‘A bit of paper just large enough to bear the stamp, and covered at the back with
a glutinous wash’
A commemorative stamp is one which is issued to commemorate a special event of some
kind. Sounds quite straightforward. So it shouldn't be too difficult to decide which
was the world's first commemorative stamp, should it? It's not that easy, is it ever!
Some will argue that the United States 15 cent black of 1866, depicting Abraham Lincoln,
the first stamp issued after his assassination, was the first commemorative. But
there was never any announcement or indication that the stamp was anything other
than a regular stamp. Others will suggest that the 'Jubilee' set, issued in Great
Britain in 1887, the year of Queen Victoria's Golden Jubilee, should qualify, but
once again, these were issued as regular stamps. It was just a case of fortuitous
To see a much larger version of the images below, please hover your cursor over the
Where to next?
The first undoubted commemorative stamps were, in fact, a series issued in 1888 by
the Australian State of New South Wales, to mark its Centenary. The stamp is inscribed
'One Hundred Years' so there is no argument about its being for a special event!
And, as they say, that was the start of something big. Since then, stamps have been
used to mark just about any and every kind of event. (And the designs have improved!!)
One of the world’s first commemorative stamps
Although the GB 'Jubilee' stamps of 1887 weren't actually commemorating the Golden
Jubilee, HM didn't miss out entirely, with Canada issuing a series including dollar
high values for the Diamond Jubilee in 1897
And Canada has another first, too. Although Christmas stamps only seem to have been
with us for a few years, the first one was issued way back in 1898, though the purpose
seems to have been to prove just how much red ink was needed to print a map of the
And unlike Royal Mail who seem to believe, if they believe anything at all not politically
correct, that Christmas is simply a commercial opportunity, Australia continues to
reflect its original meaning, commissioning original art for their Christmas stamps.
In Foreign Parts, commemorative stamps were beginning to take hold, too. In 1893,
the United States produced a set of 16 values from 1c to $5 to mark the 400th anniversary
of Columbus's getting lost while looking for the East Indies. How many post offices
these days would spend the time and effort on producing such an extensive collection
of intaglio stamps, every one hand-engraved? There seems to be a curious belief among
some American collectors that these stamps are the world’s first commemoratives.
1893 minus 1888 seems to add up to five in my book!
Australia Christmas stamp 2009
The 4c value from the 1893 Columbian Exhibition series, not quite the world’s first
But it wasn't just anniversaries which were commemorated. Current events made the
philatelic front line too, especially the new science of aviation, which gripped
the public imagination through film and press in a way not seen before.
For a while, it seemed as though airships were to be the ocean liners of the future,
with a number of headline-hitting world voyages, but the destruction of the Hindenburg
at Lakehurst, New Jersey, in 1937 effectively ended the dream, and heavier than air
machines took over. Though perhaps, just perhaps, whoever it was issued this stamp
for Uranus was being a little bit premature! (At least it would seem that English
is the Official Language!)
The Graf Zeppelin over the world - a political message?
You always knew that the UPU was the Uranus Postal Union, didn’t you?
Political events also have their part to play in the story of commemoratives. In
November1965 the colony of Southern Rhodesia made a unilateral declaration of independence,
and issued stamps to commemorate the event.
Because the international community did not recognise Rhodesian Independence, these
stamps weren't recognised either. It was only after the creation of Zimbabwe that
they even appeared in the stamp catalogues!
But it is probably people who provide the most popular subjects for commemoration.
Elvis has appeared on stamps from all around the world, including some from places
he had probably never even heard of, such as Tadjikistan and Western Sahara!
Now we have arrived at Philatelic Marketing, and the linking of stamp issues with
other products - and this particular product brings a whole new meaning to the term
'mug shot!' The Elvis stamp from the United States - on the mug - holds the record
(ho ho ho) for the greatest sale of any commemorative stamp: 517 milliion. So, if
you have the odd sheet or two, good for you, but don't give up the day job....
There is absolutely NO enlarged version of this picture!
Closer to home, the death of Diana Princess of Wales resulted in an enormous range
of items, not just stamps and miniature sheets, first day covers, booklets, presentation
packs, but figurines, tea towels, biscuit tins, dolls, plates, some from countries
not immediately associated with Diana's life or work, such as North Korea, and Estonia,
and just about anything and everything else you can imagine.
And so we have moved from the world of celebration to the world of celebrity. Stamps
and philately have reflected this journey, and presumably will continue to do so,
as long as people want (and are able!) to send things through the post.
Somehow, though, having your mail materialise on your desk offers so much less of
an experience than waiting for the postman to call...