Souvenir sheets sometimes leave more questions than answers

Jan 28, 2013, 5 AM

By Janet Klug

George Bernard Shaw wrote, "England and America are two countries separated by a common language." That humorous observation is often true, and it certainly is so in the world of stamp collecting.

A quick example is the American use of the phrase stamp tongs to identify the metal tool we collectors use to pick up our stamps so that oil and dirt from our hands do not transfer to the stamps. In Great Britain, such tools are called tweezers. In the United States, the word tweezers refers to a different tool that might be used to pull a splinter out of a finger or pluck errant hairs from eyebrows.

Another example is what is known to stamp collectors in the United States as asouvenir sheet. A souvenir sheet is a small pane containing one or a few postage stamps, issued to commemorate a special occasion, person, event or anniversary.

In Great Britain this is called a miniature sheet. For the British collector, the phrasesouvenir sheet refers to a stamplike sheetlet that has no postal validity, and which might be issued at a stamp show and collected as a show souvenir.

Using the definition of souvenir sheet favored in the United States, the very firstsouvenir sheet was issued by Luxembourg. The question then becomes, which Luxembourg souvenir sheet was the world's first?

Many sources identify a pane of one stamp issued Jan. 3, 1923, by Luxembourg (Scott 151, Figure 1) as being the first souvenir sheet. This small pane with broad margins frames a single green stamp showing a view of Luxembourg. This sheet was a special printing of a stamp that would be officially issued two months later.

The special printing marked the birth of Princess Elisabeth, who was born Dec. 22, 1922. The baby Princess Elisabeth was the daughter of Grand Duchess Charlotte and Prince Felix of Bourbon-Parma, and thus she was a Princess of Luxembourg.

But, to complicate the identification of what is the world's first souvenir sheet, Luxembourg Scott 82a, issued in 1906, is described in the Scott Standard Postage Stamp Catalogue as a 10-centime scarlet stamp in a souvenir sheet of 10 issued for the "accession of Grand Duke William IV to the throne." In 1921, Luxembourg issued two smaller sheets of stamps not identified by Scott as "souvenir sheets," but the catalog has a footnote that says the two sheets marked the birth of Prince Jean, first son of the Grand Duchess Charlotte.

At least everyone seems to agree that the world's first souvenir sheet was issued by Luxembourg. What is undeniable is that the practice of issuing smaller panes of stamps to mark an occasion has, over time, become a worldwide postal phenomenon.

Souvenir sheets were once reserved for truly special occasions, but now some nations issue nearly every new stamp as a souvenir sheet. The stamps from the souvenir sheet are often printed in traditional panes as well as booklets, thus making stamp collecting a more expensive option for those who want one of every format.

Nevertheless, many recent souvenir sheets are a feast for the eyes. Some incorporate modern printing technologies and materials. Some are just plain fun.

Figure 2 illustrates an unusual souvenir sheet from New Zealand, issued on July 4, 2007 (Scott 2144). This is a pane of 20 different stamps that illustrates the theme "Classic Kiwi" New Zealand slang. On the left side of each stamp is a phrase of New Zealand slang. Not being a New Zealander, one might hazard a guess of its meaning by looking at the visual clue that appears in the lower left corner of each of the stamps. Some of them are good clues, while some leave you clueless. For example, one of the stamps is inscribed "shark and taties," a slang phrase that is illustrated with a batch of fish and chips. Clearly, the meaning of "shark and taties" is fish and chips.

Could you guess the meaning of "hard yakka" by the illustration of a flannel shirt? Perhaps not, but each stamp provides its own secret translation into common English. The right side of the stamp appears black, but actually a layer of thermal activated ink is overlaid on a printed translation. To see the printing you have to place a finger over the thermal ink. The heat from your finger allows the printing to show and you will learn that "hard yakka" means "hard work, all sweat and muscle."

Some collectors call this pane of 20 stamps a souvenir sheet, but in the Scott catalog, it is simply described as a "sheet of 20."

As stamp collectors, we are naturally drawn to issues that reproduce things such as classic stamps that are beyond our capabilities to own as originals.

One example is a souvenir sheet issued by Denmark in 1975 (Scott 565, Figure 3). This sheet shows some of designer Martinus William Ferslew's essays from 1849 and 1852. An essay is a concept illustration of a stamp. Often the essay is not adopted or is radically changed from the issued stamp, but essays are avidly collected and are often extremely difficult or impossible to acquire.

The story of Ferslew and his designs is part of an excellent paper entitled "Hermes: Message and Messenger," written by Diane DeBlois, Robert Dalton Harris and Sune Christian Pedersen. The article is archived on the Smithsonian National Postal Museum's website at

Harris-Hermes.pdf. The paper explains why Kerslew's essays of the Danish king's head were not adopted.

We always say stamp collecting is educational. Look how much fun learning New Zealand slang and Danish political history can be just because of a couple of souvenir sheets.