Germany: Birth of an Empire

The German Empire was formally declared by Prussia on May 4, 1871 from the miscellany of states once ruled by the Austrian Habsburgs. A loose confederation of 39 states had emerged from the aftermath of the Napoleonic era and it was the powerful northern state of Prussia, under the leadership of the ‘Iron Chancellor’, Bismarck, that led a unification of the German states.

The German Empire’s first adhesive stamps were issued in January 1872 with a design featuring an embossed German eagle within a circular medallion. The colourless embossed relief is surrounded by a coloured border inscribed with ‘DEUTSCHE REICHPOST’ (German State Post) across the top and the value below.

There were two sets of these stamps issued, one with denominations in taler and the other in gulden currency. Acknowledging that the empire was in its infancy, the taler series was intended for use in the North German Confederation territory while the gulden series was used in the grand-duchies of Baden and Hesse, the duchy of Saxe-Meiningen, and Sigmaringen, the province of Coburg in the duchy of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha. They were also used in the Prussian controlled districts of Frankfurt-am-Main and in the principality of Scwarzburg-Rudolfstadt.

The taler series was in denominations of ¼, ⅓, ½, 1, 2 and 5 groschen (30 groschen = 1 taler) while the gulden series was in denominations of 1, 2, 3, 7 and 18 kreuzer (60 kreuzer = 1 gulden). There are examples of the ½, 1, 2 and 5 groschen stamps as imperforate and the 2 groschen stamp has been recorded with the embossed eagle struck twice. Just two weeks after the eagle series was released, a pair of high value stamps was issued in the northern districts – 10 groschen and 30 groschen. These are rare and highly collectable stamps.

Germany 1872 1 groschen definitive stamp with imperforate edges
1872 1 groschen with imperf. edges

In July 1872, the Prussian State Printing Office made a new printing of the eagle stamp. These are distinguishable from the earlier issue as they feature a larger embossed eagle. These stamps were issued in the same denominations as the original series with additional 2½ groschen and 9 kreuzer values. There are numerous variations of colour in this latter series and imperforate examples of the 5 groschen are known. The 2½ groschen and 9 kreuzer stamps were released again in February 1874 with their values overprinted over the eagle for easier recognition.

Germany 1872 2½ groschen definitive stamp with embossed large eagle
1872 2½ groschen, large embossed eagle
Germany 1874 2½ groschen definitive stamp with overprinted value
1874 2½ groschen, large eagle and optd. value

A uniform decimal currency was introduced across the German Empire in 1875 based on the mark (100 pfennigs = 1 mark) and a new definitive issue released for use across both northern and southern districts. Whilst the currency had changed, the eagle motif was retained for denominations above 10 pfennigs.

To view postal issues of Germany, please visit the M&S Philately HipStamp store.

Papal States: Deciphering Postal History

This folded letter was sent from Perugia, the capital of the Papal State of Umbria to the Vatican City in the mid-1800’s. The cover features two hand stamps dated 4th and 9th of June (‘GIU’, Giugno). However, the years are difficult to decipher, one suggesting 1852 and the other 1862.

Perugia is mid-way between Florence and Rome and is approximately 100 miles from the latter. The year is of interest because this is the period of Italian unification, although the Papal States were not definitively unified until 1870. For this reason, this letter carries a Papal States imperforate stamp. The postmark is heavy on the stamp’s value but by comparison with other stamps in my collection, the original value is believed to be 3 bajoochi.

Papal States 1852 / 1862 content of letter sent from Perugia to Vatican City
Contents of the Letter

The paper, given its thickness and age, is very frail. The letter inside has script that is far from clear so the contents have yet to be revealed. The script of the letter itself appears to be incomplete and would suggest that there may have been multiple pages that are sadly now missing. Similarly, the addressee is unclear – is the letter addressed to a President of some kind?

On the reverse there is a red seal and what appears to be a destination / receipt postmark but the place name in the postmark is not clear. Almost certainly the letter would have been delivered the 100 miles by coach or horseback. Also, on the reverse is an impression (cancellation) most probably that of the actual recipient. This is interesting as it has some undecipherable text around the edge inside which appears to be a Bishop’s mitre and the initials RCA. What does this mean?

When this letter was purchased from a dealer in Switzerland the mention of ‘Pontifico’ was made in the item’s description, a term that is used to describe a yearbook for the Catholic Church that ceased publication in 1870.

Clearly, there’s more work to be done to reveal the secrets of this letter but it’s a great example of the joy that can be had deciphering postal history!

To view postal issues of the Papal States, please visit the M&S Philately HipStamp store.

Barbados: Tale of Two Kings

Barbados, the most easterly island of the Caribbean group, is argued to have first been visited in the early 16th century by the Portuguese who named it ‘Los Barbados’ after its bearded fig trees. It was claimed in the name of King James I in 1625 by the captain of an English trading ship. It was colonised two years later when 80 English settlers landed. By then, King Charles I (son of James I) had ascended to the throne. The colony remained relatively untouched by the Franco-British wars that pestered the region in the 18th century and the colony became prosperous on crop exports such as sugar cane, cotton, coconuts and the production of rum.

Regular mail services between Barbados and England were established by a mailpacket agency in the capital, Bridgetown, early in the 18th century. The British handled overseas mail until the Barbados Post Office was established in 1858 and the first Barbados adhesive stamps were issued in 1852.

As the tercentenary of the colonisation of Barbados approached, it was proposed that a commemorative issue be released to mark the event in the islands history. Subsequently, the issue was significantly scaled back and just one stamp of 1d denomination was issued in February 1927. A design competition was launched and 49 essays were submitted. A local Barbadian, Miss H E Cox, won the competition with a design depicting portraits of both King Charles I and the present King George V, emphasising the historical placeholders. The two facing portraits appear in medallions either side of a coconut palm grove and the elaborate border depicts acanthus leaves.

The stamp was printed by the London printers, Bradbury Wilkinson, and in accordance with Universal Postal Union rules, the 1d stamp be printed in red – although colour variations from carmine to deep carmine can be found. The stamp was printed on Multiple Script CA watermarked paper and a perforation gauge of 12½, although 12 x 12½ varieties are also available. More than 400 stamps, overprinted ‘Specimen’, were sent to the Universal Postal Union and a further 600 retained for delegates of the Postal Union Congress in London 1929.

To view postal issues of Barbados, please visit the M&S Philately HipStamp store.

New Guinea: Imperial Struggles

New Guinea is the most eastern of the islands formerly known as the Dutch East Indies. The island is mountainous, covered with jungle, infested by mosquitos and in the 19th century, the native tribes remained feudal and cannibalistic. The sea around the island was littered with coral reef and shoals making sea navigation difficult around it’s shores. Little wonder that the Dutch remained in the western part of the island, closer to its other possessions in the East Indies.

Germany, having become a unified country in Europe in the 19th century sought possessions to grow its global empire and the north eastern region of New Guinea was a target. There were British missionaries in the south east in proximity to Cape York at the northern tip of Queensland, Australia but the land borders between the Dutch, German and British missionary regions were never challenged. The interior of the island was far too difficult to enter due to its mountainous spine and jungle, and therefore remained the territory of the indigenous tribes.

German New Guinea 1897 5pf definitive stamp with overprint
German New Guinea 1897 25pf definitive stamp with overprint
German New Guinea from 1897 to 1901 including overprinted stamps of Germany and yacht key-type
German New Guinea 1901 80pf yacht key-type stamp

However, World War I changed all that. All German possessions around the globe were considered potential bases for the German war effort and as a result were occupied by Allied forces. Postage stamps of Germany and later German New Guinea had been used in the north east of New Guinea from 1888 until 1914. Australia occupied German New Guinea in 1914 at the outbreak of war but German postage stamps continued to be used in this territory with the overprint ‘G.R.I.’ (Georgius Rex Imperator, the Royal and Imperial cypher of George V) and the value in British currency.

New Guinea 1914 stamp of German New Guinea 20pf overprinted G.R.I. 2d
1914 German New Guinea 20pf Optd. G.R.I. 2d

By 1915 these overprinted stamps were exhausted and so Australian stamps were issued that were overprinted ’N. W. Pacific Islands’ for use in New Guinea and other South Sea Islands such as Samoa and the Marshall Islands, that had once been German possessions.

New Guinea 1915 5d stamp of Australia overprinted N. W. Pacific Islands
1915 5d Australia Optd. N. W. Pacific Islands
New Guinea 1918 10s stamp of Australia overprinted N. W. Pacific Islands
1918 10s Australia Optd. N. W. Pacific Islands

At the end of World War I, German New Guinea became the ‘Mandated Territory of New Guinea’ (a term defined by the League of Nations for assigned German and Turkish territories) and in 1921 was placed under Australian administration. The overprinted Australian stamps continued to be used until 1925 when the first postage stamps for the Mandated Territory were issued. These stamps were titled ‘Territory of New Guinea’ and continued until the last issue in 1939.

Japan’s invasion of much of the Far East at the start of World War II caused concern on the island of New Guinea. The threat of an invasion forced the Australian administration to move its headquarters from new Guinea to the Australian mainland. As a result, no new stamp were issued in the territory until after World War II had ended.

To view postal issues of New Guinea, please visit the M&S Philately HipStamp store.

Netherlands: Coming of Age

Queen Wilhelmina succeeded to the throne of the Netherlands in 1890. Her father, King Wilhelm III, had featuring on the first adhesive stamps of the Netherlands issued on New Years Day, 1852. On succession, Wilhelmina was just 10 years old and not of age to reign alone. Her mother and second wife of Wilhelm III, therefore acted as regent.

The first definitive issue featuring Wilhelmina as monarch appeared as early as 1891. The design is similar to that of the 1872 issue but rather than featuring Wilhelm III, a profile of the young Queen was substituted. This issue remained in circulation until 1895 and included denominations ranging from 3c to 1g (Guilder). Queen Wilhelmina came of age in 1898 when aged 18, she was formally inaugurated in Amsterdam. A new definitive issue, featuring the Queen in her inaugural robes, was released the same year, giving rise to the rather disparaging reference to the ‘Fur Coat’ or ‘Bontraag’ issue.

Denominations up to 20c were monochrome with denominations of 17½c and above appearing in dual colours. 5c and 12½c denominated stamps were required to be printed in red and blue respectively under the terms of the 1897 Universal Postal Union of Washington. Between 1908 and 1910, further denominations from 15c were also issued in two colours. Unwatermarked paper was used for all printings although later issues were printed on slightly thicker paper. The typical perforation was 12½ although variations of 11, 11½ , 11 x 11½ and 11½ x 11 also exist.

Netherlands 1898 Queen Wilhelmina 12½c definitive stamp
1898 Queen Wilhelmina 12½c monochrome
Netherlands 1898 Queen Wilhelmina 25c definitive stamp
1898 Queen Wilhelmina 25c dual colour
Netherlands 1923 Queen Wilhelmina 5c imperforate definitive stamp
1923 Queen Wilhelmina 5c imperf. variety issued during printers strike

A 1g stamp was issued to commemorate the inauguration in September 1898. A 10g stamp was issued in 1905 for the purpose of money orders and despatch of heavy parcels. The 10g was originally proposed to be printed in ‘national orange’ but after colour trials, an alternative shade of orange-red was selected. This design was retained for a Guilder denominated issue the following year. The latter issue of the 1g can be distinguished from the earlier commemorative issue by the slightly thicker lettering of the word GULDEN and wider spaced numerals. Primary issues:

  • 3c Orange, Sage Green, Claret
  • 4½c Mauve
  • 5c Rose-Red (various shades)
  • 7½c Deep Brown
  • 10c Grey-Lilac
  • 12½c Blue
  • 15c Brown
  • 15c Carmine & Blue
  • 17½c Mauve
  • 17½c Brown & Ultramarine
  • 20c Green
  • 20c Grey & Yellow-Green
  • 22½c Olive-Green & Brown
  • 25c Blue & Rose
  • 30c Maroon & Mauve
  • 40c Orange & Green
  • 50c Violet & Grey
  • 60c Green & Olve
  • 1g Blue-Green
  • 2½g Dull Lilac
  • 5g Lake
  • 10g Orange-Red

The series is an interesting one to collect as there are multiple colours and shades, the postmarks of this era are quite distinctive and there are numerous variations. Increases in postal rates between 1919 and 1923 resulted in numerous surcharges. In 1922 the design of the 10c denominated stamp was redrawn with wider spacing of lines of the background. In January 1923, 5 and 10c denominations were issued imperforate as a result of a printers strike.

Queen Wilhelmina remained on the throne from 1890 until she abdicated in 1948 due to ill health. Wilhelmina died at the age of 82 in November 1962 is was buried in the Dutch Royal Family crypt in Delft.

To view postal issues of Cyrenaica, please visit the M&S Philately HipStamp store.

Cyrenaica: 1950-51 Issue for Services Rendered

The race for overseas colonies and territories by European nations in the 19th and 20th centuries had been predominantly led by the British and French. The political far right aspirations of the Germans and Italians did not manifest itself until the early to mid 20th century.

In the case of Italy, Mussolini championed the invasion of north and east Africa including Cyrenaica, now an eastern coastal region of Libya in North Africa. Lying close to the Egyptian border, Cyrenaica embraces part of the barren Sahara desert. However, it’s strategic importance lay in the coastal strip adjacent to the Mediterranean. In order to seal the colonisation of this territory, Mussolini encouraged Italian farmers to move to Cyrenaica to work the more fertile part of the land. The local Arab nationals received little compensation for the loss of their farms and needless to say, they were aggrieved by this ‘land grab’.

At the start of World War II Italy joined the axis powers. The British had an established base in Egypt and conflict became inevitable following attacks on shipping passing through the Mediterranean having transited or about to transit the Suez Canal. Many of these attacks emanated from North Africa.

Understandably, any attack by allied forces on the Italians in north Africa was supported by the farmers of Cyrenaica. They were able to supply information to the British in Cairo that proved invaluable, such as the supply of war materials through the port of Benghazi and troop movements. With the Italians struggling to make an impression, Hitler decided that German troops should be sent to North Africa under the command of Field Marshal Rommel (known as the ‘Desert Fox’) to provide support.

Cyrenaica 1950 stamps featuring Mounted Warrior
1950-51 issue featuring Mounted Warrior

History records that the allies eventually defeated the axis forces in North Africa, the Italians were ousted from the region and the farmers of Cyrenaica regained their territory. For services rendered, Britain recognised the leader of the Seusi tribe as Amir of Cyrenaica and gave the territory its ‘Protection’. It is for this reason that the one issue of Cyrenaica postage stamps during the ‘Protected’ status is listed in Stanley Gibbons catalogues of British Colonies and Protectorates. In 1951, Cyrenaica become a part of a unified Libya and so ended the British Protectorate.

To view postal issues of Cyrenaica, please visit the M&S Philately HipStamp store.

Egypt: 1931 Graf Zeppelin Overprint

At the end of the 1920s, airships and nitrogen filled balloons came to prominence as a form of air travel and the conveyance of light freight such as mail. This development was primarily championed by a German engineer called Zeppelin. He set up his base in Bavaria, Germany, in close proximity to Switzerland and Austria at a place called Freidrichshafen. This was to remain the headquarters of the Zeppelin industry for 10 years until disasters (including the R101 in the UK and the Hindenburg in 1937) and the threat of World War II put an end to the use of balloon transport as a commercial enterprise. Zeppelin, the engineer, was not a supporter of the Nazi party in Germany but France and Great Britain were very wary that the airships could be used for purposes other than the transport of passengers and mail. Airships had already been used during World War I on bombing raids on London and the Home Counties.

There was little doubt that airships were an efficient and stealthy mode of transport but the terminal and servicing arrangements around the world were not without problems. The hangers were necessarily huge to contain the airships and the anchoring of the balloons at their terminal was not without difficulty. It was not unknown for the crew to have to physically assist holding the airship down whilst loading and unloading took place. In the US, the design of the Empire State Building had the original intention of supporting an anchorage for Zeppelins but this was never realised. Some countries also had reservations about flights passing over sensitive areas, particularly following the events of World War I. This opposition largely subsided within a couple of years as evidenced by the fact that the Graf Zeppelin flew over the Cup Final at Wembley in 1931.

Egypt 1931 picture of Zeppelin over Giza
Zeppelin over Giza in 1931

Despite this, the British had persuaded the Egyptians to deny air space for Zeppelins over the Suez Canal as it remained a strategic short cut for ships travelling to India and the Far East. However, there remained a strong German presence in the Middle East and in 1931 the Graf Zeppelin visited both Alexandria and  Cairo. In 1933, as if to promote the visit of the Zeppelin, an Air Transport Congress was held in Cairo and one of the five stamps in a philatelic set issued to commemorate the event, features the airship.

The stamp featured in this blog is a 27m denomination from the 1926 Egypt Air Mail issue that was overprinted with one of two values – 50m and 100m – a surcharge that was applied when mail was carried by the Graf Zeppelin from Egypt. The featured stamp has the 100m surcharge and the overprint reads ‘GRAF ZEPPELIN AVRIL 1931’ with the value in Arabic and English. The Cairo postmark over the top of the 100m overprint on the original 27m Air Mail stamp means that it is not the easiest to decipher, but it’s a gem nonetheless!

To view postal issues of Egypt, please visit the M&S Philately HipStamp store.

St Lucia: A Case of Unfortunate Timing

The 1936 King George V definitive issue was to be the first St Lucia definitive set for more than 20 years, replacing the portrait illustrations that had dominated for half a century. It was an impressive pictorial set of 12 pictorial designs in values from ½d to 10/ and each featuring a portrait of the King. However, in a case of unfortunate timing, the stamps went on sale on March 1, 1936, a couple of months after the death of the King in January. It had been too late to withdraw the issue but inevitably it would not remain in circulation for as long as was originally intended.

That said, the set of 12 stamps should be celebrated as a stunning pictorial definitive set depicting seven St Lucia landmarks derived from a series of photographs released to the printers, De La Rue, based in London. These views were recess printed as vignettes in black surrounded by an elaborate colour border comprising scrolls and foliage and a face-on portrait of King George in the top right-hand corner – except for the 10/ where a profile portrait appears centre-right. The designs are particularly effective as the colour of the border extends into the vignette, softening the definition between the vignette and the border. The issue was printed on paper with Multiple Script CA watermark and perforated 14. Perforation variations of 13×12 exist for the ½d, 1d  and 1½d  values.

  • ½d Port Castries [Bright Green]
  • 1d Columbus Square [Brown]
  • 1½d Ventine Falls [Scarlet]
  • 2d Port Castries [Grey]
  • 2½d Columbus Square [Blue]
  • 3d Ventine Falls [Dull Green]
  • 4d Port Castries [Red-Brown]
  • 6d Columbus Square [Orange]
  • 1/ Port Rodney, Pigeon Island [Light Blue]
  • 2/6 Inniskilling Monument [Ultramarine]
  • 5/ Government House [Violet]
  • 10/ Badge of the Colony [Carmine]

1936 George V Pictorial Definitive Set featuring scenes of St Lucia

Two of the designs, featuring Government House and Columbus Square scenes, were retained for the subsequent 1938 King George VI pictorial definitive issue. These were of a smaller format, incorporated changes to the border design and included the half-portrait illustration of the King. One additional point of note is that the original 1936 King George V issue included a misspelling of ‘Colombus Square’ on the 1d and 2½d denominated designs which was corrected on the latter 1938 King George VI issue of the 6d denominated stamp.

To view postal issues of St Lucia, please visit the M&S Philately HipStamp store.

Guide: Removing Self Adhesive Stamps from Covers

It’s been a mainstay activity of the philatelist since the dawn of the adhesive stamp … the removal of used postage stamps from covers. Many of us will have commandeered the kitchen sink to soak our on-paper stock before peeling off the stamps and leaving to dry on a neighbouring work surface.

Traditionally, the gum applied to the back of the stamp was based on a water soluble chemical called Dextrin, produced by heating a starch. Indeed, the gum applied to the first stamps of Great Britain, sometimes referred to as ‘cement’, was derived from a mixture of potato starch, wheat starch and acacia gum. This process was effective as it only required a light application of water to activate the gum, traditionally by licking the stamp.

This simplicity was also a limitation. Water soluble gum can be easily activated in high humidity climates and this inevitably led to damaged stock in tropical climates. Its not too surprising that the first self adhesive stamps were introduced in Sierra Leone in 1964. Self adhesive stamps use an oil based gum, can be presented conveniently on waxed paper and are less susceptible to damage in high humidity environments. It took a while for the self adhesive stamps to be more widely adopted, not appearing in the US until 1974 and not until 1993 in the UK. Their adoption is now widespread and, with the recent pandemic in mind, it’s likely they will continue their domination in the interests of improved hygiene. The manufacturing processes are also more flexible, allowing for intricate die-cut shapes and less reliance on perforations.

However, it’s been a rude awakening for the philatelist who has discovered that the traditional method of soaking covers in water simply doesn’t work on self adhesive stamps. If you are one of the many who have attempted this, you’ll acknowledge that the most likely outcome is a severely damaged stamp. Some philatelists advocate soaking the stamp in hot water mixed with dishwasher soap. Generally, I would avoid soaking stamps in hot water as this is very likely to lead to staining (particularly those on coloured paper covers) or permanent damage.

Examples of early self adhesive stamps of Tonga and Sierra Leone

There are a number of products available with the required properties to break down an oil-based gum, including some that have been developed specifically with the philatelist in mind such as Lindner Stamp Remover. Non-aerosol citrus based air fresheners containing a natural hydrocarbon called Limonene have also proved effective. However, I have had most success with Bestine, a Heptene hydro-carbon based solvent. Bestine can be purchased from hardware stores or art stores, is particularly effective at removing self-adhesive stamps and in my experience, does not have any detrimental effect on the stamp.

Now at this point, I should include a health warning. Bestine and similar branded hydrocarbon solvents can be dangerous if misused. They are typically highly flammable and can be harmful or even fatal if swallowed. You should alway follow the instructions for use and always work in a well ventilated environment. I also prefer to use impermeable protective gloves and work over a disposable tray. Further, I decant the solvent into a small sealable bottle with a pipette (or eye-dropper) so that the solvent can be applied to the stamp with some accuracy. 

Using the pipette, a few drops of the solvent can be applied around the perimeter of the stamp. This will be sufficient for the cover paper to become translucent and you will then be able to lift the stamp along the edges. Further solvent can be applied to the centre as the stamp is peeled from the surface using philatelic tweezers. You will note that the residue solvent evaporates rapidly.

So effective is this method that the stamp will often be removed with the gum still intact and almost no trace of the stamp remaining on the cover. If the gum has been retained on the stamp, it can then be mounted on an appropriate presentation surface or, as I tend to do, apply a little talcum powder or baby powder to the gum. This is enough to suppress the adhesive properties and the stamp can be stored in your collection as you would with any other used stamp.

In summary, solvents can be an effective way of removing self adhesive stamps from covers. However, please ensure that you follow the instructions for use and take the appropriate precautionary measures.