postal Service for a stamp "to promote the cultural heritage of Chinese Americans." Artist Clarence Lee was commissioned to design a Chinese New Year stamp (Scott #2720) for the 1992 program. Lee's design—an intricate, cut-paper rooster superimposed on Chinese calligraphy and a rich red background—proved popular not only in the U.S., but also in China, where 2 million of them were reportedly sold. The USPS decided to continue the series, and Lee created a stamp featuring a different animal of the Chinese zodiac for each of the next eleven years, culminating with the 37¢ Year of the Monkey (Scott #3832) issued in 2004.
Postal officials decided to "cap off" the series in 2005 with a miniature sheet of 12 that included all of the stamps redenominated at 37¢, the then-current first class letter rate. Intending the sheet as an honor for the artist, they were instead taken by surprise when some Chinese Americans expressed horror at the idea. The problem: 12 X 37¢ = $4.44, and many Chinese have an almost pathological fear of the number 4, which is regarded as unlucky because when spoken it sounds like the word for "death." Fear of the number is apparently deadly for some: a study in the December 2001 issue of the British Medical Journal suggested that Chinese patients were 13% more likely to die of a cardiac episode on the fourth of the month! When the number absolutely has to be written, it is often enclosed in a circle to isolate its harmful powers. The fear is not limited to Chinese culture, either: a public relations representative from All Nippon Airways confirmed to the author that there are no seats or rows numbered 4 on any of the Japanese airline's aircraft.
The Postal Service modified its plans and had the stamps printed in double-sided panes of 24—the first issue of its kind in U.S. history (all previous double-sided panes had been sold in booklet form only). The new face value, $8.88, was much more acceptable; the Chinese word for 8 sounds similar to that for "prosperity," so it is considered lucky. The panes (Scott #3895) were released on 6 January 2005 in Honolulu.
Jay Bigalke, "New 39¢ New Year Stamps" in Linn's Stamp News, 5 Dec. 2005, p. 1.
Vicki Viotti, "Chinese New Year stamps to be celebrated" in the Honolulu Advertiser, 12 Dec. 2004.
South Korea, 2005
the 12 March 2004 issue of the journal Science carried a five-page
article soporifically titled “Evidence of a Pluripotent Human Embryonic Stem
Cell Line Derived from a Cloned Blastocyst,” the world sat up and took notice.
In it, Dr. Woo Suk Hwang, a well–known professor of biotechnology at Seoul
National University in South Korea, claimed to have successfully cloned a human
embryo using genetic material taken from 282 ova and extracted eleven lines of
stem cells from it.
celebrate Hwang’s research, South Korea issued this 220-won commemorative
stamp in February 2005, the first anniversary of his experiment. The Korean
Philatelic Center declared Hwang’s success “another step forward in
liberating humankind from incurable diseases” and explained that the stamp
consisted of two vignettes: on the left, the extraction of a nucleus from a
mature human egg; on the right, a paraplegic rising from a
wheelchair—tentatively at first, then more confidently, and finally jumping
for joy and embracing another person—symbolic of the hope that Hwang’s
research offered “to the many suffering from heart diseases, Alzheimer’s
disease, Parkinson’s disease . . . and other incurable diseases.”
story soon began to unravel, however. In November, a researcher at the
University of Pittsburgh alleged that Hwang pressured women into donating their
eggs and had even bought some of them, both violations of the Helsinki
Declaration on human experimentation. The Seoul National University launched an
ethics investigation and declared on 10 January 2006 that the allegations were
true. Moreover, Hwang had faked the results of his research and it seemed unlikely
that his eleven lines of cloned stem cells ever existed. He was judged guilty of
"an act of deception . . . damaging the foundation of science."
next day, Koreapost withdrew the stamps from sale; Hwang was suspended from the
University and then finally dismissed in March 2006. He has since been indicted
for misappropriating millions of dollars in research funds.
Denise McCarty, "Scientific Achievements: Cloning and the Pill." Linn's Stamp News, 28 Feb. 2005.
"Stem Cell Researcher Faked Results." Associated Press report, 9 Jan. 2006.
United States, 1945
Every stamp collector knows that Franklin Roosevelt took an active interest in most postage stamps issued during his thirteen year presidency, often designing them himself. Few, however, know that the design of one particular stamp occupied his last hours on earth.
In early 1945, Roosevelt discussed with Postmaster General Frank Walker the need for a commemorative stamp to mark the organizational conference of the United Nations, scheduled for April at San Francisco. They decided that, like the Overrun Countries series of 1943-’44 and the Chinese Resistance issue of 1942, the new stamp would be denominated at 5¢, the international surface rate, to maximize its use overseas.
At the end of March, Walker forwarded several designs to Roosevelt, who was on vacation at Warm Springs, Georgia. The president rejected all of them. Late at night on April 3, he phoned Walker with his own design: the phrase TOWARD UNITED NATIONS and the opening date of the conference, April 25, 1945, in Gothic lettering on an unadorned background. The stamp’s sole illustration would be a single sprig of bay laurel, the ancient symbol of victory. Simple—even severe—the Roosevelt-designed United Nations commemorative would be the nation’s first non-pictorial stamp. Walker ordered a proof prepared and rushed to the President for his approval.
Executed by Victor McCloskey of the BEP, it was placed on an April 12 Army flight carrying state papers to Warm Springs. Roosevelt decided to sleep late that day, then rose and worked on his stamp collection for about an hour. The United Nations stamp was brought to him; he approved it and arranged to purchase the first sheet from the San Francisco postmaster when he arrived to address the conference. Roosevelt continued working on his mail until about 1:15, when he dropped his pen, slumped in his chair and muttered “I have a terrific headache.” They were his last words; the president slipped into unconsciousness and two hours later was dead at 63 of a cerebral hemorrhage.
As a memorial to Roosevelt, Walker ordered quotation marks added around the stamp’s three lines of text, and “Franklin D. Roosevelt” inscribed in small, dark-faced letters. The resulting stamp went on sale April 25, as scheduled, only thirteen days after the president’s death. It was the stamp collecting president’s last stamp.
Kent B. Stiles, “News of Stamp World.” New York Times, 15 April 1945, p.
“Parley Stamp Bears Roosevelt’s Name.” New York Times, 17 April 1945, p. 15.
“Toward United Nations.” Journal of the United Nations Philatelists, June 2003.
Great Britain, 2005
On November 1, 2005 Britain’s Royal Mail released a set of religious Christmas stamps, its first in several years, featuring Madonna and Child paintings from around the world. The 68p value in the series, which pays the airmail letter rate to countries outside the European Union, features an unusual painting done in India circa 1620. The painting, in Bombay’s Prince of Wales Museum, pictures the Holy Family as Hindus with tilaka, traditional forehead markings.
The very same day, the Hindu Forum of Britain (HFB) was calling the stamp culturally “insensitive” because “it showed people who were clearly Hindu worshipping Christ” and demanding that Royal Mail withdraw it. "Otherwise," said the secretary-general of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, "we intend to bring out a mass demonstration to protest about it." Yet another group, calling itself World Hindu Mahasangam, wrote to Royal Mail that “This must be a fake picture or painting. We doubt the authenticity of the painting/picture.” No evidence was offered for this assertion, and the threatened protests never materialized.
It soon became evident that these groups did not speak for everyone. Ranjit Hoskote, a prominent Indian scholar and art historian, confirmed that he had examined the painting and found it both authentic and inoffensive. The Deccan Herald, a newspaper in Bangalore, India, published this letter from a reader: “As an Indian and a practicing Catholic I am very happy to see the stamp as an excellent fusion of the Indian culture with the Catholic faith.” Meanwhile, Hindus living in Britain told Ekklesia, a religious news service there, that they feared “self-appointed community leaders” hoped “to boost their own standing” by “making an issue over nothing.”
Royal Mail refused to withdraw the stamps, but by mid-November had instructed all 14,400 post offices in the kingdom not to sell the 68p stamp unless it was specifically requested by a customer. Your author procured his margin block of six via a correspondent in England.
“Images of Mother and Child on British Stamps,” Linn’s Stamp News, 14 November 2005.
“Royal Mail's Christmas stamp insults our religion, say Hindus,” London Telegraph, 1 November 2005.
United States, 1943
The "Overrun Countries" series of 1943-'44 represented a bold statement of American solidarity with the millions of Europeans and Asians suffering under Fascist regimes. However, the inclusion of a stamp honoring Austria, Adolf Hitler’s birthplace, raised hackles. Critics thundered that the country had hardly been “overrun.” Der Führer and his brand of national socialism were enormously popular there, and the March 1938 Anschluss that incorporated Austria into the German Reich had been widely celebrated by Austrians. An angry letter to the editor of the New York Times fumed that the post office might as well issue stamps for Bavaria and Saxony, both strongly pro-Nazi states! Others feared that the stamp would antagonize Josef Stalin, then an American ally, who hated Austria almost as much as Germany.
President Roosevelt insisted on releasing the stamp, but because of the controversies most of the usual first-day ceremonies were quietly dispensed with. As a further snub, the first post offices to receive the stamp (after Washington DC) were in the Puerto Rico and Hawaii territories rather than in the United States proper.
Shown is the upper-right position of that controversial stamp with the country name in the selvage.
Lawrence, Ken. "US Stamps that Went to War." American Philatelist, January 1998.
Schwarz, K.H. Letter to the Editor.
New York Times, 21 July 1943.
Stiles, Kent B. "US Series Honors Allies."
New York Times, 16 May 1943.
Vatican City, 1949
STAMPS THAT PORTRAY unusual or ancient customs are among the most interesting and educational. Two examples are Vatican City #135 and #139, which picture Pope Pius XII opening the Holy Door to St. Peter’s Basilica at the start of the Anno Santo (Holy Year) 1950.
The first Anno Santo was proclaimed in 1300 by Pope Boniface VIII, who was inspired by a passage in Leviticus: "Thou shalt sanctify the fiftieth year . . . for it is the year of jubilee." Since that time, numerous popes have proclaimed Holy Years, during which the faithful who make a pilgrimage to the four Vatican basilicas receive special blessings and graces.
The pilgrims enter each basilica through a special door, always cemented shut except during the Anno Santo. To inaugurate the Holy Year, the reigning pope ceremonially opens the door at St. Peter’s Basilica by striking the cement with a silver hammer. (The doors at the three other basilicas are opened by cardinals.) The opening of the door symbolizes Christ opening the gates of heaven.
Thus, this little postage stamp depicts an intriguing custom that has been observed for more than seven centuries.
Kelen, Emery. Stamps Tell the Story of the Vatican. (New York: Meredith Press, 1969)
At the 1901 Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, New York, President William McKinley announced that America would build a canal joining the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. The French firm de Lesseps had attempted such a canal across Panama twenty years earlier, but malaria and mudslides had forced them to abandon the project. McKinley and the Congress hoped to succeed where the French had failed by cutting their canal across Nicaragua instead.
Philippe Bunau-Varilla, formerly de Lesseps' chief engineer, still hoped to convince the American government that the shorter Panama route was better. He personally lobbied the president and members of congress, but found them solidly behind the Nicaragua plan.
Remembering Napoleon's dictum that "a small sketch is better than a large report," Bunau-Varilla scoured stamp shops in Washington and New York for 100 copies of the then-current Nicaraguan definitive series, which depicted the volcano Mount Momotombo with an ash cloud issuing from the crater. He mounted the stamps on sheets of paper and circulated them among the senators as evidence that the volcano was a menace to the proposed Nicaraguan canal.
In his memoirs, Bunau-Varilla wrote "This was the last shot of the battle. It simply decided the fate of this long controversy. The day following, Senator [Jacob] Gallinger [of New Hampshire] asked the Senate if it was reasonable to undertake this colossal work in a country taking a smoking volcano as an emblem for its postage stamps." The Senate decided the issue in favor of Panama.
Bunau-Varilla, Philippe. Panama: The Creation, Destruction, and Resurrection. (New York, 1914)
McCullough, David G. The Path Between the Seas: The Creation of the Panama Canal. (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1977.)
Click the icon for a printable, illustrated version of "Soliloquy of a Postage Stamp" by Ernest W. Brady. It's a wonderful piece that expresses why so many of us are fascinated by these little bits of paper and glue! Print it out or save it to your hard drive by right-clicking on the icon and selecting "Save Target As." You will need the free program Adobe Acrobat Reader to view this file. (If you do not have it, you may obtain it here.)
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