New to the U.S., but more than a century old

Apr 28, 2021, 10 PM

Though semipostal stamps have been created and sold by postal services in other countries for more than a century, the first to be issued by the United States is expected one month from now.

Just about 101 years ago, the good people of the British colony New South Wales (now part of the country of Australia) came up with an interesting idea.

Money was needed to fund a facility in Sydney to care for consumptives: men and women who were suffering from the debilitating effects of pulmonary tuberculosis, which was then a critical public health concern.

At the same time, new postage stamps were being planned for the diamond jubilee of Queen Victoria, to celebrate her 60th year as Britain's monarch.

It was decided to offer for sale to the public two large and very colorful postage stamps marking the anniversary, to be sold for a special price.

The 1-penny stamp, with the queen's portrait in the upper-right corner, was sold for 1 shilling. The 2½d stamp was sold for 2/6d.

The extra money accumulated from the sale of these so-called charity stamps was accepted as a donation from the stamp buyer and was used to help maintain the desperately needed medical facilities.

As the 1897 cover from Aberdeen, NSW, to London, England, shown in Figure 1 demonstrates, both stamps could be used for postage. However, despite the high cost of the stamps, their postal values were still only 1d and 2½d.

This innovative fund-raising method was the first use of charity stamps, which in the United States came to be known by the name "semipostals."

The word "semipostal" implies that only part ("semi") of the cost of the stamp is valid for postage.

Throughout the next 100 years, many other countries began to use this method to provide an easy and inexpensive way for its citizens to donate to charitable causes while purchasing postage stamps.

The two charity stamps from New South Wales each are inscribed with both the full cost of the stamp and the postal value. The modern method for indicating these values is shown on the new German Youth stamp shown in Figure 2.

The 1998 Youth Stamps from Germany were issued June 10. The set features five stamps that show various cartoon film characters.

Figure 2 shows the high value of the set, depicting the goblin Pumuckl.

The value of the stamp is inscribed in the upper-right corner of the design as "220+80."

The purchase price of the stamp is 300 pfennigs (which adds up to three German marks). The postal value of the stamp is 220pf.

The German postal service donates the additional 80pf of payment to the German Youth Stamp Foundation, to promote the well-being of young people.

The donation amount is also known as a "surtax," a word that simply means an extra charge or tax.

Almost all semipostal stamps around the world are marked in this fashion to indicate the value of the stamp for postage plus the amount of the charitable donation.

Germany's various semipostal stamps issued each year benefit a number of different charities, including the National Sports Promotion Foundation, the Foundation for Promotion of Philately and Postal History, and public welfare organizations.

The first semipostal stamp from the United States is scheduled to be issued in early August, though the exact date has not yet been announced by the U.S. Postal Service. The design of the stamp is shown in Figure 3.

The stamp came about as the result of a Congressional effort to benefit breast cancer research. A bill signed into law by President Clinton requires the Postal Service to issue the stamp before Aug. 13.

The money collected from the sale of the Breast Cancer Research semipostal stamp will be given to the National Institutes of Health and the Defense Department. Both agencies are engaged in research to stop the disease.

How much money will that be? No one knows for certain at this point.

The stamp, as you can see from the illustration, is nondenominated. Because the Postal Service is anticipating a hike in first-class postage rates, even the value of the stamp is uncertain at this point, though the amount most frequently given is 40¢: 32¢ for postage and 8¢ for research.

That may still change depending on an upcoming rate implementation decision from the Postal Service board of governors.

More details about the U.S. stamp are expected in the next few weeks.

In the Scott Standard Postage Stamp Catalogue, collectors can find semipostal stamps listed immediately following the regular issues for any given country.

Regular issues normally appear first in a country's listing, usually with Scott catalog numbers beginning with No. "1."

After the listings for the most recent issues, semipostal stamps are listed, with Scott catalog numbers prefixed by the letter "B."

For example, shown in Figure 4 are the Scott catalog listings for the two New South Wales semipostals.

The stamps are assigned Scott catalog numbers B1 and B2 for New South Wales, and a brief description of the two stamps is also provided.

Stamp collectors are clearly divided on the issue of semipostals, with many expressing a dislike for the surtax concept.

When the Breast Cancer Research semipostal bill was sent to President Clinton, Randy Neil, then president of the American Philatelic Society, wrote a letter asking the president to veto the bill.

In part, Neil noted: "Stamp collectors see semipostal stamps as a tax that falls disproportionately and unfairly on our hobby. Stamp collectors will buy a substantial percentage of these stamps and as a consequence pay a substantial portion of the premium."

Linn's editor-publisher Michael Laurence has also spoken out against semipostals in his weekly Editor's Choice column as an unfair tax on collectors. He has noted that a deluge of U.S. semipostals for other charities could be in the offing.

He also cited a report from the U.S. General Accounting Office that noted that collectors in other countries have voiced objections to "supporting causes against their will when they collect a complete set of stamps issued by the country."

Other collectors have little opinion or they favor the idea of semipostals, choosing to believe that collecting a 40¢ semipostal is hardly different from collecting, say, the 1990 40¢ Claire Chennault stamp issued in the Great Americans series.

Last month collector Laurence Gross wrote to Linn's, "I applaud the prospective issue of the Breast Cancer Research semipostal," noting that many thousands of dollars may be raised for "this worthy cause."

Like it or not, the first U.S. semipostal will be issued shortly, and collectors will have to decide for themselves whether or not to add the stamp to their collections.

Semipostals have a long history behind them, and beginning with the new Breast Cancer Research issue, a history of U.S. semipostals may be just beginning.