There could not have been a better person to talk about Dickens and stamps at the NSW Dickens Society’s lecture last Saturday than Susannah Fullerton. Apart from being a well-known lecturer, literary tour leader and author of Brief encounters: literary travellers in Australia 1836-1939, Susannah also collects stamps. And not just any stamps, but those depicting authors and literary characters.
The connection between Dickens and stamps goes further than his appearance on postage stamps. Charles Dickens was 28 when the first paper stamps were introduced in the UK in 1840. They revolutionised letter writing, moving the onus of paying for postage from the recipient to the sender. Within a decade the number of letters posted in the UK rose from 76 million in 1839 to over 350 million in 1850.
Dickens himself contributed greatly to this boom. Despite Dickens’ burning some of his early correspondence, enough survived for Clarendon Press, Oxford to publish 12 volumes of his letters in 1965-2002. Many of the stories published in Charles Dickens’ Australia were extracts of letters written back Home to family and friends, or even to Dickens himself.
The stamps that Dickens would have used show an engraving of the head of Queen Victoria in black (the first one-penny stamp), blue (two-penny) or red (the first perforated one-penny stamp issued in 1850). Since then, the colour palette and the decoration of stamps have expanded to cover many topics, forms and even materials. Interestingly, British stamps are the only ones without the name of the country spelled out. Instead, a profile of the reigning monarch is always present as an indication of its country of origin.
The decoration of stamps is taken seriously all over the world and governed by strict guidelines. It remains an instrument of state propaganda and promotion. The images present the best a country has on offer, whether flora, fauna, art or history. They are used to promote new ideas and policies, depict important citizens and famous buildings, celebrate historical milestones, sporting achievements and holidays, and so on. And whether they are commemorative or seasonal, they can be miniature works of art.
While stamp decoration remains highly nationalistic, Dickens is probably one of few writers that crossed borders into other countries’ stamp repertoire. In 1962 a portrait of Dickens appeared on a Soviet stamp. In 1970 there was a flurry of Dickensian stamps, celebrating the 100th anniversary of Dickens’ death. Apart from Britain and some Commonwealth countries, a few other countries (such as Dubai) issued a commemorative series featuring Dickens and various characters from his novels. It remains to be seen whether 2012 will see a renewed interest in having Dickens on stamps and allow Susannah Fullerton to expand her literary collection.
Following the Saturday talk, I spent hours looking at a family collection of postage stamps and recognising items from my own, now abandoned, teenage assortment. My collection was far less focused than Susannah’s, but bigger and I had the stamps organised by the country of origin and the subject matter. According to the Wikipedia, I was not alone. Stamp collecting is one of the most popular hobbies worldwide. Do you collect stamps? What’s your collection like?