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).
As a boy, decades ago, if asked, “Who invented printing?” my answer would have been, “Gutenberg.” Today, if asked, “What did Gutenberg invent?” my answer would be, “The first effective method for printing in volume with movable type.”
So, if Gutenberg didn’t invent printing, why is he so admired? His genius was much like many other “inventors.” He took pre-existing technologies (printing, the press, movable type, ink) and modified each so that they functioned together as a viable system for producing cost-effective multiple copies of printed matter.
It’s likely that the bulk of his inventiveness and labor was devoted to perfecting a system for making and using movable metal type, hence my Favorite Gutenberg stamp is not one that features a portrait of him, but rather features movable type. Besides, no portrait of Gutenberg is known to have been made until 1567, 99 years after his death, so what we see on stamps is an artist’s imagination at work.
My Favorite Gutenberg stamp was issued by Germany in 1983, one of a pair of Europa stamps. That stamp features a piece of cast metal type against a background of Gutenberg’s gothic type letters that can be found in his printing. The stamp focuses on the most significant aspect of the printing method he developed—movable type. And personally, I see in the imagery of one piece of movable type against a background of numerous printed letters as a graphic metaphor for the explosion of knowledge that Gutenberg’s “invention” made possible.
Looking through some German commercial covers, I felt this Hausding & Bermann cover smile back at me. The designer, who arranged the images of some H & B products on the cover, surely had a sense of humor and created a predecessor to our own ubiquitous round yellow smiley face.
Illustrated German commercial covers of the late 1920s were far outnumbered by covers simply listing a company’s name and address. There was a reticence toward progressive advertising practices in early 20th century Germany. This company, however, opted for a bit of whimsy, though I wonder if the Smiley Face actually registered with the owners.
Hausding & Bergmann, founded in 1919, was a supplier of furs and other products for the hat industry, both manufacturing and retailing. Though I haven’t been able to discover much about the company, evidence on the cover suggests that it was not small and probably was an active mailer. Of course, the illustrated cover itself and the company’s description on the cover point to this conclusion, but the stamps on the cover also provide evidence. Note that each stamp has the company and city initials punched into the stamp. This kind of punched stamp is called a Perfin (perforated initials) and was employed by organizations that used large numbers of stamps to control possible stamp pilfering.
cover is franked with one 15 and two 5 pfennig stamps paying the 25 pfennig
rate for a letter under 20 grams mailed to a foreign country (in this case to
Switzerland) on February 28, 1929. And it probably brought a smile to the face
of the recipient!
Yesterday I purchased this cover at a meeting of the Baltimore Chapter of the German Philatelic Society. Why? Not for its value as postal history, because it surely was sent to a stamp collector who enjoyed seeing new issues—in this case the complete set of German farmhouse semi-postal stamps issued in 1995. (The stamps grossly overpay the normal mailing and registration fee.)
Just as the recipient surely enjoyed seeing these stamps in his daily mail, though delivery appears to have been a problem judging from the delivery notice hand-stamp, I experienced some of that joy because of the clean colorful renderings of the houses—one of my favorite stamp topics. I like seeing the amazing variety of house designs from around the world and learning about how these structures relate to their particular locales.
The 200+70pf stamp at the upper right of the cover particularly attracted me. Searching Wikipedia I learned that this type of timber-framed farmhouse is found in Northern Germany and the Netherlands and combines living quarters and barn under one roof. It contains a large hall with bays on the sides for livestock and storage, and has living accommodation at one end. (Note: That close proximity of large, farm animals and humans would not be my first choice for living accommodations.)
By the late 19th century this type of farmhouse had become outmoded. Rising living standards, larger harvests and the introduction of farm machinery all contributed to its demise. Examples of these thatched-roof houses, however, can still be seen in many north German villages.
And what about those extended pointed gables? With a magnifying glass I could see horses’ heads were carved at the end of each timber. This same imagery can be seen on the coats of arms of many north German towns.