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Musings 1999

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USPS Copies a Bad Idea

(Posted October 26, 1999)

The USPS recently announced that it would issue its first “Prestige Booklet,” using the same terminology that Royal Mail uses for its expensive, excessive stamp booklets.

The USPS booklet, to be issued sometime in 2000, will contain ten different stamps with five different denominations, the highest being $3.20, the priority mail rate. Similar to British prestige booklets, the booklet will feature commentary and illustrations to match the subject of the stamps, the history of U.S. Navy submarines.

The booklet will sell for face value, $9.80. Of course, the same subs could be pictures on five stamps at the current letter rate of 33¢ for a total cost of $1.65.

Astute viewers of this web site may ask why I dislike the British prestige booklets, especially in view of the extensive display I created of the “Profile on Print” booklet elsewhere on this site.

The answer is that most of the British prestige booklets contain made-for-collector stamps which simply extract money from collectors who strive for completion. They serve no postal purpose whatsoever. When was the last time you saw a stamp from a prestige booklet on a cover that was not prepared by a stamp collector or dealer?

“Profile on Print” is a bit of a special case because Royal Mail told an informative story and took the time to produce some very interesting and unusual stamps. Even that, however, could have been made a little less expensive. top

Issue stamps now, just in case...

(Posted Sept. 3, 1999)

Linn’s Stamp News of September 6, 1999 reports that 20 nations, whose stamp programs are run by Inter-Governmental Philatelic Corp. of New York, have issues stamps honoring her majesty Queen Elizabeth, the queen mother, “as she celebrates the start of her 100th year of life.” Great Britain is not among the countries involved.

The stamps were issued on August 4, the queen mother's 99th birthday. Why now, instead of a year from now? I think the IGPC is a little worried that the queen mother might not live to see her 100th birthday next year, so they are using this flimsy excuse to bilk collectors out of some money. Of course, when her majesty passes away, the IGPC will be there with even more stamps.

Great Britain, having a somewhat more restrained stamp issuing policy, has not participated in this issue. Certainly, though, we can expect at least one stamp, and probably a set, to honor the queen mother’s 100th birthday next year.

The queen mother was born Lady Elizabeth Angela Marguerite Bowes-Lyon on August 4, 1900. In 1923, she married Prince Albert, the second-eldest son of King George V. When King George passed away, he was succeeded by his eldest son who became Edward VIII. However, Edward VIII abdicated in December, 1936 and the crown was passed to Prince Albert who became King George VI. Lady Bowes-Lyon then became the queen consort.

When George VI died in 1952, he was succeeded by his eldest daughter who became Queen Elizabeth II. Queen Elizabeth, wife of George VI, became the queen mother. In the years since, she has actively participated in many royal and state functions and remains very popular with the British people. top

Freddie Furor

(Posted June 11, 1999)

Reader Jenny Passow writes that there’s some controversy in the U.K. over the stamp picturing pop music star Freddie Mercury. The stamp, called Mercury Magic, is one of four noting entertainers in the June set of Millennium stamps. It pictures two views of the bare-chested Mercury on stage. Mercury was the lead singer of the group called Queen. Mercury died in 1991 at the age of 45.

The fuss has gotten a lot of media attention and was reported on the front page of Linn’s June 21, 1999 issue.

The controversy has two parts. First, Mercury died of AIDS and was known to be homosexual. Many people find that lifestyle to be objectionable and do not believe that a gay person should be pictured on a postage stamp.

Simon Heffer wrote in the British tabloid Daily Mail,

The queen we would rather see on our postage stamps is not stripped to the waist and wearing spray-on trousers. [The stamp honors a man] whose degenerate lifestyle caused him to die of AIDS at an unfortunately early age.

Heffer also called the stamp “vulgar.”

Second, the stamp also pictures the drummer, Roger Taylor, who is very much still alive. The image, however, is small and he would probably not be recognizable except by his place on the stage with Mercury. Some people complain the stamp violates the rule that members of the Royal Family are the only living persons who may appear on British stamps.

Apparently, Royal Mail has no problems on either count. They responded,

Every stamp is approved by the queen (Queen Elizabeth II), including this one, which was also given the consent of Freddie Mercury’s family and by Mr. Taylor.

The (British) National Postal Museum purchased Mercury's childhood stamp collection after his death and proudly displays it at stamp exhibitions around the world. It was shown at the National Postal Museum in London before that facility was closed. top

Arnold Machin

(Posted March 19, 1999)

1p Machin

Arnold Machin passed away on March 9, 1999 at the age of 87. Machin is best known to stamp collectors for designing the current British definitives that are generally referred to as Machins in his honor. A one penny Machin is at left. Ironically, Machin died on the date of issue of the new high-value stamps featuring his design, marking the first time since 1988 that the full range of definitives features the Machin portrait.

According to the obituary in the New York Times, Machin (pronounced MAY-chin) was born into a family of Staffordshire potters and trained in a series of art schools including the Royal College of Art. His first success was the sale of three of his terracottas to the Tate Gallery in London in the 1940’s.

Machin became a member of the Royal Academy, taught at the Royal College of Art and was the Master of Sculpture at the Royal Academy Schools.

In 1964 he was chosen by the Royal Mint to design the first decimal coins. Shortly thereafter, his design was chosen for the new definitive series when the British Post Office was simplifying stamp designs.

Machin’s unique contribution was to start with a sculpture and photograph it, rather than use a photograph directly as had been done with the previous Wilding series. Much effort was spent to get just the right lighting for the photograph. Studio lighting proved unsatisfactory, and Machin was only successful using the muted natural light of a foggy day.

Machin designed additional coins, including the commemorative coins issued for the royal silver wedding anniversary in 1972 and the 25th anniversary of the Queen’s coronation in 1977. However, he never designed another postage stamp.

He is survived by his wife, Patricia Newton, a well-known flower painter, and a son, Francis, an architect.

9d Jubilee

Machin’s efforts were generally praised. Stuart Rose, who began advising the British Post Office on stamp design since 1960 and became the BPO’s Design Director in 1968, noted in his book, Royal Mail Stamps, a survey of British stamp design, that the quality of British stamp designs started to decline in the Victorian period. With reference to the Jubilee issue of 1887, one of which is shown at left, he said,

But if this issue brought a certain stability to the postal service, it also established a pattern of stamp design for the next forty years, a pattern which, in the relatively short time since the appearance of the Penny Black, had changed so radically. Gone was the original directness of statement and simplicity of design…It was not until 1967 that Arnold Machin, with his definitive stamps, replaced some of the dignity and authority that was lost in the Jubilee issue.

1d Wilding

The definitive series that preceded the Machins is known as the Wildings because the photograph used for the portrait was taken by Dorothy Wilding Ltd. The 1 penny Wilding is shown at right. With reference to this series, Rose said,

In many respects, the issue is unsatisfactory, for although all five designs conform in the main to a common pattern, that of a centrally-placed portrait surrounded by oval shapes, decoration and lettering, the differences in detailed treatment all tend to irritate rather than satisfy…Admittedly the 1953 [Wilding] definitives are very feminine, which is quite right and proper for a Queen’s set of stamps, but maybe it is the “proper” portrait (three-quarter profile) of the Queen compared with the “formal” portrait (full profile) that has robbed this issue of an inherent dignity. Unfortunately we had to wait another fourteen years, until 1967, for Arnold Machin to restore some of the lost grandeur with his definitive set.

Of course, with such a radical departure in stamp design, not everyone was in agreement that the change was for the better. An editorial in the July, 18, 1968 issue of Stamp Collecting complained,

In 1840, Frederick Heath created the Penny Black. Nearly 130 years later, Arnold Machin has brought forth the new definitive design. In any other field of graphic design, one would have assumed that immense advances would have taken place over that period.

Yet, Mr. Machin’s major comment has been that, with the use of recess printing for the forthcoming high values in the standard [Machin] design, these stamps come as near as possible to the Penny Black, and apparently he expects praise for his efforts.

The writer goes on to bemoan the lack of text on British stamps, noting how the words “Postage” and “Revenue” have been omitted from many commemoratives. He continues,

Yet British designers have come to press the thesis, on aesthetic grounds, that words are an awkward and limiting encumbrance. So we are left with small portraits of the Queen, plus a value designation, surrounded by perforation. How the mighty have fallen!…

Now we have lost our only pictorial definitives [the Castle high values] without a murmur of criticism from the press, in the name of an invalid antiquarianism but really as an excuse for sloppiness and lack of creative ability. Give us back our pictures!


Who is asleep at Royal Mail?

(Posted March 8, 1999)

The brochure promoting the high value stamps issued on March 9 includes this statement:

The new £1.50, £2.00, £3.00 and £5.00 High Value Definitive Stamps will now bear Arthur Machin’s 1966 portrait of HM Queen Elizabeth II once again.

Sorry, Royal Mail, but his name was Arnold Machin, not Arthur. top

The Six P’s of Philately

(Posted March 5, 1999)

Howard Paine, USPS art director and stamp designer, is not a stamp collector but has thought about it in relation to his work. Writing in Linn’s Stamp News of March 1, 1999, John Hotchner reports on Paine’s Six P’s of Philately:

Stamp collectors pursue the items they want to add to their collection or, perhaps, save for trading.
Once the items are acquired, collectors possess them until they are sold, traded, or given away.
Stamps and covers are fragile items and collectors preserve them from excess handling, light, and moisture. If not preserved, the items will not only lose their value but their attractiveness as part of the collection.
Collectors like to present their material in an attractive manner, for themselves and for whomever they choose to share it with. Presentation ranges from placing the items on stock pages to mounting them in an album to including them in an exhibit.
Collecting stamps and related material, compared to, say, paper clips, offers an opportunity for study and education. The subject of the stamp, the designer’s method of conveying the subject, the technical details of the stamp and, if on cover, the postal history all offer opportunities for thought, investigation, comparison, evaluation and learning.
Profit is most often thought of in a financial sense; when a collection is sold, careful selection and presentation may result in a monetary gain. However, collecting brings other kinds of profit, too. There’s the satisfaction of setting a goal and achieving it, the pleasure in creating an attractive presentation or an award-winning exhibit, the fun of sharing your collection and your knowledge, and the pleasure of making new friends among fellow collectors. top

An equal to King George V

(Posted March 19, 1999)

Linn’s notes a comment made in the July, 1931 issue of the American Philatelist:

A stamp collecting president is a strong possibility in the near future, according to some of our Democratic friends. Franklin D. Roosevelt, New York governor and presidential possibility, is quite an enthusiastic stamp collector and we suppose, if he runs, and joins the APS, we will have to cast aside party principle and vote for the first U.S. philatelic president so we can have a political equal to swap stamps with King George.

(Roosevelt, a member of the political party called the Democrats, was elected president in 1931. He was re-elected three times and served until his death in 1945. He was an avid stamp collector, but I don’t know if he ever traded stamps with King George V.) top

A long way to travel

(Posted March 19, 1999)

In Linn’s Stamp News of February 22, 1999, John Hotchner provides an amusing little poem of unknown origin:

I sent a letter through the mail;
It wound up, well, that’s quite a tale;
I dropped it in a box you see,
On Saturday, round half past three;
through Sunday in that box it lay
(and Monday was a holiday),
Till late on Tuesday, by some luck,
Arrives a Postal Service truck,
Which hauled the mail and dumped it in
A postal worker’s sorting bin.

My letter now was on its way
To Little Rock through San Jose,
Then on to Boise, Idaho,
By way of downtown Buffalo,
Proceeding then to Bangor, Maine,
And somehow, Barcelona, Spain,
Until, at last, it came to earth,
In Texas, somewhere near Fort Worth;
Small wonder that it’s got me down-
I mailed it to a friend cross-town!

I’ve never had a letter travel quite that far, but last year I did mail a letter to a friend in England and when it reached it him it was stamped “Missent to Ho Chi Minh City” (Vietnam)! top

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