A 91-year-old atlas gives stamps a historical perspective

Apr 28, 2014, 9 AM

I recently had the task of going through family memorabilia while helping a family member move. In a box full of miscellany was a rather dog-eared book that turned out to be an atlas published in 1923.

Turning the pages of the atlas was in itself both a lesson in geography and in history. There were many names of places that no longer exist on today's maps, making it a grand companion to a stamp collection of "dead countries."It had my mother's name scrawled in it, with addresses she had lived in from her youth until early in her marriage. I was touched to see the book, and I smiled when it dawned on me that I came by my love of geography honestly.

Dead countries are former stamp-issuing countries that no longer exist and thus no longer have a stamp program.

In the 1923 atlas, British, Dutch and French Guiana snuggle together in the northeast corner of South America. Africa is hardly recognizable compared to a current map of the continent. Bechuanaland Protectorate, Northern and Southern Rhodesia take up a large area of southern Africa.

There were a number of changes after World War I when the Treaty of Versailles divvied up colonies claimed by the defeated and handed over to the victors.

In Africa, the largest segment of the Germany colony of Kamerun (known as Cameroon in English) became the French mandate Cameroun. Figure 1 shows a German "Kamerun" colonial stamp issued in 1900 (Scott 16) depicting the kaiser's yacht.

Figure 2 shows a 2-centime "Cameroun" Herder and Cattle stamp issued in 1925 during the French mandate period (Scott 171).

A narrow strip of northwestern Cameroon became a British mandate called "Cameroons." Stamps changed accordingly.

Interestingly, the 1923 atlas still gives the place its German name "Kamerun" (Figure 3), but color keys the large area as being "under French control" and the narrow strip that shares a border with Nigeria as being "under British control." That strip of land was additionally divided into North and South Cameroons, both of which used Nigerian postage stamps.

Fast forward to the present day, and what used to be French Cameroun is now the independent Republic of Cameroon. The former British mandate's Northern Cameroon became part of Nigeria, and Southern Cameroon is part of the Republic of Cameroun.

For a short period of time in 1960-61, both Northern and Southern Cameroons used Nigerian stamps overprinted "Cameroons/U.K.T.T." (United Kingdom Trust Territory).

Figure 4 illustrates an overprinted Nigerian stamp used within the British mandate period in Northern and Southern Cameroon. These stamps are listed separately in the Scott Standard Postage Stamp Catalogue as Cameroons; the stamp pictured is the ½-penny issue (Scott 66).

Today's Republic of Cameroon has its own postage stamps. Figure 5 shows a 1998 125-franc Shrike stamp (Scott 926).

This exercise is a strong demonstration of how geography, history and stamp collecting meld and become inseparable.

Thumbing through the atlas brought more fascinating finds. A page that said "The New States of Southeastern Europe," shown in Figure 6, was particularly interesting because it presents the dramatic way European countries were remolded after WWI. The largest space on the map was a country called "Jugoslavia," named for the southern Slavic people. Jugoslavia is the Slavic spelling of what we know as Yugoslavia.

In 1917, the Baltic area containing Serbia, Montenegro, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Slovenia and Croatia joined and formed the Kingdom of the Serbs, Croats and Slovenes. Figure 7 illustrates King Alexander on a 1921 stamp that was used throughout the kingdom (Scott 1).

In 1929, the king declared the nation to be a royal dictatorship, and it was renamed the Kingdom of Yugoslavia.

During World War II, the Axis powers occupied the country, and what had been the Kingdom of Yugoslavia was split into a number of puppet states such as the Independent State of Croatia (Nezavisna Drzava Hrvatska).

Figure 8 shows a 50-paras Yugoslavian stamp overprinted in 1941 with a shield and "Nexavisna Drzava Hrvatska" for use in the Independent State of Croatia (Croatia Scott 10).

The territory that was once the Kingdom of Yugoslavia became Democratic Federal Yugoslavia in 1943. Figure 9 is an overprinted Serbian stamp for use in the newly formed Democratic Federal Yugoslavia (Yugoslavia Scott 159A).

In 1945, Yugoslavia became a communist state named the Federative People's Republic of Yugoslavia. A year later it acquired some land from Italy and was renamed as the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. Figure 10 shows a stamp issued for the annexation of Julian Province in 1947 during the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia period (Scott 231).

After the Yugoslavian economy tanked in the late 1980s and differences between ethnic groups became volatile, former states within Yugoslavia began declaring independence. The first were Croatia and Slovenia in June 1991, followed quickly by Macedonia and Bosnia and Herzegovina.

In 1992, the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia was formed from the states of Serbia and Montenegro. A Yugoslavian stamp issued in 1994 for the protection of Montenegro's ecology is shown in Figure 11 (Scott 2252), but in 2006 Serbia and Montenegro proclaimed independence, and Yugoslavia was no more. Six new countries created from Yugoslavia were Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Montenegro, Republic of Macedonia, Serbia and Slovenia.

If a 91-year-old atlas can easily inspire a new approach to forming a stamp collection, what other books, photographs, greeting cards, match book covers and other mementos can motivate you to create a new collection?