Postage stamps as historical representations

Gary Baines's picture

I am interested in learning whether anyone shares my interest in the examination of postage stamps as representations of historical events - from all across the globe. Equally, I would like to know whether anyone can refer me to any literature that approaches the study of postage stamps from this angle.

Gary Baines (Professor)

History Department

Rhodes University

South Africa


I do use postage stamps in exhibits and powerpoint presentations, however several months ago I created a program for a local history group titled "What Was The Post Office Thinking?" which covered design errors in stamps. One of the issues are stamps that show historical events that are wrong. Sometimes these are simply reprints from paintings that are wrong historically.

Consequently from a historian point of view, I don't use stamps as representations of historical events simply because they are not primary sources. The only caveat to this are postal history examples that show events or the reasoning behind such events.

Dean DeBolt
University Archives and West Florida History Center
University of West Florida, Pensacola

This book might be of interest as a model:
(It was reviewed on one of the H-Net lists). I suspect that there are others that approach philatelic material from more of a historian, rather than an antiquarian, viewpoint

Thomas J MacMaster,
History dept, Morehouse College

The stamps of Vatican City lend themselves to studying historical events and art history. They also interest me in a study of semiotics of Vatican, post revolution Iran and Israeli stamps. My efforts in this comparison are tentative at best.
Michael Lamothe
Stamp/cover collector
Montgomery Alabama

Thanks for your ideas and suggestions, I will follow them up.
Gary Baines

Interesting question. I've been looking at similar issues and am struck that very few post-colonial African states depict historical events. I have some theories and thoughts about this - and will share as I develop them more/collect more data. But would be interested to know if anyone has written about it already?

If you read Spanish, an excellent scholar about these items is Guillermo Navarro Oltra
in particular his three books "Autorretratos del Estado" (Self-portraits of the State). Semiotics of postage stamps and state use of the postage stamp as a representation of oneself and one's own history.

Unfortunately, I do not read Spanish but thanks for the reference. I notice that Oktra has published some pieces in English and they, in turn, provide some useful references. Thanks, Bruno

Oh, those look interesting. I understand just enough Spanish to recognize most of the words, but not enough to be able to properly read it!

I find stamps interesting but as far as accuracy, one must be careful. I remember when I was much younger having stamps depicting various train engines from Burkina Faso. I thought how wonderful and rich the rail history was in that West African country must be.
I was disappointed several years later when I was talking to a missionary friend of mine home on furlough. He had served years in Burkina Faso. I asked him about the rails, and he explained that Burkina Faso never had any trains nor rails. He told me the country printed those stamps specifically to sell to stamp collectors.
Obviously, one must be careful about the "lessons" learned from stamps.

Have read posts on this subject with some interest. As a long time amateur stamp collector [for fun and interest not profit] and the history portrayed by Stamps, found this to be a matter of which, I believe, most collectors are aware, countries often issue stamps not connected necessarily to history of their own, but often, to honor and /or make some money regarding the subject matter of their Stamps as issued.
Think this is fairly accurate description.