“Romance of Postage Stamps” was a book on postage stamps that I read several times in the late seventies and early eighties. I’m not sure how it came into our possession, it might have been a gift from my grandfather or my brother might have bought it. It was a neat book that provided an excellent overview to an amateur stamp collector. Young impressionable children often tag along with their older siblings and are influenced by their interests. In my case, my brother was an avid philatelist and his enthusiasm rubbed onto me.
My brother had a modest stamp collection but it really started to burgeon in 1978 when he started collecting stamps seriously. We used to stay in Kumara Park (Bangalore) and the GPO (General Post Office) was on the way home from school. We usually knew when a new postage stamp was going to be issued (I think the schedule was available in the GPO) and after school, my brother and I would walk to the GPO on our way home. Sometimes our neighbor and friend, Deepu would join us. First-day covers accompany the issue of a postage stamp. Sticking the postage stamp on the first-day cover and then having the stamp sealed on that day is a collector’s item. The earliest first-day cover that I remember was that of a stamp commemorating one of Jamini Roy’s paintings. It was a 25 paise stamp and was issued in early 1978. We would walk home from the GPO, a total distance of about 3 miles.
My brother had built his collection up gradually, I sought instant gratification. My brother gave me a few of his duplicates to start my collection. I also ended up buying a collection of assorted stamps from Toyland on Commercial Street. Depending on the price, one could get 25, 50 or 100 stamps from all over the world. Prominently displayed were colorful stamps from Manama, including ones that were triangular in shape. Useless in value but designed to catch the eye of young, eager stamp collectors. My cousin bought me an album in December of 1978 when I visited Bombay and I was on my way.
The “Romance of Postage Stamps” informed me that the postage stamp was invented by Sir Rowland Hill and the first postage was issued by Great Britain in 1840. It was called the “Penny Black” and featured the profile of Queen Victoria. At that point in time, postage rates were fairly high in Britain and rates were charged based on the distance involved. The recipient paid for a letter on delivery. The story goes that Rowland Hill (or someone known to him) observed a sad looking woman refusing to accept a letter from a postman that had been addressed to her. The gentleman in question paid for the letter and handed it to the woman. After the postman left, the woman told the gentleman that he had wasted his money. The letter was blank, it was mailed by her son who stayed far away and this was his way of letting his mother know that he was doing well. Rowland Hill then hit upon the idea of charging a nominal prepaid flat rate for letters and hence the postage stamp was born.
While the postage stamp itself was invented in 1840, postal systems have existed from antiquity. These relied on couriers and were primarily used by royalty to send and receive messages. Egyptian pharaohs reputedly used a courier service almost 4500 years ago to spread their decrees throughout their kingdoms. While some couriers were sent from point to point, there were also organized stations at regular intervals to carry the mail. The Persians in 500 BC had what was the equivalent of the Pony Express to distribute mail throughout their kingdom. Early couriers were also intelligence gatherers. In India, the Mauryan dynasty (300 BC) apparently had some form of a postal system, while Sher Shah Suri extended and renovated the Grand Trunk Road built by the Mauryans and reputedly organized regular stations along its then 1200 mile length to carry dispatches. The first postage stamp in India, the “Scinde Dawk” was issued in 1852. Less than 100 are in existence today. Incidentally, the rarest stamp in the world is the magenta “1 cent British Guiana”. Issued in British Guiana (now Guyana) in 1856, only one is in existence and it sold for $9.4 million in 2014!
As I started to collect stamps, I learned its vocabulary from my brother. “Errors” were defects that were inadvertently introduced during the production process. Errors can be of different kinds, a couple of examples – “Double” where the paper passes through the press twice during the printing process and “Tete Beche” where one of the designs on the plate is inverted in relation to the other. This results in two identical stamps that are adjacent and inverted and hence they are “Tete Beche” or “head-to-tail” in French. Separating the stamps will remove the error. Then there were “se-tenants”, two different stamps, joined together. A classic example is
My brother started accumulating the tools of the trade – tweezers to handle the stamps, hinges to attach stamps to albums. Albums with sleeves that did not require the stamps to be attached. Those were the days before the internet and the definitive source of information was the “Stanley Gibbon Catalogue”. First published in 1856, it had a listing of stamps based on different regions. It lists the year of issue, the issue price, market price as well as pictures of the stamps. My brother managed to get an old second- hand copy from one of the pavement book-sellers in Bombay. This acquisition was quite a coup for us! An unexpected gift of old Japanese stamps came from my mother’s uncle who had lived in Japan, perhaps in the late 1950s. These beautiful stamps were unfortunately stuck to an album with glue. We were enthusiastic enough to attend a Philatelic Exhibition at Vidhana Soudha in Bangalore. There were rare stamps, stamps with errors and themed collections.
Collecting stamps had the happy side-effect of provoking my curiosity. I was introduced to countries across the world. When my dad’s cousin returned from a trip to the US, I was able to identify monuments such as the Washington Memorial and Jefferson Memorial in his photographs based on the stamps that I had in my collection. I learned about history, geography, flora and fauna, folk dances of India and the British Royal dynasty. I learned of the erstwhile princely states in India and currency system prior to Independence. Politicians, rulers, freedom fighters, artists and poets. I learnt that Helvetia was Switzerland, Nippon was Japan and “Magyar Posta” stamps were issued by Hungary. No doubt, these were snippets of information but they were catalysts to read up on these subjects.
Greeting card envelopes were eagerly examined for stamps. We also requested relatives to hold onto stamps and pass them on to us. We raided the dustbin of the local Unemployment Exchange office in search of stamps. Then there was “stamp man”. An elderly gentleman, slightly built with hair pressed back who would visit our school once a week with a briefcase that contained old stamps, postcards and first day covers. He was patient enough to let us look at (not handle)
Our forays to the GPO became less frequent after we shifted houses in 1981. The GPO was out of the way, the bus service was sparse to our house and I did not have the enthusiasm to go the extra mile. My brother though has continued to collect stamps and his interest waxes and wanes. I suppose that when he does retire, he will have an interesting hobby to pursue. I do wonder though how many young children are attracted to stamps now. Email, text messages and video chats have taken the place of letters. Each time I visit the post office here, I see blocks of mint stamps on sale but I do not buy them. On a recent trip to London, I happened to see a sign for a Philatelic exhibition in the corridor of the British Library. It was an unexpected surprise and I finally go to see a Penny Black. There were several stamps from all over the world but I was short for time. In fact, with 8 million items in the collection, I would never have enough time to go through their collection! As I turned around to leave, I happened to spy a press. It was a Jacob Perkin’s press, used to print the Penny Black. I experienced just a mild quiver of excitement, the 1978 version of me would have been ecstatic to see the Penny Black as well as the press. My romance with the postage stamp was indeed at its peak then, I was now just a nostalgic observer.
All stamps featured in this blog are from my brother’s collection.
The Featured Image depicts the “Brides of India” series