Stamp collecting can be whatever you want it to be. There’s discovery and beauty, humanity and history—pretty much everything. Share the journey with me…and with these happy kids! Stay in touch.
From early in 1921 to late in 1923 Germany experienced one of the worst periods of inflation in history. For example, to mail a postcard locally at the beginning of 1921 the postage required was 30 pfennig. In December of 1923 the cost to mail that same postcard was 16 billion marks.
During this period of inflation, rates often changed more quickly than stamps could be produced to meet the new requirements. Confusion was rampant, and stamps whose face value had become too low to be of any practical use became waste (or later were included in inexpensive packets sold to new collectors worldwide).
I “rescued” the stamps shown above from the trash at my local stamp club. Years of neglect enabled changes in humidity to curl these stamps into worthless rods, but I found them visually striking. Their most unusual state reminded me of those inexpensive stamp packets from my youth, and more importantly of a period of extreme hardship in Germany.
The graphic variety of large numerals on stamps has also always fascinated me. The combination of the repeated numeral “5” and the column numerals (9, 2, 3, 4) from the stamp sheets shown in the close-up creates a striking visual for me.
Alois Senefelder (1771-1834) invented the lithography printing process which today accounts for most of the world’s printing output. Senefelder was a German playwright and actor who could not afford to have a play he had written published, and so he conducted experiments in the hope of finding an inexpensive printing process that would enable him to self-publish. His experiments led to his using smooth limestone and an acid-resistant greasy marker that allowed him to etch an image into the flat stone surface. The stone could then be inked, and paper pressed against the stone would receive the printed image. He refined his discovery and eventually started a publishing firm.
With most of the world’s postage stamps now being printed using the lithographic process, it’s surprising Senefelder only appears on three. Compare that with Gutenberg who has been honored by numerous stamps.
My favorite Senefelder stamp was issued by Austria in 1998 to commemorate the bicentennial of the discovery of lithography. The stamp features a litho stone on which Senefelder’s likeness has been etched, and the stone is being hand-inked with a roller. This reminds me of my days as an art student when I was fortunate to have been able to experience the stone lithography process.
The other two Senefelder stamps honor him with reference to the press he developed to utilize the lithography process. In 1991, Czechoslovakia issued a stamp with Senefelder’s portrait accompanied by a label showing Senefelder’s schematic for his press. In 1972, Germany issued a stamp featuring the Senefelder press to mark the 175th anniversary of the invention of the lithography process.
In the past few years, I’ve found Senefelder in two interesting places, my hometown of Baltimore and in Mexico City. While walking in the old part of Mexico City I noticed two busts high on the façade of a building. Even from afar I could identify Gutenberg, and with the help of my camera’s zoom I saw that the other bust was that of Senefelder. Obviously this building at one time had been occupied by a lithographic printer.
Back in Baltimore, the buildings once occupied by the lithographic printing firm of A. Hoen & Company are being repurposed into a multi-use complex composed of social entrepreneurs, non-profits, service providers and researchers. I recall decades ago visiting the Hoen firm and seeing numerous old broken litho stones at the edges of the parking lot. The firm had long since converted to printing with metal litho plates.
The firm, founded in 1835, occupied the site from 1902-1981 and was one of the world’s most prolific lithographic printers. It specialized in high-quality sophisticated work, including maps influential in settling the west and establishing national boundaries, e.g., maps for the joint commission determining the boundary between the United States and Canada. Above the entrance to the main Hoen building are symbols relating to Senefelder and the lithography process as well as the Latin words, “Saxa Loquuntur.” (The Stones Speak).
Sometimes a cover with no unusual philatelic worth attracts me simply because of its visual appeal. This “green” airmail cover is a good example. The six-cent airmail rate is paid with six one-cent stamps from the 1941 National Defense Issue. Normally the carmine 6-cent airmail stamp from the Transport Plane Series would have been used for this kind of letter, but other stamps or combinations were regularly used as well.
What struck me about this cover was its beautiful overall green appearance. Did the mailer intentionally choose to use the six green one-cent stamps to compliment the green envelope, or were these stamps simple at hand? I tend to think the former, though we’ll probably never know. In any event, this green-on-green cover caught my eye when I was examining a box of miscellaneous U.S. covers. So, almost 80 years after this cover flew from Washington D.C. to Los Angeles, it’s landed in my collection of visually pleasing covers.
To celebrate the centennial of the National Park Service in 2016, the USPS issued a sheet of 16 stamps, each associated with a particular NPS location—parks, seashores, and even an aquatic garden. I confess, my preconceived notion of another series of park photographs caused me to give the sheet just a cursory look. Big mistake!
This year, ordering stamps for my mailing needs, I included the NPS sheet in my order. Examining the stamps, three years after issue, I was struck by the Bandelier National Monument stamp. “What an unusual photograph,” I thought, “such unusual colors.” Then, looking closer and reading the back of the sheet, I discovered the image wasn’t a photo at all, but a pastel-on-paper by Helmuth Naumer, Sr. (1907-1990). (This is a humiliating confession by a supposed “serious” philatelist.) And there were two paintings among the stamps as well. “Why,” I thought, “would a sheet of scenic stamps include three rendered as art and 13 as photographs?”
Back to the Naumer pastel, Administration Building, Frijoles Canyon (1935-1936), which I originally thought a highly unusual photograph. Naumer used pastels so as not to lose time mixing oil paint, because of “the fleeting effects of sky and water and our own New Mexico landscapes with fast changing colors sweeping rapidly across it…” And Naumer has captured, at least for me, the sensations of those changing colors and the movement of light and clouds across the landscape.
He was born in Germany and 1907, and in 1926 moved to the U.S. motivated by stories of cowboy life he had read about in novels. In 1932 he settled in Santa Fe and began working with pastels. Naumer said that, “…coming to the Southwest was like coming home.“ He was commissioned by the National Park Service to create artwork for newly built visitor centers constructed by the Civilian Conservation Corps. In 1935 and 1936 he created fourteen pastels for Bandelier National Monument, which remain in the museum’s collection.
So, having failed to initially notice the artwork content of the NPS centennial sheet, Naumer’s pastel introduced me not only to a unique artist but to the fact that the National Park Service is not just parks. In fact, of the 419 park sites spread across the U.S., 385 have museum collections—from fossils to fine art—all specific to the mission of the individual park. That museum system is the largest in the world, with individual park collections ranging in size from less than 100 objects to over six million—all focused on the natural and cultural heritage of the U.S.
And to answer my earlier question of why three artworks and 13 photographs: the National Park Service is parks…and much more!
In the late 19th century, stamp use was often indicated with a manuscript cancel, especially on revenue stamps. The cancel was applied with a nibbed pen and ink. Today, the script cancel is making a comeback. We’ve all received mail cancelled by the hand of zealous postal workers. The nibbed pen is gone, often replaced with a broad-tipped black permanent marker. These cancels have been the subject of numerous complaints in the philatelic press, because they deface beautiful stamps and at times are even an insult to properly cancelled mail items. More than once, however, I’ve considered starting a specialized collection of these cancels. But then I think, “To what end?”
A favorite of mine is the First Day Cover displayed here, thoughtfully prepared by a philatelic friend using the “World of Literature” stamp from Great Britain’s Millennium Collection set of 1999–The Artists’ Tale. You can guess my reaction when I found this letter in the mailbox: “!#..!*#” But the cover also intrigues me. This could be the centerpiece of my contemporary manuscript cancel exhibit. This particular script cancellation is well-considered and undoubtedly from a practiced hand. Note how many of the lines mimic the angles of the book illustrated on the stamp. Also note how many lines crisscross. (Crosshatched cancels were common in ‘old’ days.) The energy and overall positioning of the script on the stamp is also appealing. Finally, what a marvelous sequence of juxtapositions: delicately articulated postal cancel and frenetic script cancel; quill pen from days of yore and ballpoint pen scribbling today; postal cancel ‘kissing’ the stamp’s bottom edge, and script cancel smothering entire stamp; two postal workers displaying quite different approaches to the same task.
I love this cover.
I’ve long forgotten when I first saw the 1969 East German stamp that pictures the Planeta-Variant printing press, an amazing machine that had a significant presence in my professional life. When I first sighted that stamp while still a student, I probably didn’t bother to note the press name in the upper left corner. The stamp is one of two promoting the annual Leipziger Fruhjahrsmess (Leipzig Spring Fair), a trade fair that traces its roots back to the Middle Ages. The famous exhibition logo (at right) designed by Erich Gruner in 1917, is also shown on the stamp. That logo is probably second only to “DDR” in the number of times it has appeared on East German stamps.
In 1980 I accepted a job with the Geo W King Company in Baltimore, a 100 year old firm, that billed itself as a provider of advertising, corporate communications and printing. King had three large-format, 2-color, sheetfed offset presses, two of which were Planetas, as well as smaller single color presses, and a reputation for being one of the finest offset lithographers in the region. Many a publication and poster for the National Gallery of Art in Washington were printed by King.
The history of the Planeta company and press is one that includes many technical advances in printing:
1898 – Dresden Schnellpressenfabrik founded by Joseph Hauss and Alfred Sparbert.
1902 – Company patents the “planetary drive” (source of the Planeta name) for letterpress presses.
1910 approx – Company acquires bankrupt stamping and enameling plant in Naundorf (Radebeul today).
1922 – First Planeta sheetfed press leaves factory in Radebeul.
1932 – Company launches the world’s first four-color sheetfed offset press, the Planeta-Deca.
1938 – Company name changed to Planeta.
1945 – Factories completely destroyed in war.
1946 – Planeta Druckmaschinenwerk virtually ceases to exist.
1948 – Planeta makes a fresh start as VEB Druckmaschinenwerk Planeta.
1965 – Launch of the world’s first unit-type litho press, the Variant 4—a press design that has since become the accepted norm. (Unit refers to the two towers in the center of the pictured press. Each tower, or unit, houses the ink well, cylinders and rollers for a single ink color.)
1990 – Collaborative agreement is signed with Koenig & Bauer, a company tracing its origins back to the first power press manufactured by Friedrich Koenig and sold to The Times (London) in 1814.
1990 – Koenig & Bauer increases its stake in Planeta to 75.2% and renames it KBA-Planeta AG.
1994 – Koenig & Bauer acquires the remaining 24.8% interest in KBA-Planeta AG.
1998 – Planeta celebrates its centenary.
Portions of the historical chronology adapted from Koenig & Bauer website (https://www.koenig-bauer.com/en/holding/history/) and used with permission of Koenig & Bauer.
During a recent visit to Portland OR, I had the opportunity to visit Uptown Stamp Show. The “Show” is actually a stamp shop. I remembered the Linn’s article of August 2016 hailing the March opening of Uptown Stamp Show—bucking the trend of stamp store closings. I wanted to experience this place.
The “Show” is just as the article described—a friendly, informal, small shop that welcomes everyone. Two stamp-show-size tables are covered with green table cloths and surrounded with comfortable chairs. Stock is on shelves on both sides of the office and includes collections, sets, covers, individual stamps and more. The worldwide inventory is extensive.
David Markowitz, the store’s founder, sat at one of the tables and discussed stamps and collecting nonstop with customers. His knowledge is deep, and he shares it generously. He even agreed to be photographed with me (top photo) outside the ‘Show.’ I was a buyer of 14 covers for $14 (see two below) to spice up the look of my worldwide albums. Obviously my purchases were not the financial high point of his day, but my visit to the ‘Show’ was a high point for me. When in Portland, I highly recommend Uptown Stamp Show to you.
Often when I’m looking for something “fun” to think or write about, I leaf through cacheted covers I’ve purchased inexpensively at stamp shows, simply for their visual appeal.
Today I did just that, and was drawn to the 1993 stamps from the People’s Republic of China featuring paintings of Zheng Benqiao. The six stamps of the set were used on two first day covers—three stamps on each. One of the covers is shown above. The beauty of the calligraphy and the use of delicate brushstrokes in the paintings gently, but profoundly, convey a sense of peace and balance in life.
Zheng Benqiao (1693-1765) was from Xinghua, Jiangsu Province, along the eastern-central coast of China. He began life poor, and his father taught him as a child to paint. Through singular application to his studies, he became a magistrate in Shandong Province, but was uncomfortable with the magistrate’s life and critical of the life of government officials. After a little more than a decade as magistrate, he was reportedly criticized for building a shelter for the poor, and he resigned his position. He then began selling paintings to earn a living.
Zheng expressed himself through his artwork. He was adept at freehand ink and wash painting and was eventually recognized as one of the Eight Eccentrics of Yangzhou, known for their individualistic and expressive artistic styles. Zheng is best known for his drawings of bamboo, orchids, and rocks. His calligraphic style was influenced by his drawings of graceful orchids and firm bamboo. He stressed the combination of poetry, calligraphy and painting, adding lines from poems to his paintings to more fully express this themes.
And so an inexpensive first day cover becomes a meditation on a philosophy of life: Simplicity—less is more.
Why do I collect stamps? The images! Many collectors want to delve into the meaning behind those images—to explore. I do that too, but oftentimes it’s simply the imagery that excites and satisfies me.
I always look closely at stamps featuring houses and trees. Why? I’m just interested in the amazing variety of structures people build for themselves.
And trees—they don’t entice like flowers, but the simplicity of their appearance—trunk, branches, leaves—has more affinity for me. And maybe it’s their size too. Maybe it’s because I climbed so many as a boy and could hide in the cover of their leaves—watching all from above. And maybe too it’s because we children could play with our little cars and soldiers and cowboys in the raised roots of the fat old oaks behind our house.
Perhaps I’m a topical collector. I haven’t organized a collection of either houses or trees, but when I’m ready, my first stop will be the American Topical Association. There I’ll find others who share my interests, as well as the ATA’s comprehensive topical stamp checklists.
Let me know what your favorite stamps are that picture houses and trees.
Encountering this series of “Tulip” stamps, I assumed because of the subject, the clean contemporary design, and the PTT POST imprint, that these were from the Netherlands. There was, however, no monetary value on the stamps.
The other bit of information on the stamps was PORT BETAALD (“POST PAID” in Dutch). Further investigation led to the fact that these were used for Bulk Mailing.
I was drawn to these stamps for their beauty—a refreshing approach to bulk mail stamps, which in the U.S. are generally quite bland in design. Perhaps even junk mail can bring a smile to your face, provided the stamp is appealing.