What Makes a Stamp Beautiful?
Of all the reasons why people collect stamps, their inherent beauty is perhaps the easiest to explain to those who aren’t naturally drawn to philately. From a historical perspective, there’s room to debate whether stamp collecting became popular as a way of recognizing and celebrating this beauty, or if the collectible market inspired national postal systems to produce more remarkable and noteworthy designs.
In reality, it was probably a bit of both. The more popular stamp collecting became, the more incentive there was to cater to that market.
By their very nature, postage stamps have to work within a set of fairly strict design parameters. With few exceptions, all include the name of the issuing country, the denomination and some sort of graphical element to distinguish it. While there are no official restrictions on shape or size, most stamps are rectangles measuring no more than 1¼ inches at their widest.
When we talk about beautiful postage stamps, it’s almost always the design to which we are referring. Postage stamp graphic design generally falls into one of four categories:
Portraiture — Almost exclusively, the earliest postage stamps featured a portrait of either a monarch or statesman as a key part of their design. To this day, portraiture plays an important role in stamp design, particularly in the U.K. It has been expanded to include cultural figures and other notable individuals.
Pictorials — Pictorials, which can include everything from an important event in the country’s history to some of its noteworthy native flora and fauna, offer the widest range of design possibilities. Given the almost limitless number of potential subject matter, it’s no surprise that many of what are considered the most beautiful stamps in history fall into this category.
Emblems — Emblematic elements can include a country’s coat of arms, flag or other iconography. While there is often some overlap between pictorial and emblematic stamps, purely emblematic issues still present a range of potential for artists and designers. Many are highly sought-after today.
Numericals — Perhaps the least common type of stamp is a stamp with the denomination as the predominant design component. Although restrictive, there have been some beautiful and austere numerical stamps produced throughout history, particularly in Switzerland and Brazil.
Each country is free to establish its own internal guidelines for stamp graphic design. These decisions are often informed by practicalities, such as the use of different colors to signify different denominations. The decisions are also informed by cultural mores, such as the American prohibition on depictions of living persons. Most importantly, they are illustrative of historical and political trends that change over time.
It’s true that great attention has been paid to design since the first stamps were produced. One precursor to the modern stamp — artist William Mulready’s lettersheets — were so ridiculed for their ostentatious design that it hastened the rise of the Penny Black, which would later become recognized as the world’s first adhesive postage.
The Penny Black, released in 1840, featured a simpler design based on a sketch of the 15-year-old Queen Victoria in profile. The sketch was completed by artist Henry Courbould and engraved by the father and son team of Charles and Frederick Heath. While there’s an argument to be made that Mulready’s lettersheets were more beautiful in a traditional sense, the design of the Penny Black quickly achieved iconic status. It went on to be a mainstay in British philately for the next 30 years.
In France, stamp design was influenced less by public opinion and more by political expediency. One of the reasons the country delayed producing their own response to the Penny Black was in part because of their inability to settle on a design that wouldn’t be seen as a display of solidarity — to either the country’s revolutionist or reactionary factions.
The end result, an allegorical depiction of Ceres, the Roman goddess of agriculture, was engraved by Jacques-Jean Barre and released to the public in 1849. The stamp was notable for being among the first stamp that didn’t depict a national leader. This was a development that greatly expanded the idea of what a stamp could be and, in turn, the criteria we use for measuring beauty in philately.
Even in America, we weren’t spared these discussions about stamps which often occurred in a public manner. In fact, the 1869 Pictorial Issue will go down in history as one of the most contentious stamp series ever released. While the controversy may seem quaint today, it’s a testament to how much stamp design and beauty has evolved over the years.
The heart of the issue involved several stamps on the issue breaking from the tradition of commemorating former American statesmen. In particular, stamps featuring an eagle and shield design were particularly detested. While time has been more favorable to these stamps, backlash led to them being replaced with a more conventional issue in 1870.
The Era of the Beautiful Stamp
When it comes to philately, it’s clear that the historical development of the modern postage system — and the political and cultural currents which informed it — all played a role in defining how we evaluate and respond to the design of an individual stamp. When determining a stamp’s beauty, it’s helpful to look at trends over time.
Was there an age when stamps were more beautiful? Most collectors would agree that today’s stamps lack the attention to detail and aesthetics of stamps issued prior to 1950. Part of this is simply a product of technological change. First, modern design and printing methods supplemented traditional engraving, and many individuals argue that stamps lost a lot of what made them beautiful in the process.
Secondly, it can’t be forgotten that stamps have played an increasingly minor role in our lives as more people communicate via phone and email. With that comes a decreased interest in promoting innovative stamp design. In fact, national postage systems are struggling simply to stay afloat, let alone to invest in beautifully designed stamps.
This makes it up to a serious collector to look to the past for examples of how beautiful a stamp can actually be. While there’s no one era that can be acknowledged as the best or most beautiful, the period from 1870 to 1920 may go down in history as the most innovative. By that time, public distaste for pictorial issues had waned, and countries around the world were producing unique and beautiful stamps that possessed both artistic vision and aesthetic integrity. More countries were experimenting with multi-color processes as well, which expanded the range of design possibilities.
Beautiful Stamps by Country
Many philatelists choose to focus their collection on a single geographic location. While this approach is limiting, the good news is that almost all countries have produced a few stamps that truly stand out for their beauty.
A survey of some of the most beautiful stamps from around the world will always be subjective to a degree. While the following list includes some issues regularly cited as the most beautiful ever, it is by no means meant to be authoritative. In all likelihood, we could have missed your favorite. Feel free to sound off in the comments below this article if you think there have been any particularly serious omissions.
One candidate for the most beautiful stamp ever, at least among American collectors, is Western Cattle in Storm — a $1 stamp from the 1898 Trans-Mississippi Issue. The stamp, based on a painting entitled The Vanguard by John MacWhirter, depicts a herd of cattle being driven along a bleak landscape. The stamp’s coal-black color scheme adds to the drama of the scene, which actually would have taken place in the Scottish highlands rather than the American West, due to the breed of cattle depicted.
Also prized for their good looks, as well as their scarcity, are the Graf Zeppelin airmail stamps of 1930. The stamps, which were intended for use on a proposed airship route from Germany to Brazil to the United States, depicted the eponymous Zeppelin spanning various backgrounds. Today, these issues can fetch over $10,000 at auction.
Canada has an especially impressive history when it comes to beautiful stamp design. Another stamp commonly cited as the most beautiful of all time is the country’s 1929 50-cent Bluenose issue. The stamp depicts the famous Canadian schooner, which was built in Nova Scotia in 1921 and quickly emerged as a major source of pride for the region, which was known for its shipbuilding prowess. All history aside, the stamp depicts the Bluenose in full sail and was designed by the Canadian Banknote Company of Ottawa, ON. Today, mint condition Bluenose stamps can fetch upwards of $700 at auction.
Technically considered “dead country” issues, the Dominion of Newfoundland which would become a Canadian province in 1949, produced some beautiful recess-printed stamps during the late 20’s and early 30’s. These stamps feature depictions of some of the area’s most notable people and animals, including the Caribou, Atlantic Cod and the Newfoundland dog. They are remarkable for the degree of artistry they contain, with a number of subtle details that only reveal themselves on subsequent inspections.
No discussion of the most beautiful stamps in the world would be complete without a mention of Switzerland. Swiss philatelic history is rich and unique, with an emphasis on clean and attractive design befitting the country that brought us the Helvetica font. Switzerland’s first issues, released just three years after the Penny Black, are unique numericals in four and six rappen denominations.
One of the most noteworthy early Swiss stamps is the famed Basel Dove, the first stamp printed using a three-color process and easily one of the most beautiful of all time. The stamp was designed by famed architect Melchior Berri and featured an embossed white dove against a green and red background. Unfortunately, just over 41,000 Basel Doves were printed during the stamp’s short run, with good condition examples being highly valuable and sought-after today.
Danish stamps are known for their high production values, ready availability and overall good looks. They’re an excellent choice for anyone looking for a country to specialize in. Even if you aren’t interested in being a completist, Danish stamps rank among the most beautiful ever circulated and are a great addition to any collection. The first Danish stamps were issued on April 1, 1851, and featured a design by M.W. Ferslew. The design consisted of the country’s coat of arms with a crown, sword and scepter.
Since then, Denmark has issued more attractive stamps, including a classic design representing the three waters separating the country’s main island, which remained in use from 1905 to 2003. Another beautiful stamp, reminiscent of the Canadian Bluenose, depicted a caravel at sea and was printed in a range of attractive colors.
From the days of the Tsar to the fall of the Soviet Union and beyond, one thing that has remained consistent has been the attractive designs of Russia’s stamps. Prior to the Revolution and for some time afterwards, Russia’s stamps were stately and ornate. Later, the more familiar Soviet iconography took over, with propagandist themes extolling the virtues of cooperation and the power of a united people becoming especially prominent in the 1930’s.
Russian airmails of the early Soviet period are attractive stamps that are often overlooked by collectors. Featuring highly stylized designs, these stamps are rather rare today but are not prohibitively expensive for anyone interested in this period of history.
Red has been a dominant color in Chinese stamp design for most of the 20th and 21st centuries. Despite this, however, the country has produced some exceedingly beautiful designs, a growing interest that has been spurred by the booming Asian stamp market.
One notable Chinese stamp that’s a bit more recent is the 1980 Golden Monkey. Issued in celebration of the Chinese New Year, the 8 fen stamp (eight is considered a lucky number in Chinese culture), features an adorable monkey against a red background. Though not as scarce as older stamps, the rabid interest in the Golden Monkey has driven up prices considerably, and forgeries are common.
The Market for Beautiful Old Stamps
Stamp collecting is ultimately a personal hobby. Just as you decide which country or era to specialize in, you have the final say in whether or not you think a stamp is beautiful. While the most attractive stamps may not be the best investment, there’s no reason you shouldn’t consider purchasing something you find especially striking and simply appreciating it for that quality alone.
No matter what your reasons are for wanting to grow your collection, Apfelbaum, Inc. can help. Both our online store and our frequent public auctions give you the chance to purchase many beautiful old stamps from around the world. Looking for something in particular? Contact us directly by phone or email, or through any of your favorite social media channels. One of our team members can point you in the right direction right away.