[This is taken from Edward J. Nankivell's Stamp Collecting As a Pastime, originally published in 1902.]
When considered from the historical point of view, postage stamps attain their highest level of educational value. They are finger posts to most of the great events that have made the history of nations during the last fifty years. Here are a few out of many examples which might be quoted.
The introduction of adhesive stamps for the prepayment of postage found France a Republic. A provisional government had just been established on the ruins of the monarchy which had been swept out of existence in the revolution of 1848. As a consequence, the first postage stamp issued by France, on New Year's Day of 1849, bore the head of Ceres, emblematic of Liberty. Three years later Louis Napoleon seized the post of power, and, as President of the Republic, his head figures on a stamp issued in 1851, under the inscription "repub. franc." Two years later the Empire was re-established, and the words "repub. franc." were changed to "empire franc." over the same head. In 1863 the customary laurel wreath, to indicate the first victories of the reign, won in the war with Austria, was added to the Emperor's head. In 1870 the Franco-German War resulted in the downfall of the monarchy, and the head of Liberty reappears on a series of postage stamps issued in Paris during its investment by the German army. The issue of the stamps of Alsace and Lorraine in 1870 marks the annexation of the conquered territory.
Italy in 1850 was a land of many petty states, each more or less a law unto itself, and each, in the fifties, issuing its own separate series of postage stamps. The stamps of the Pontifical States are made familiar by their typical design of a tiara and keys, and pompous King Bomba ordered the best engraver to be found to immortalise him in a portrait for a series of stamps. The other states had each its own heraldic design till the foundations of the Kingdom of Italy were laid, in 1859-60, by the union of the Lombardo-Venetian States, the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies, the Grand Duchy of Tuscany, the Duchies of Parma and Modena, the Romagna and the Roman (or Pontifical) States with Piedmont. The first issue of stamps of the newly formed kingdom bore a portrait of King Victor Emmanuel II. with profile turned to the right. In 1863, after the Kingdom of Sardinia had been merged in the Kingdom of Italy, a new series was issued for united Italy. The same king's portrait appears, but turned to the left. In 1879 King Humbert succeeded Victor Emmanuel, and his portrait appeared on an issue in the year of his accession. The assassination of King Humbert and the accession of his son as Victor Emmanuel III. are followed by the new portrait of the new king on the current series of the stamps of Italy.
The stamps of Germany tell a somewhat similar story. They mark the stages of gradual absorption into a confederation of states, and the ultimate creation of a German Empire. The postal issues of Baden ceased in 1871, when the Grand Duchy was incorporated in the Empire. Bavaria, though also incorporated, holds out in postal matters, and still issues its separate series. Bergedorf was in 1867 placed under the control of the free city of Hamburg, and thereupon ceased issuing stamps. Bremen, Brunswick, Hamburg, Lubeck, Mecklenburg-Strelitz, Oldenburg, Prussia, Saxony, and Schleswig-Holstein formed the North German Confederation, and closed their postal accounts with collectors in 1868. Hanover became a province of Prussia after the war of 1866, and thereupon ceased its separate issue of postage stamps; and Thurn and Taxis followed suit in 1867. In 1870 the North German Confederation was merged in the German Empire, which issued its first postage stamp with the Imperial eagle in 1872. But the Empire is not yet sufficiently united to place a portrait of the Emperor upon its Imperial postal series.
Indian postage stamps, overprinted with the initials "C.E.F.", for the China Expeditionary Force, i.e. the Indian troops sent to China in 1901 to relieve the besieged Embassies, mark an historical event of no small import.
The early provisional issues of Crete of 1898 indicate the joint interference of the Great Powers in its affairs, and the later issues, in 1900, bear the portrait of Prince George of Greece as High Commissioner of Crete.
The Confederate locals of America, issued, in 1861-3, by the postmasters of the Southern States when they were cut off by the war from the capital and its supplies of postage stamps, and each town was thrown upon its own resources, proclaim the period of the great American Civil War.
Collectors are all familiar with the long series of portraits of past Presidents of the United States, from Washington to Garfield.
The stamps of Don Carlos mark the Carlist rising in Spain in 1873.
But amongst the most interesting of all stamps that may be classed as historical finger posts, none equal in present-day interest the stamps of the Transvaal, for they tell of the struggle for supremacy in South Africa. In 1870 the Boers issued their first postage stamp, and a crude piece of workmanship it was, designed and engraved in Germany. Till 1877 they printed their supplies of postage stamps in their own crude way from the same crude plates. Then came the first British Occupation, when the remainders of the stamps of the first South African Republic were overprinted "V.R. TRANSVAAL," to indicate British government. Then, in 1878, the stamps of the Republic were replaced by our Queen's Head. In 1881 the country was given back to the Boers, when they in turn overprinted our Queen's Head series in Boer currency, to indicate the restoration of Boer domination. And now, finally, in 1900 we have the second British Occupation, and a second overprinting of South African Republic stamps "V.R.I.", to signalise once more, and finally, the supremacy of British rule in South Africa. The Mafeking stamps are also interesting souvenirs of a gallant stand in the same historical struggle.
The war which Chile some years ago carried into Bolivia and Peru has been marked in a special manner upon the postage stamps of Chile. As in the case of our own troops in South Africa, so the Chilean troops in Bolivia and Peru were allowed to frank their letters home with the stamps of their own country. So also the Chileans further overprinted the stamps of Peru with the Chilean arms during their occupation of the conquered country in the years 1881-2. Chilean stamps used along the route of the conquering army, and postmarked with the names of the towns occupied, are much sought after by specialists. These postmarks include Arica, Callao, Iquique, Lima, Paita, Pisagua, Pisco, Tacna, Yca, etc.
And so the stamp collector may turn over the pages of his stamp album, and point to stamp after stamp that marks, for him, some development of art, some crisis in a country's progress, some struggle to be free, or some great upheaval amongst rival powers. In fact, every stamp issued by a country is, more or less, a page of its history.
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