JAIMIE VERNON – STAMPS OF APPROVAL
This week Canada Post released a series of Original Series ‘Star Trek’ postage stamps featuring Captain Kirk, Spock, Bones and Scotty. Kirk, of course, was played by the human punchline and proudly Canadian William Shatner and his enemy in real life James Doohan, also Canadian, was Scotty.
But rather than focus on the other supporting characters (Sulu, Chekov, and Uhuru) – which I think is a crime – Canada Post dug deeper into the cast and honoured a supreme Klingon played by contemporaneous Canadian actor John Colicos who would rise again in the 1970s as Canadian Lorne Greene’s enemy on the first TV run of ‘Battlestar Galactica’.
The packaging and layout for these stamps is spectacular. The framed, cancelled one-sheet has a limited run of 1701 copies – the number given to the original Federation Starship Enterprise. While standing in line at the post office this week I grew slightly nostalgic for my philatelic childhood (I collected stamps, you sick f*cks).
The notion of collecting something like a stamp or a coin – two ephemeral objects that pass through our hands without notice on a daily basis – must seem like a foreign concept to the current Millennial generation of kids who weren’t alive pre-email or Interac. Hell, I used to collect rocks and insects too…house flies, butterflies, moths and bee carcasses pinned to a wooden board seemed like a normal childhood pass-time when I was growing up. As normal as playing with lethal weaponry like Clackers and Wood Burning kits. I still have my childhood stamp collection. I’ve had it stored for 35 years – never giving it more than a cursory glance each time I’ve had to repack it to move to a new house.
It was Grade 1 and our school was having a science and hobby fair. We were to bring in something that we made or collected and put them on display where they’d be judged on presentation, originality and participation. This was in the days before children’s feelings were bubble wrapped for freshness and spared the humiliation of being told that what you’d done actually sucked – awards were given to the best without any of those useless ‘participation badges’. I proudly walked away with 3rd place in the hobby category – behind a girl with a kick-ass Barbie collection and another kid who managed to bring in a decade’s worth of mint hockey cards (many of them autographed).
My collection was sparse but diverse from two dozen countries around the world. My step-grandfather Larry, you see, ran a mail order business to supplement his retirement income. He dealt with importers and exporters in Toronto and Montreal, hand assembled catalogs of goods to sell overseas and mailed them to similar entrepreneurs around the world. This was Ebay and Amazon before the internet, kids. When we visited him and my grandmother his office was filled with Tiki statues, Spanish swords (a set of which still graces the rec room in my parents’ house) and Japanese water colour wall art. As interesting as those things were, I was more interested in the packages they came in. Larry would carve out the postage from the wrapping paper or from the front of letters he’d received from countries like Burundi or Kuwait or Madagascar and gave them to me.
As I got older he’d send me an envelope in the mail every month filled with these exotic postal works of art which always featured a freshly released Canadian stamp on the front addressed to “Master Vernon”. Strangely, the stamps became less significant and I began to cherish the letters more and as the priority of people over ‘things’ began to crystallize in my life I took less interest in stamp collecting. When my grandfather passed I gave it up all together. The fun in collecting was having him live vicariously through my joy.
The question remains, though: are there riches buried amongst these gummy postal affixations? I did some research. Collections Canada (through the National Archives in Ottawa, Ontario) have a pretty definitive website that identifies every stamp ever issued by our government (and the pre-Federated provinces) but stories about how and why the stamps exist. Even if you’re not a stamp enthusiast, the history of our postage is also a history of our country.
For those not aware, the first Canadian postage stamps were issued in 1851 when we were still a Province of Canada (our new designation as the Dominion of Canada was 26 years away). Therefore, we were still under the repressive thumb of England – and so, our postage was standardized as per Britain’s Royal Mail rules and regulations. That year the 3-pence beaver (wow, how cliché), the 6-pence His Royal Highness Prince Albert (it’s unknown whether this came with or without a can) and the 12-pence Her Royal Stuck-Up Queen Victoria were rolled out in quantities of 250,000, 100,000 and 51,000 respectively. Ironically, an American company – the American Bank Note Company – was given the contract to print all our stamps until we proclaimed Confederation in 1867 and told them to lick our gummy obverses. Instead, ABNC set up shop in Ottawa and managed to hold onto the contract well into the 20th Century.
Given that my stamp interest began around 1970, it would be a rare find to have anything in my own collection that old; there are very few specimens of pre-industrialized Canadian postage still in existence all of which sit in the vaults of fatuous rich people who wouldn’t know a post mark from a Post Rice Krispies square. My collection is sorted, primarily, by era and within those eras, by similar stamp date of release. Canada Post was quite diligent in its annual issue of new stamp designs which always featured a stuffy profile of the King of England year-after year until Elizabeth took the throne whereby they posed her in front of legendary photographer Yousuf Karsh who forced her to wear a crown and smile just to piss off the Americans and the Germans.
Every stamp release had to adhere to the world postal standards as established by 80 year-old Victorian-era mucilage gobblers at a meeting in a dusty broom closet near Track B of St. Pancras Station in London, England during the United Nations’ High Council of Narcoleptic Philatelists of 1920.
In its time this meeting – which became an annual event featuring snuff snuffers and brandy sniffers – was considered the World’s Fair of dull and set the tone for stamp colour and denomination uniformity for decades: Dark Green, Ochre, Carmine (which is dried-blood red), Red, Brown, Blue, Mauve, and Charcoal. And, God forbid you wanted to create a special stamp to celebrate or commemorate something. It would take letters to all the participating countries and a special dispensation from King George The Roman Numeraled as well as Royal Postmaster Dumbledore himself. Olive Green stamps were outlawed outright for no other reason than one of these codgers hated olives.
Eventually Canadian stamps stopped catering exclusively to the royalists and began reflecting Canadian life. Each year special stamps were released to celebrate the French explorers, Christmas, the Aboriginals, the Canadian flag, the Group of Seven, industry and even hockey. But Elizabeth continues to dominate even if the cost of postage is now more than it would cost to get on a plane and go see the old biddy in person. All of these transitional periods are reflected in my collection. None of them worth much, if anything…with the possible exception of two stamps.
When the House of Saxe-Cobourg and Gotha’s King Edward VII – son of Queen Victoria – died on the throne in May 1910 his son, King George V, took the crown. Not wanting anyone to put two and two together in discovering that he was the first cousin of both Nicholas II of Russia and Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany, he renamed the Germanic sounding royal lineage to the more Anglocentric ‘House of Windsor’. As the foremost philatelic expert in England, and the new head of state, Canada Post was obligated to celebrate the new monarch. On December 22, 1911 they issued a new series of stamps featuring the King in full naval regalia (he served in the Royal Fleet and was formerly the Duke of York, Earl of Inverness and Baron Killarney). 3 billion each of the 1 cent dark green and 2 cent carmine stamps were released over a period leading into the early 1920s before a new design and photo of a much older King George V graced our postage. I have several of the 1920s editions.
However, I also have one of the 2 cent carmine stamps issued between 1911 and 1912. It’s the oldest stamp in my collection. How I came to have a 100 year-old postage stamp is beyond my 52 year recall. Needless to say it’s a keepsake. However, it’s not the rarest stamp I have. At the on-set of the First World War Europe fell into a financial crisis trying to fund the defense of its borders from German attack. Emergency council meetings were held by governments all over Europe as well as countries controlled by the British Empire. King George decried a war tax to help off-set the cost of sending young Brits to their deaths on the front line (hmmm…where have I heard that story before?).
In Canada, existing 1914 postage stamps still in the American Bank Note Company’s warehouse reserve were branded with a 1c tax notice in black ink. A 2 cent stamp would now cost 3 cents to mail. The post offices collected the tax and sent it back to Ottawa to fuel the war chest. In March 1915 a special order was issued to engrave a new plate of King George’s existing 1 cent and 2 cent stamps and the words ‘War Tax’ were clearly marked as part of the new design.
This was temporary, however, as England wanted the entire British Empire to have uniform looking War Tax postage and a second set of engravings reading 1tC (1 cent tax) and 2tC (2 cent tax) were issued in June 1915 and replaced the earlier stamps. I have the rarer single 2 cent ‘War Tax’ stamp from March 1915.
The true collector value of these two historic postage stamps remains unknown. The Canada Collection doesn’t give prices so it’s up to me to do some digging and see if I can’t find someone to give them a valuation. I’m not sure I really want to know. I’m loathe to part with these treasures as they represent a more innocent time in my life. I’ll leave them to my children and maybe the stamps will have a much higher value in 2062 when they turn 150 years old.
Hell, maybe these two stamps featuring images of postal workers will be worth something to remind future generations how we used to write in cursive and lick the glue on envelopes to get high. And that people came to your house with mail not some giant community mailbox on a street corner.
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Jaimie “Captain CanCon” Vernon has been president of the on again/off-again Bullseye Records of Canada since 1985. He wrote and published Great White Noise magazine in the ‘90s, has been a musician for 33 years, and recently discovered he’s been happily married for 16 years. He is also the author of the recently released Canadian Pop Music Encyclopedia and a collection of his most popular ‘Don’t Believe A Word I Say’ columns called ‘Life’s A Canadian…BLOG’ is now available at Amazon.com http://gwntertainment.wix.com/jaimievernon