Licked by a Stamp

By Ashleigh Brilliant   |   August 13, 2020

I have never been much of a hobbyist – but for a few years in my teens, I was very keen on postage stamps. This fizzled at about the same time I got interested in girls – but to this day, whenever I receive a letter with a stamp I haven’t seen before, I tear it off and automatically put it away.

Why do we have stamps at all? Mail systems existed long before postage stamps were introduced. But the big difference was in the method of payment. Somebody had to pay for the service – and for many centuries, it was the recipient. But what if the recipient didn’t want it, and refused to pay for it?

The big change came first in Britain in the 1840s. An energetic reformer named Rowland Hill persuaded Parliament to initiate a system of pre-payment, and to charge a basic rate of only one penny. So, you bought a penny stamp (they were originally black, and had a profile of the young Queen Victoria) and you stuck it on your letter using your own glue. Adhesives requiring moisture came later – and self-adhesives were still a century away. Stamps also had to be cut with scissors from a sheet, because perforations too were a later development. It wasn’t until recently that the letter bore proof that its transportation and delivery had already been paid for.

When other countries took up this idea, they put their own monarch’s head, or some other national symbol, on the stamp – until it was realized that there were virtually no limitations on the subject matter, color, or design which a stamp could carry, so long as its price was clearly indicated. There is also usually an identification of the issuing country. The one major exception was Britain, since at first it was the only player in the game. And it became traditional that British stamps were still the only ones stating no country of origin.

With all the different stamps soon in circulation, collecting them became a serious hobby. There was a time when an avid collector might claim to have a complete collection of all the world’s stamps. But those early days have long since yielded to ever-more-finely subdivided categories of specialization, by country, subject, era, and even such abstruse distinctions as perforations and watermarks.

Another early development, as with anything considered “collectible,” was the concept of value, and the rise of commerce. Shops appeared, catering to the hobby now called “Philately.” Catalogs were published, with columns of prices for stamps in used and unused condition. Rarity was of course a major qualifying factor – and it was every collector’s dream to discover in his collection a rare stamp of high value.

I myself, when still a schoolboy in England, was bitten by this bug, and once – just once – I actually bought a stamp on speculation. I didn’t usually buy stamps at all. But I did occasionally go into stamp shops – and on one occasion the dealer showed me a stamp which, although very reasonably priced then – I think just a dollar or two – he said was sure to soar in value.

The stamp, in “mint” condition, whose face value was just one penny, was issued in 1945 by the east African country of Nyasaland, then a British colony, now Malawi. It depicted, not very flatteringly, a native member of a force called the “King’s African Rifles.” The dealer told me it had proven so unpopular when first issued that it had been withdrawn, and replaced with another design. So, I bought it, and put it away in my album.

I hardly ever looked at that album over the next sixty years, but I always enjoyed thinking that, among its nearly 3,000 stamps, I had one which might be a true treasure. What finally triggered me to find out was a news item about a comic book (the first appearance of Superman), which had sold for $1 million. I went down to our local public library, and was pleased to find the latest 7-volume edition of the Scott Standard Postage Stamp Catalogue (which itself sells for $560). And sure enough, there was my Nyasaland stamp. And what was it now worth? Twenty cents, the very least value that Scott gives to any stamp!

Unless that dealer was being totally dishonest, my theory was that the stamp may indeed have been withdrawn, but, instead of being destroyed, the thousands of unsold copies were simply unloaded upon gullible collectors, like me. Caveat emptor!


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