Barely three weeks ago on January 14, 2022, a huge eruption on Hunga-Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai, an uninhabited volcanic island, and submarine volcano and accompanying tsunami of the Tongan archipelago in the southern Pacific Ocean, began. The eruption climaxed powerfully the next day. Hunga Tonga is 40 miles north of Tongatapu, Tonga’s main island, which suffered enormous devastation.

Located in Oceania, Tonga is an archipelago in the South Pacific Ocean, directly south of Samoa and about two-thirds of the way from Hawaii to New Zealand. It consists of 169 islands, 36 of them inhabited, and cover a 500-mile-long north–south line.

The volcanic eruption and accompanying tsunami severed an undersea fiber-optic cable and communications are still limited. Crops and water supplies were contaminated with volcanic ash. Buildings, vehicles (including precious farm equipment) and boats connecting Tonga’s remote islands to its mainland were damaged or destroyed. Amazingly the death toll seems to be limited to five.

Most banks and money-transfer services were forced offline. This crippled aneconomy characterized by a heavy dependence on remittances from the more than half of the country’s population who live abroad. These remittances to Tonga are the equivalent of 37 percent of the gross domestic product, the highest figure of any nation in the world.

Tonga is home to some 106,000 people, but more than double that number liveoverseas, mainly in the U.S., New Zealand, and Australia. Over 70% of the Tongan inhabitants live on its main island, Tongatapu. Although an increasing number of Tongans have moved into the only urban and commercial center, Nukuʻalofa, the nation’s capital.

While reports of the disaster have largely vanished from the news, tens of thousands of Tongans in the diaspora are dealing with the supply chain crisis in their ongoing efforts to help their people in the homeland.

Philatelicly, Tonga was one of the originators of shaped stamps, which were largely derided as gimmicks when first issued in the early 1960s. Today, more collectors value these early groundbreaking stamps. Shown at the beginning of this post is a philatelic souvenir cover with the complete set of the 1963 Gold Coin issue commemorating the first gold coinage of Polynesia. The stamps show the head of Queen Salote Tupou III as well as the Queen standing, which are the obverse sides of the koula coins, and the reverse side showing the coat of arms. Shown below is a registered letter from the Vava’u island group in Tonga to the capital of Nuku’alofa featuring pineapple-shape stamps of 1978. Also shown is a cover from Tonga to the U.S. marked “Return to Sender” (quite a round trip) partially franked with a five-sided stamp, also issued in 1978, featuring King Taufa’ahau IV.

A Young Boy’s Letter to His Father (Canada)

Sometimes it’s what’s inside an old envelope that means more than the stamps and other markings on the  outside. Inside this registered letter to Albert Grant is a letter from his young son, Arthur W. Grant, that  was a true labor of love as the hand-drawn lines, careful printing and dots between each word indicate.  Arthur is writing to his father from the town of Bridgeville. His father is working in the iron mines in the region.

Santa Claus and Christmas are on young Arthur’s mind, as well as a mouth organ and necktie. But it seems that more than anything, Arthur wants to know if his Father will be home for Christmas. The little boy  pencils numerous “X’s” to indicate love and kisses for his Father.

What a sweet letter, as well as being visually “alive” with Arthur’s handiwork.

Stamp Overboard! (Morocco)

Writing and addressing a postcard home left insufficient space for the stamps on hand. The top half of an unfortunate commemorative was attached to the bottom edge of the card. The bottom half was left dangling!

One would expect that journeying from Morocco to the U.S. the dangling stamp would have been at least partially lost “Overboard.” Not so, even though the stamp was bent and cancelled on the picture side of the card. How in the world did that stamp hang on and survive an Atlantic crossing!

I’d say its miraculous journey was a one-in-a-million experience…but I’d be wrong. See the second postcard below, which employed the same stamp arrangement, though the commemorative here was cancelled where it adhered to the card—and not bent.


A Unique Father/Son Achievement in U.S. Postage Stamp Art (USA)

One of the most challenging—and beautiful—achievements in U.S. postage stamp artwork is  the “50 State Bird and Flower” stamps issued in 1982. The imagery is exquisite, with each stamp deftly composed and different from every other. Each bird/flower combination has a  naturalness of appearance that seems inevitable. And each is beautifully silhouetted with white space.

What makes these stamps unusual is that they were the first U.S. stamps created by a Father and Son artist team: Arthur (1917-1990) and Alan (1950- ) Singer.

There were creative challenges. Each stamp had to be distinctly different, not to mention visually appealing, and yet several states had the same state bird. For example, the Cardinal would appear on seven stamps, and the Western Meadowlark on six. As for state flowers, the Apple Blossom and Magnolia appear twice and the violet three times. And yet looking at the sheet of 50 stamps, those multiple renderings of bird or flower aren’t noticed because each presentation is unique.

Father and son were up to the challenge. Arthur was a noted avian illustrator having published Birds of the World and Guide to the Birds of North America. In his words, “There are many illustrators who are only concerned about portraying birds—or other animals—accurately. While this is, of course, very important, I try to make my work artistically good as well as accurate.”

It was Arthur’s practice to begin work in the early morning in his Jericho, New York, studio and continue to late at night. Father and son worked together on separate drawing tables. Arthur would position the bird on his art board and indicate to son Alan the approximate position of the flower. Alan would then sketch the flower art on the board. Father and son first made rough sketches of their subjects and then proceeded to greater detail, at times using pastels for color. When they deemed their sketches satisfactory, the drawings were transferred to art board in paint. The process was smooth, with each artist achieving his vision.

Those final paintings were five to seven times the size of a stamp. The artwork required intense focus, and stamina as well, to achieve the graceful lines, minute detail, and vibrant color that would reproduce well at stamp size.

The result: 50 beautiful and engaging miniature works of art—a high point in U.S. postage stamp creativity.

In the Spring of 1982, Charles Kuralt happened into a post office to buy some stamps and emerged with a sheet of the State Birds and Flowers stamps which in turn led to a segment on CBS News Sunday Morning expounding on the work of the Father and Son artists. Take a look at this unique artistic achievement:

Holhwein’s Adler Typewriter (Czech Republic)

Typewriters, whose hayday has passed, interest me. I like the process of using a machine to create something—in this case a tangible document. And “Typewriters on Stamps” is a collecting topic that I know one philatelic friend pursues with passion.

The typewriter advertising postcard shown here was illustrated by Ludwig Hohlwein, a leading and influential German graphic designer in the first half of the 20th century. The woman’s image shows his flair for progressive fashion illustration which he utilized on behalf of a number of clients. I don’t know anything about the typewriter other than what is printed below the illustration abaout the manufacturer: ADLERWERKE VORM. HEINRICH KLEYER A.D. FRANKFURT.

The message on the reverse side of the card refers to Herr Ludwig Thoma, the owner of a typewriter retailer located in Karlovy Vary, Czechoslovakia. The card was sent in February 1928 from Karlovy Vary to Pisek, also in Czecholovakia, and is correctly franked at the postcard rate with a 50 Haléřů stamp featuring Tomáš Masaryk, the Czechoslovak politician, statesman, sociologist and philosopher (Sc117).


The Four Seasons in Antarctica! (Ross Dependency)

Heat-activated imagery on stamps, once unique, has been seen frequently in recent years. On 7 October 2020, Ross Dependency issued a set of four stamps using this printing technique to present a unique visual approach to the four seasons. Since Scott Base is a New Zealand research facility on Ross Island in the Antarctic, you might wonder about what would appear on a set of four stamps themed “Seasons on Scott Base.” The fact that the stamps have to be heat activated to reveal the underlying imagery only adds to the mystery, but the real thrill for me was seeing the photographic imagery.

The photographs were taken by Jonny Harrison, an electrician on the base. The visual representation of each  season is stunning:
$1.40 – Aurora Australis (Southern Lights)
$2.70 – Spring Sunrise
$3.50 – Summer Sunset
$4.00 – Autumn Scene

(This article originally appeared in the July 2021 issue of Philateli-Graphics.)

Birdhouses on Stamps? (Denmark, Great Britain)

About four weeks ago on a sunny day I photographed my favorite neighborhood birdhouse (“The Hippie Camper”) with its swirling paint job and back end which has come unattached at the base. I’m thinking birds live here no more. The following week the snow came. Birds probably still didn’t seek shelter here, but who knows?

I got to thinking about birdhouses on stamps. Were there any? I explored a bit and found two (Denmark and Great Britain). That’s a small number compared to the many,  many birdhouses in my neighborhood, but it’s a start. Perhaps you know of more and can let me know.

And how about stamps on birdhouses?





Morning Glories (Australia, Hungary, Pitcairn Islands, Tuvalu, USA)

  One of the highpoints of the early morning walks my wife and I take is a stretch of chain link fence that hosts Morning Glories in different shades. The fence bounds part of the scenic school property I mentioned in a previous post about a Horse Chestnut tree. Earlier this summer the crew that tends the grounds cut down the Morning Glories, but thankfully they bounded back.

Wikipedia notes that Morning Glory is the common name for over 1,000 species of flowering plants in the family Convolvulaceae, whose current taxonomy and systematics are in flux. Not in flux, however, are the tributes paid to this beautiful flower on stamps from around the world.

Now it’s late September, and as Summer slips into Autumn, nights and mornings are growing cooler. The photos shown above were taken about three weeks ago, and now the blossoms are turning in on themselves. I’ll miss that abundance of color we saw on Summer mornings.

A Pecan Tree Wasn’t There! (Brazil, French Morocco, Togo)

Some weeks ago I wrote about a Horse Chestnut tree I admired. And in the last few weeks another tree caught my eye.

This summer my wife and I have been buying fruits and vegetables from a farm. It’s the “last farm back,” as the handmade signs nailed to trees on the potholed road indicate. There I was drawn to a large tree with an abundance of small nuts. I asked the farm woman what kind of tree it was. “Pecan.” I was amazed. We’re in Maryland. I think of Pecan Trees (Carya illinoinensis) as being southern, as in Texas, Louisiana, Georgia. Yet here it is.

I thought this discovery would make an interesting post—a followup to the Horse Chestnut story. I looked for images of Pecan Trees on stamps, assuming an easy search since trees are a common stamp topic. “No Pecan Tree!”

I did learn that Pecan Trees are native only to the southern U.S. and Mexico. That limited range likely accounts for “No Pecan Tree” stamps. The Pecan is, however, the state tree of Texas (an interesting story), and a difficult tree to propagate. They’re slow to grow and bear nuts, which can have differing characteristics from differing trees, so grafting from mature trees is an obvious strategy for propagation. This grafting was first accomplished in about 1846 by a slave, Antoine, at the Oak Alley Plantation in Louisiana.

And did you know the pecan isn’t a nut? It’s a member of the hickory genus and is a drupe, a fruit with a single pit surrounded by a husk.

Searching for Pecan Trees on stamps, a few others (trees and stamps) intrigued me. A French Moroccan stamp (above) featured a goat herder. And is that goat attempting to climb a tree in the background? This photograph (Wikimedia) would seem to confirm that possibility.

A  leaf-and-nut-shaped stamp from Brazil (left) honors the Cashew Tree of Pirangi, which entered the Guinness Book of World Records 1994. That single tree covers a mere two acres!

And then there was the comforting scene of a teacher and students planting trees in Togo (below). I commend them.

So, a Pecan Tree wasn’t there (on stamps), but unexpectedly there is one near me, though without any nesting goats—at least none that I’ve seen.

Beautiful Netherlands

Many people, including stamp collectors, find the stamps of the Netherlands a bit too avante-garde, but I’ve always admired how their designers push “the boundaries.” This sheet from 2006 contains five stamps for ordinary mail use within the Netherlands. It would’ve been easier to put multiple copies of the stamp on a sheet side-by-side, and certainly more economical. The Netherlands, however, chose to do more by making a sheet whose title “Beautiful Netherlands” (Mooi Nederland) is composed of perforated letters. And in addition to the playful Eurasian Spoonbill (Platalea leucorodia) with a camera around its neck on each stamp, other images of the wildlife and natural beauty of Vlieland, the subject of the stamp, are attractively presented on the sheet.

Vlieland is an island in the northern Netherlands, one of the West Frisian Islands, lying in the Wadden Sea. It has one major town, Oost-Vlieland and is the second most sparsely populated municipality in the Netherlands. Most of the island is sand dunes, but there are some wooded areas and meadows. More than anything, there is piece and quiet.

“Beautiful Netherlands” is a series that began in 2005 and continues to today. Many of the sheets contain five different stamps as does the sheet below from 2014 which features Ceramics from different areas of the Netherlands: Loosdrecht, Tegelen, Delft, Harlingen and Makkum.