Refresher Course

How many words can dance on the face of a postage stamp?

By Janet Klug

Decades ago, there were contests to see how many times a contestant could write an advertising slogan on the back of a postcard.

Figure 1. South African stamp celebrating the first newspaper published in Afrikaans.
Figure 2. A South African stamp design with the words "The Bible" translated into 76 different languages.
Figure 3. South African stamp showing the first printed registration for nurses and midwives.
Figure 4. The Dutch Delft Bible Text stamp with attached label that was issued in 1977.
Figure 5. Netherlands stamp commemorating the 550th anniversary of the Court of Audit.
Figure 6. Mexico stamp issued in 1981 for its introduction of postal codes.
Figure 7. United States stamp from the American Credo issue.
Figure 8. United States 22¢ Signing of the Constitution stamp.
Figure 9. United States make-up rate stamp issued in 1991.

I wonder if any of those entries ever made it into the hands of stamp collectors.

Sometimes it seems as though stamp designers have taken a page from those postcard contests of bygone days. It is easy to find stamps that seem to be vying for the top prize in a "most words on a stamp" contest.

Take, for example, the nation of South Africa.

In 1975, South Africa issued a stamp to celebrate the first newspaper published in Afrikaans (Scott 449). The stamp is pictured in Figure 1. It features the front page from the inaugural issue of Die Afrikaanse Patriot, published Jan. 15, 1876. Even though the stamp is a fairly standard commemorative size, you can read every word in both Afrikaans and English — and it includes a lot of words.

South Africa's stamp wordiness continued in an intriguing way in 1987 with a stamp that has the words "The Bible" translated into 76 different languages spoken throughout Africa. This stamp (Scott 702) is pictured in Figure 2.

But South Africa surpassed itself in 1991 when a new stamp was released illustrating the first registration of nurses and midwives, an achievement that happened in South Africa in 1891. The stamp (Scott 807) is in Figure 3. Instead of showing nurses or midwives performing their duties, the stamp shows the printed registration — a lot of words on a little stamp.

Post World War II stamps from the Netherlands are visually stunning. Often clever and frequently abstract, the designs are almost never boring. A 1977 offering is one of the more traditional designs to honor the 500th anniversary of the oldest book published in Dutch, the Delft Bible. The stamp (Scott 568), pictured in Figure 4, shows two type slugs. The background shows beautiful printed words from the bible.

An attached label explains the subject. There are fewer words on this stamp than on any of the aforementioned South African stamps, but you really get a sense of the beauty and wonder of the printed word.

Another wordy stamp was issued by the Netherlands in 1997 and is shown in Figure 5.

This stamp commemorates the 550th anniversary of the Court of Audit, the Dutch equivalent of the Government Accountability Office in the United States (Scott 965). The stamp is simply six rows of evenly spaced black type on a white background. It strongly resembles a word search puzzle, yet it cleverly conveys the idea that there is no government waste to be found with this stamp.

Mexico took a page from those postcard contests in 1981 to announce the inauguration of postal codes. The Figure 6 stamp (Scott 1259) repeats the slogan "anote el codigo postal" (enter the postal code) dozens of times in the background of a design dominated by a bird letter carrier.

The United States doesn't even come close in the wordy stamps competition. The Credo series of six stamps issued in 1960–61 featured quotes of famous American patriots (Scott 1139–44).

Figure 7 shows an Abraham Lincoln quote on Scott 1143, "Those who deny freedom to others deserve it not for themselves." These stamps were markedly different from any that came before. Simple and elegant, the words on the stamps spoke volumes.

A similar idea was used in September 1987 for the bicentennial of the drafting of the U.S. Constitution. A booklet was issued containing five different stamp designs (Scott 2355–2359), each featuring a quote from the Preamble.

An additional stamp came out the following month to mark the bicentennial of the signing of the Constitution. This stamp (Figure 8, Scott 2360) illustrates a quill pen held in the ruffle–cuffed hand of one of the signers, with the Constitution in the background. The bold "We the People" is easily readable, but beyond that only occasional words can be discerned.

A 1991 wordy U.S. stamp went for function rather than style. It attempted to solve a thorny problem when a postal rate increase was imminent but the amount of the increase was not known.

Since the amount of make–up rate postage that would be needed was unknown, the stamp shown in Figure 9 (Scott 2521) was created. It has only a bister frame surrounding red words: "This U.S. stamp, along with 25¢ of additional postage, is equivalent to the 'F' stamp rate."

As it turned out, this stamp's face value was 4¢, so when used with a 25¢ stamp, the new 29¢ (F) rate was met. This particular stamp is a great reminder of how the "forever" stamps have simplified our lives and our hobby when there are rate increases.