STAMPS tell Story of Science (Oct, 1934)
STAMPS tell Story of Science
By Charles Irving Corwin
How a Collection Album Illustrates Many Fields of Human Knowledge
AN you describe in detail a common United States postage stamp? If you can, you are exceptional. We may think we know what they look like, but it is difficult to tell offhand, without peeking, just what figures or phrases are used, let alone describe the central picture or border designs. The recent Mother’s Day and NRA commemoratives are exceptions, since the criticism and controversy aroused by these miniature steel engravings made us examine them more closely. It is recalled that a vase of flowers was smuggled into the reproduction of Whistler’s Mother, and the fact that in the NRA issue business was out of step with labor and agriculture provoked some amusement, but even these two well-known stamps will catch most of us. For instance, is the “three cents” spelled out or indicated by a figure? Moreover, what three-cent stamp issued last year had both “three” and “3” on it?
But the study of stamps can be more than a game. It is instructive. Virtually every science from Archaeology to Zoology can be traced in stamps. A few examples will make this clear.
Take botany, for example. A wealth of familar and exotic plant specimens may be-gathered from among the postage stamps of the world, and these samples may be pressed between the pages of an album much as actual specimens from a field study are preserved. Cuba’s palms, China’s rice fields, balsams (misnamed balsam Peru) from Salvador; rubber-gathering in the Cameroons, cotton in Egypt, grapes from Liechtenstein (carried on a tray by the famous “grape girl”); the cedars of Lebanon, Ecuador’s national pride “cacao” (cocoa to us); and as a final, beautiful instance of the close tie-up between stamps and botany, the Turk’s-head cactus after which the Turks Islands were named (see the Turks and Caicos Islands stamp illustrated on this page). The” student of zoology may arrange his specimens in order from A to Z, from the ant-eater of British Guiana to the zebra of Nyassa, Africa. Moreover, he may classify by species and sub-species. Even varieties of the same animal may be studied; for example the small-eared tractable Indian elephant on the Sirmoor Indian state stamp, and the big-eared, mean-disposed, wild elephant of the Belgian Congo. The single-hump Arabian camel (dromedary) and the double-hump, Bactrian camel of the Orient may be compared in issues of the Egyptian Sudan and Tannou Touva (Northern Mongolia, under Soviet influence). Liberia, especially, is a happy hunting ground for the zoologically inclined philatelist, with pygmy and normal-size hippos, zebra-striped antelope, red bush-pigs, Senegalese buffalo and others.
The ornithologist is not forgotten, for there are doves of peace bearing olive branches, belligerent condors from the Bolivian Andes, India’s peacocks, New Zealand’s swans, and the Chinese “wild goose” special delivery, which is the largest.stamp in the world. The ichthyologist will ignore the sportive whale of the Falkland Islands stamp, as not a true fish but a mammal, but he will find many real “fish” stamps, including a Newfoundland issue showing a close-up of salmon and entitled “King of the River.” Anthropology, the study of man, and ethnology, covering his geographic distribution, are made absorbing through stamps. Man’s habits and habiliments, customs and costumes can be examined and compared on thousands of stamps. The original Biblical races of Shem, Ham, and J a -pheth; or the more scientific amplification to the quintet of White, Yellow, Black, Red and Brown races, are authentically pictured. The half dozen shown on the opposite page give an idea of the possibilities. Starting with the Gabon warrior in feather headdress, self-lacerated features, poison-tipped spears, and cannibalistic appetite, we can run the gamut to the dainty “Mademoiselle from Luxemburg.” The Indian prince in his effeminate-looking turban, and next the white-collared, bespectacled President of Liberia. The oblique-eyed little patriot-martyr, Dr. Sun Yat Sen, “Father of the Chinese Republic,” and, last but not least, the real Americanâ€” Salvador’s honored Indian Chief Atlacatl.
In another group of stamps we have man’s conquest of the air, graphically and pic-torially traced. Some of these stamps are merely commemorative, others are quite logically issued for air-mail use. Begin with the beautiful Greek air-mail stamp that depicts a mythical figure of Icarus ascending too near the sun with his wings attached by wax. In the next stamp Brazil honors her citizen, Santos-Dumont, who flew that box-kitelike contraption on November 12, 1906. What progress is recorded in a quarter of a century when one compares that crate of Santos-Dumont’s with the modern streamlined monoplane that flies across the face of the Indo-China air-mail issues!
Next is a German invention, the Graf Zeppelin, but on a Russian stamp! The Russian stamp commemorated the flight of the “Graf” from Frederichshafen to Moscow, and the receipts from the sale of the stamp went into a special fund to build a similar dirigible for the Soviet.
Bringing the progress of aviation up to date, there is the attractive Belgian stamp recording Prof. Au-guste Piccard’s historic ascent into the stratosphere on August 18, 1932. But new records are being made and broken so rapidly, that fifteen months later the U.S.S.R. Balloon “Stratostat” broke Piccard’s record by 9,000 feet. Russia quite naturally did not miss the chance to crow over this achievement, and so brought out a beautiful, graceful series depicting their own aeronautical experiments, with the laconic phrase at the top: “19,-000 M.” (about thirteen miles to us).
Turning to the field of invention, we find a modern printing press in ancient Mongolia! But that is not strange when we recall that China was the birthplace of printing. Still it is a long step from the crude block printing before the T’ang Dynasty, Seventh Century A.D., to the high-speed rotary press of the twentieth century. Mongolia merely wants the word to know that she is keeping up with the procession. Next! The bearded gentleman from Belgium, Zenobe Gramme, is credited with the practical invention of the dynamo. Belgium wants to advertise the fact; hence the portrait of the inventor and his invention. Incidentally, the specialist who collects only stamps depicting men with beards has a real find in this specimen.
And here is a familar sightâ€”a steam shovel, and in Russia. The Soviet gives notice that she is prosecuting her five-year plan, with a series of stamps picturing blast furnaces, power sites, and tractors.
From the dynamo it is but a step to a hydroelectric plant on the banks of a river famous in song and folklore. Thus does the Irish Free State advertise a prosaic scene on a romantic stream, the River Shannon. There is another amusing fact: this huge power dam was built by a German contractor and many German workers were imported to work shoulder to shoulder with Irish native laborers.
Canada is so proud of her new bridge across the St. Lawrence at Quebec, the longest cantilever bridge in the world, that she pictures it on a 12-cent postage stamp. This bridge has a tragic history for on the first attempt to raise it, it crumpled and dashed eighty-five workmen to death. Now this mighty channel span of 1,800 feet forms a splendid monument to engineering success in spite of temporary failures.
Only two other bridges in North America have been honored on postage stampsâ€”the bridge crossing the Mississippi at St. Louis, and the Niagara Falls Suspension Bridge. There are, however, hundreds of other historic structures on stamps of other countries and there is agitation to have our famous Brooklyn Bridge commemorated post-ally in the future.
What’s wrong with the St. Kitts-Nevis stamp shown on this page? Columbus was a man ahead of his time in more ways than one, but the designer of this stamp took liberties in permitting him to discover America, in 1492, with the aid of a spyglass. The telescope was not invented until more than a hundred years later. This stamp was issued several times with varying designs from 1903 to 1922, but no one took the trouble to convince the postal authorities of their error.
St. Kitts-Nevis is not the only British possession to make a slip on its stamps. The Dominion of Canada issued a map stamp in “Xmas 1898” that showed British possessions indicated over the pertinent phrase: “We hold vaster Empire than has been.” This map accidentally but prophetically claims the Transvaal, which was annexed by proclamation September 1, 1900; and the Orange Free State (Boer), which did not acknowledge British sovereignty until May 31, 1902. Moreover, German Southwest Africa was not transferred to Great Britain until after the world war in 1919.
The old New England “Blue Laws” and the strict observance of the Sabbath by the Pilgrim Fathers are recalled by some of the stamps of Belgium. The one illustrated at the right shows the portrait of the late King Albert. What is odd about this stamp is the small detachable portion at the bottom. If a writer has religious scruples or does not wish to offend some strict observer of the Seventh Day, he leaves the stamp intact, since the perforated tag states Ne Pas Livrer Dimanche and Niet-bestellen Op Zondagâ€”the French and Flemish for “Do not deliver on Sunday.”
Some collectors specialize on stamps depicting boats, steam, sail, or hand propelled. The three boat-stamps reproduced at the bottom of the opposite page hail from Russia, Greece, and Costa Rica, and each stamp carries a story. First: When a Greek multi-million-naire died he bequeathed a million and a half dollars for the purchase of a warship. They bought an Italian vessel, and renamed it the “Averoff,” in honor of their dead, public-spirited citizen. Second: the stamp at the left shows the effect of uncontrolled inflation, since it sold for 250,000 rubles, of which 200,000 went for postage and balance of 50,000 rubles to charity. The Slavic inscription at the bottom reads with bitter brevityâ€” “for the hungry.” The third stamp is canceled with five parallel vertical lines, which indicates that the government wanted to make a lot of money at the expense of collectors and so arbitrarily canceled a stock of stamps that had never seen postal use.
We have purposely placed the lady and gentleman in the lower right-hand corner of this page back to back, since the gentleman for years would not recognize the lady; and in fact snubbed her, by refusing to honor her as a stamp on a letter in his country. It’s a long story; but briefly the Falkland Islands which lie 250 miles off the Argentine coast, have been a cause of contention among several nations. England and Spain nearly went to war over this 6,500 square miles of rocky land. Argentina once claimed it and had a dispute with the United States. But in the end the Empire upon which the sun never sets, sat on the islands, and the Falklands are today British territory with British subjectsâ€”all 2,000 of them.
The Shanghai local city stamp in the center of the opposite page is curious on several counts. It contains words in three languages, English, Chinese, and Latin. With a good reading glass, the flags of a dozen foreign nations can be recognized. Austria, Great Britain, France, Germany, ” Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, Italy, Russia, Spain, Sweden, and the United States. Moreover, the Union Jack seems to be under the Stars and Stripes. However, England has no cause to object, because Old Glory also seems to be upside down.
The Spanish stamp at the top of this page is one of a series commemorating the “Spanish-American Union.” However, in this case the stamp is not especially symbolic of union since the two halves appear in the wrong relation to each other. This error occured when the stamps were perforated incorrectly.
The Serbian stamp to the right of it is one of the “horror” stamps of Europe. When viewed normally it appears to be merely the profile view of the “Tsrni Gyorgye”â€”Black George, Serbian patriot, and a subsequent monarch, King Peter. But if the stamp is inverted, as illustrated, the death mask of King Peter’s immediate predecessor can be discerned. The story is told that King Alexander and his consort were brutally murdered so that King Peter might ascend the throne, and the martyred king’s friends secretly arranged to have his death mask hidden in the stamp design to advertise the assassination.
Which of the Jamaican stamps on this page contains an error? The one to the left has a mistake in its left border. The Union Jack should have a wider stripe of white above on one part of the cross than below. This error was later recognized and corrected, as can be plainly seen in the similar stamp to the right. For a while, however, the Union Jack appeared upside down, a sign of distress.
The two stamps from Roumania in the lower left-hand corner of page 36 contain the portraits of a father and son who both ruled the country. But the son, ex-king Michael (Mihai) was king before his father, and if he outlives his dad he will probably be king again. His father, the present king Carol II, temporarily renounced his right to the throne. But the thought of being king finally proved too much of a temptation, so Carol returned to his native country and his son became a little prince again.
In the lower right-hand corner of this page are two unusual stamps: one from Poland, the other from Brazil. The Polish stamp not only honors its two heroes Kosciusko and Pulaski, but also pictures our own George Washington. This stamp was issued as a’ friendly gesture by Poland coincident with our observance of the Washington bicentennial. The Brazilian stamp shows the late King Albert of Belgium and the President of Brazil. It was issued to commemorate the visit of the Belgian sovereigns to South America.
At the bottom center of page 36 is an illustration of the two sides of a Russian stamp issued in 1913 as part of the Romanoff Centenary series. This stamp was printed for paper money, but it also could be used for postage. Below it are the front and back of a Latvian stamp. This was printed in 1920, when paper was scarce, so the resourceful Letts used some half-finished money as paper stock. A block of ten Latvian stamps, imperforate, are shown at the top of page 36. These came out in 1918; and old German war maps were pressed into service. The back of this same block is also shown.
There is an American law which prohibits advertising on stamps. But in Italy, the postal administration was permitted to sell advertising space on the bottom of the regular postage stamps. Above are shown two examples; one a liquor ad, and the other a more familar emblem of the Singer Sewing Machine, “Maccione Singer Percucire”.
New Zealand also experimented with selling advertising on postage stamps, but in a less blatant form, since the advertisements were on the back of the stamp. The stamps shown above were issued in 1878, and the advertisements were written either vertically or horizontally as the clients desired. The agency even used some of these stamps to announce the fact that such space could be bought.
In the heyday of stamp advertising in New Zealand, letters were decorated with sales messages extolling such commodities as table jelly, cocoa, coal, dandelion coffee for indigestion, men’s and boys’ clothing, cough remedies, and Irish moss. In the United States, however, the law against this kind of advertising has been enforced so jealously that even on the commemorative issues brought out in connection with national expositions the Postmaster General has to be careful as to the phrases used in the designs.
This advertising is now discontinued, but many governments publicize their important products and resources both in the designs on stamps and on specially worded cancellations.
Thus does the stamp collector’s album illustrate the many fields of human knowledge and activity. It is a picture-book of science, in which the pictures are all diminutive works of art, produced by skilful designers. To turn through its pages is an adventure in which strange and interesting facts are confronted on every leaf.