Finding out where the stamps in your collection came from

Dec 8, 2008, 10 AM

By Janet Klug

There are thousands of languages in the world and scores of alphabets or other writing systems in which they are written. It can be tricky to identify stamps when the country of origin is written in an unfamiliar language or alphabet.

Sometimes there are graphic clues that can help you discover where a stamp is from. These clues may include a national symbol, a flag, a landmark or a familiar person.

Look at the stamp in Figure 1. Where is it from? There is no country inscription at all, but the clue is the portrait in the stamp design showing Queen Elizabeth II of Great Britain.

Under Universal Postal Union rules, Great Britain is the only country in the world not required to inscribe its name in Latin letters. That is because Great Britain issued the world's first postage stamp in 1840. That stamp bore the portrait of Queen Victoria and no country name, a tradition that continues nearly 170 years later.

In the United States we are used to seeing stamps inscribed "USA," but that acronym did not start showing up routinely until the 1970s. Many of our stamps, including the very first stamps in 1847, used U.S. to indicate the country name. Sometimes United States was spelled out, and infrequently the entire name United States of America appeared on stamps.

But what about the stamp shown in Figure 2? This is a U.S. stamp issued in 1963. Where is the country name? Once again, you have to look at the clues. The U.S. flag and the White House are both unmistakable symbols of the United States of America.

You can tell that the stamp shown in Figure 3 is from an Asian country by the style of the inscription. Many Asian nations use writing systems based on pictographic symbols rather than phonetic alphabets.

Although the writing is indecipherable to anyone who does not know the language, the design of the stamp includes a big clue. At the upper left corner is a circle with a yin-and-yang design, which represents the cosmic order and the balance of opposites. This element is prominent in the design of the South Korean flag, so that is the logical starting point to look for the stamp.

The issuing countries of some stamps are just plain easy to identify. A Danish stamp is shown in Figure 4. The country's name is spelled Danmark in Latin letters, close enough to the name Denmark in English to make it recognizable.

On the other hand, new collectors frequently have trouble with stamps inscribed Helvetia, such as the one shown in Figure 5. Even though the name in Latin letters is easily readable and even pronounceable, where in the world is Helvetia?

Helvetia is the Latin name for Switzerland. Using the country's Latin name is a good compromise in a country that has four official languages: French, German, Italian and Romansh.

Another befuddling stamp is shown in Figure 6. Do you know that Shqiperise, Shqipenia and Shqiptare are all the same place? It is the name of the country that we call Albania. In the Albanian language, the name of the country means "Land of the Eagle."

Learning a bit about other languages and country names is one of the benefits of stamp collecting. Figuring them out sometimes involves doing detective work. It is such fun you barely realize you are learning.

Some stamps are just plain difficult, even for seasoned collectors. The stamp shown in Figure 7 is one that has confounded me. There isn't much to go by except for the double-headed eagle crest. The stamp is from Bosnia and Herzegovina, which used the eagle as its coat of arms.

Some novice and not-so-novice collectors make the mistake of thinking that every stamp they come across is a postage stamp. It isn't hard to figure out from the name inscription that the stamp shown in Figure 8 is from Portugal. But no matter how hard you look, you won't find it listed in a postage stamp catalog, because it is a revenue stamp.

In addition to the country name, you should look for the service inscription that tells what the stamp is to be used for: postage, tax, telegraph service or other fees.

Additional help is as close as any volume of the Scott Standard Postage Stamp Catalogue. Toward the back of each volume is a section titled Illustrated Identifier. As you peruse this section, you will find many stamps that are tricky to identify, including one that looks remarkably like the stamp shown in Figure 7. Using the Illustrated Identifier, we see that it is from Bosnia and Herzegovina. With that much information, all you need to do is flip to the Bosnia and Herzegovina section in Vol. 1, look for an illustration that is similar and then read down the listings until you find the proper denomination and color. You might also have to check the perforations and watermark.

The Illustrated Identifier is a great tool, but it doesn't have every tricky stamp you are likely to encounter. A stamp identifier is a handy book to have on your reference shelf. Linn's Stamp Identifier, edited by Donna O'Keefe and Rick Miller, is a wonderful tool. It is presently sold out at Amos Hobby Publishing, but is in the process of being reprinted. In the meantime, you might be able to pick one up from your favorite stamp supply dealer or through an online auction service.

The American Philatelic Society also produces a stamp identifier. Order it from APS, 100 Match Factory Place, Bellefonte, PA 16823.

It is fun trying to work out where a stamp is from and what kind of stamp it is. If you get stumped, you can send a color scan, color photocopy, or the actual stamp or cover to Collectors' Forum, Box 29, Sidney, OH 45365. Your question may be published, along with your name and address so other collectors can respond.

This popular Linn's feature provides answers or partial answers, and opens your question up to other Linn's readers. Even if the Linn's editors are stumped, there are few questions about stamps that someone in Linn's readership cannot answer.