AnOther takes a tour of 150 years of stamp-sized illustration, courtesy of the world's postal service
The postage stamp is one of those stalwarts of British history that the expression “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” might have been made for. It has gone largely unchanged since its very first iteration, the Penny Black, which was created in 1840, with a view to redressing the corrupt 19th century postal service. This inaugural edition arrived just in time for the very first Christmas card – a joyous family scene illustrated by John Callcott Horsley – to be sent in 1843: reason enough, in our opinion, to put together a festive reflection of the most beautifully designed Christmas stamps we’ve seen.
These days, the growing use of digital communication renders these enchanting perforated paper illustrations more a souvenir from yesteryear than a practical necessity, but stamps themselves remain a charming document of the times they were created in. What’s more, the industry surrounding collectors’ hunger to archive and enjoy them, otherwise known as philately, is thriving: there are 20 million collectors in China alone, and some highly collectable editions continue to sell for vast sums – the British Guiana 1 Cent Magenta, created in 1856, sold last year for $9.5million, in spite of its face value of 1 cent.
As the sole purpose of a postage stamp is to indicate pre-payment of delivery – therefore requiring no other information than its value – the tiny rectangle offers a prime opportunity for decorative flourish, and the Royal Mail has been capitalising on this potential with its special stamps programme since 1965, beginning with a stamp commemorating the death of Winston Churchill. Festive offerings, made available for purchase around the Christmas period, have been a staunch favourite of Christmas card-senders ever since, and to the delight both of philately obsessives and outsiders alike, all of these are now available to browse online.
From the cut and paste offerings of the Royal Mail’s 1977 design, to their pre-post-internet meta-cards from 1988, here is a collection which reaches above and beyond the realm of quaint festive ephemera, providing an intriguing visual clue to the design trends of the past.