You can add a third dimension to your stamp collection

Aug 23, 2010, 1 PM

By Janet Klug

Have you noticed that many current movies are being released in 3-D?

In 1999, the United States Postal Service depicted this faddish phenomenon when it issued the 33¢ stamp shown in Figure 1 (Scott 3187o) in its 1950s Celebrate the Century pane of 15. Wear those special glasses when looking at this stamp to see the 3-D effect.This hearkens back to the 1950s, when the first commercial 3-D movies were the latest fad. The films then were black and white, and required the use of red and blue filters fitted into cardboard frames, which moviegoers wore like glasses.

Today's 3-D films still require special glasses, but they look more like regular sunglasses with polarized lenses.

The 3-D movie I remember most was Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954). It was memorable, not because of its excellence, but because it was gory and terrifying to a child.

I nevertheless saved the cardboard glasses, which came in handy when Italy issued 3-D stamps in 1956 that required those glasses to get the full effect.

Figure 2 shows a 60-lira Globe stamp (Scott 719) from a set of two Italian 3-D stamps issued to mark Italy's admission to the United Nations.

These early 3-D movies and stamps were fairly low-tech. Both required dual images spaced apart so that they mimicked the separate images seen by the left and right eyes of the viewer. The glasses allowed the images to visually combine and give the illusion of three dimensions.

This effect was similar to images viewed in late 19th- and early 20th-century stereopticons, and mid-20th century toys called View Masters. These viewing devices allowed images of natural wonders, famous people, travel and adventure to be seen in simulated 3-D.

In the early 1960s, some of the oddest stamps ever issued began to appear. Far-flung countries such as Sierra Leone (Africa), Bhutan (Asia) and Tonga (South Pacific) started issuing stamps that really were 3-D, rather than simply giving the illusion of three dimensions.

Tonga, a kingdom that lies between Fiji and Samoa in the South Pacific, was the first to shake things up by issuing round, gold-foil, embossed stamps in 1963. The set of 13 stamps (Scott 128-33, C1-6 and CO7) realistically depicted Tonga's newly minted gold coins. Figure 3 shows the largest stamp in the set, the 15-shilling Gold Coin Official airmail stamp (Scott CO1).

Sierra Leone's foray into embossed foil stamps bore a striking resemblance to Tonga's. It should not be surprising, considering an American innovator named Bernard Mechanick came up with the idea and successfully sold both countries on issuing the stamps.

Bhutan, an ancient nation nestled in the Himalaya Mountains, did not have a postal system or postage stamps until 1962.

Encouraged by a flamboyant American entrepreneur named Burt Todd, Bhutan launched into issuing flashy – some might even say gaudy – 3-D stamps using a plastic lenticular overlay. Held at various angles, the images appear to have depth. Shown in Figure 4 is a 1971 Bhutanese 7-ngultrum Aston Martin airmail stamp (Scott 128Q), in which the antique car in the stamp design seems to float above the background.

Bhutan's stamps became even more unconventional with the issuance of true 3-D stamps beginning in 1971. No longer simply simulating three dimensions, these stamps were heavily embossed in plastic. Figure 5 shows a 3-D Bhutanese 10-chetrum Funeral Mask of King Tutankhamen stamp (Scott 126).

As showy as these stamps were, Bhutan launched into even more outlandish and very tactile stamps.

In 1973, Bhutan issued stamps that not only were shaped like phonograph records and had touchable grooves like phonograph records, they were, in fact, phonograph records that actually could be played.

Proving that the stamps also could be used for postage, Figure 6 illustrates a 1.25-nu Phonograph Record stamp (Scott 152B) shown photographically cropped from a large airmail cover sent to India in 1974.

If played on a phonograph, the stamp would tell the story of Bhutan's history, spoken in English by none other than Burt Todd. More details about Burt Todd and his impact on Bhutan philately can be found online at

What was avant-garde in the 1960s and 1970s is today quite commonplace. Nations all over the world are issuing stamps designed to make use of advanced technology and provide stamp users interesting and eye-catching stamps. Some of them also happen to be created with three clearly discernible dimensions – that is, more depth than a standard flat postage stamp. A good example is the 2005 embroidered Austrian E3.75 Edelweiss stamp (Scott 2019), shown in Figure 7.

With all the advances in technology that are making stamps more dimensional, we might lose sight of the fact that the very first 3-D postage stamps bearing the embossed head of Queen Victoria were issued by Great Britain in 1847. A 3-shilling Queen Victoria stamp (Scott 5) is shown in Figure 8.

It was a low-tech solution that brought dimension to the flat surface of a stamp.