The engaging story of the Swiss Landscapes definitive stamps
By Fred Baumann
When I began this rambling tour of great sets and series of the world eight months ago, I invited Linn’s readers to let me know which stamps and sets hit the sweet spot in their philatelic souls. What brings a smile to your face and a warm feeling whenever you open your album?
One of those who shared his thoughts — with a commendable combination of brevity and eloquence — was Richard T. Hall of Asheville, N.C.:
“I would like to nominate the 1936 engraved Landscape definitive set of Switzerland (Scott 227-236) as one of the great sets. Superbly engraved, highlighting some of the great scenic vistas of the country coupled with a long life spanning World War II, it offers philatelic variety as well as a view into an interesting era of modern postal history.”
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That’s well said, and it’s no surprise. Among many accomplishments, Hall has served since the 1990s as secretary and librarian of the American Helvetia Philatelic Society. He also edited the beautifully illustrated Philately of Switzerland: An Introductory Handbook, which has won prizes here and abroad. It is a most appealing, readable and informative outreach tool for the society, available as a 352-page book (2010) or on computer optical disc (2015).
I’ve spent much time ruminating on Hall’s suggestion of the Swiss Landscape stamps. In fact, their story is even more engaging than he suggests. It begins in the early 1930s in Switzerland, a nation with impeccable philatelic antecedents.
The Swiss cantons of Zurich and Geneva issued their first postage stamps four years before the United States did. The 1845 first issue of Basel, its famous embossed 2½-rappen Basel Dove, was the world’s first tricolored postage stamp and one of the most striking designs of the 19th century.
However, Switzerland in the 1930s was in need of new definitive stamps. For eight decades, Swiss stamps had depicted the Swiss cross (1849-1924); various images of the nation’s female allegory Helvetia (1854-1909); and William Tell, the father and son symbols of Swiss prowess and courage (1907-21). After 144 years of combined service, retirement was overdue.
Those who chose wisely selected alpine landscapes of Switzerland as fresh subjects for a new definitive series in 1934. Seven typographed monochrome designs by Eugen Jordi were printed on granite paper with large Swiss Cross watermarks: a 3-centime olive Staubbach Falls (Scott 219); 5c emerald Mount Pilatus (220); 10c bright violet Chillon Castle (221); 15c orange Rhone Glacier (222); 20c red St. Gotthard Railroad (223); 25c brown Via Mala Gorge (224); and 20c ultramarine Rhine Falls (225). These stamps were issued July 2, 1934.
You’ll find all these stamps pictured across the pages of this article, although no single item gives the sense and style of the set as effectively as the Sept. 29 souvenir sheet showing four denominations.
Issued at the opening of Naba 1934, the National Stamp Exhibition in Zurich, souvenir sheets were sold for three times their 50c face value, the additional franc going to help fund the show. The print run of 50,000 was readily snapped up, and those who refused to part with 1.50fr to support the hobby then now have an album space that will cost hundreds of dollars to fill.
A number of sources I consulted said or implied that the 1934 Landscape stamps were unpopular, or disappointed the PTT (the Swiss postal, telegraph and telephone service), or simply failed to impress the public, though no one offered even an anecdote to back this claim. It may be that any stamps that failed to look exactly as postage had looked for the preceding 80 years were doomed to be derided in an aesthetically conservative country. At any rate, they were not the success the PTT had hoped for; perhaps it was the Depression.
New Press and Karl Bickel
The following year, in 1935, the PTT acquired a new press for stamp printing, an intaglio SSR 1 from the Goebel firm in Darmstadt, Germany. A quarter-century earlier, Goebel had delivered to Germany’s Reichspost the world’s first web-fed intaglio stamp press capable of in-line perforation, and Switzerland was only the latest stamp producer to buy one for its operations. An old promotional photo from the Swedish postal administration nearby shows a similar Goebel stamp press it acquired in 1938.
With the new press installed in Bern, it occurred to someone — probably Karl Bickel’s good friend Hans Gaudard, then head of PTT security printing operations — to invite Bickel to see if he could give the Landscape stamps a new lease on life. Bickel not only agreed, he also visited Switzerland and sketched many of the sites in person.
According to Ernest A. Kehr, writing in Stamps, Bickel “was given free rein to adapt Eugen Jordi’s pictures for recess engraving. [Bickel] not only designed the stamps, but engraved the dies under conditions unusual for this work.”
Bickel even designed a test stamp to learn the capabilities of the new press and the intaglio process with different colors, line weights and papers, shown near the press.
5-Centime Mount Pilatus
Nearby is an unusual strip of five engraved designs for the 5c Mount Pilatus stamp, which are shown with Jordi’s 1934 stamp below the left end, and the finished 1936 stamp below the right end. Photographically cropped to make comparison easier, this image of engraved essays appeared in Adrian Keppel’s article “Karl Bickel: Of Mountains and Men” on page 92 in the March 2016 issue of Gibbons Stamp Monthly, and appears courtesy of that magazine’s editor, Dean Shepherd.
Please take a moment or two and take a good, close look at the strip of five. In the essay on the far left, Bickel does a fairly good job of capturing the feel of Jordi’s original 1934 definitive (Scott 220). The denomination and inscription are almost identical, and even the coarser, irregular lines of the typographic design are very close to those of that first stamp. This was the benchmark upon which Bickel hoped to improve.
The four stamp designs to the right of it are all significantly but not dramatically different essays, though you have to look carefully to recognize all the differences. The sky, the mountains, Lake Lucerne, the castle tower in the foreground, the trees, and the text are different in each of the five designs.
Set off slightly to the right, the final essay is in every important detail the same as the 1936 stamp, though it is not the stamp’s precise design. It is much more heavily shaded than the issued stamp (Scott 228), and some of the lines on it differ slightly from the essay.
That little village with the distinctive tower in the foreground is called Stanstaad or Stannstad, and a color view much like it may be found on a rare 1890-1900 Photochrom color print in the public domain in the U.S. Library of Congress archives.
The additional detail Bickel was able to include in his stamps because of the on-site sketches he made was significant, and enhances their sense of authenticity. However, there is one prominent object in his 1936 5c stamp that I find no evidence of in images of the village.
It’s a narrow, rough-hewn vertical structure, rendered as though it grew there, just above the “H” in “HELVETIA.” If such an object existed it would be hard to miss; the early 14th-century tower is 60 feet tall, and this column is a third taller, which would approach 90 feet if rendered to scale. Notice, too, that Bickel moved it around and subtly modified its appearance in his essays. Could it have been a creative artifact that existed only in his imagination?
There are images on the web of most of Bickel’s stamp subjects, and I encourage you to search for them, to enhance your appreciation of his achievements and artistry.
More Revised Designs
Contrasting the designs of the 10c Chillon Castle stamps, it is clear that removing the solid dark panel behind “HELVETIA” and the heavily shaded “10” on the 1934 stamp (Scott 221) makes its red-brown 1936 successor (229) look more balanced, and doesn’t overwhelm the scenery. The same design was reused in different colors throughout the life cycle of the series: dark red-brown in 1939 (230), orange-brown in 1942 (230B) and finally in green in 1948 (317).
Similarly, close comparison of the 15c orange Rhone Glacier stamps from 1934 (left, Scott 222) and 1936 (right, 231) again shows how the finer composition and line weight of engraving can add subtlety and realism even to a landscape displayed in a single shade.
The ice looks icier, the switchback roads seem more authentic, and the detailed stonework of the roadbed on the left looks far more believable than the jagged teeth on the earlier stamp.
Switzerland’s St. Gotthard Railway complex, pictured in red on the 20c stamp in 1934 (Scott 223), defied even Bickel’s formidable skills in the sense that his carmine version in 1936 (232) failed to find any more favor with the public than its predecessor did.
The later engraved stamp has much more detail more realistically rendered than the typographic process was capable of, but this massive and important project simply has too much going on to successfully fit onto a definitive. If you don’t believe me, consider this: Construction began in 1872 and the final phase will be completed by 2020.
The stamp lasted two years, just as long as its predecessor. When a decent opportunity presented itself in 1938, it was replaced with a handsome new 20c red stamp depicting Lake Lugano, printed with smooth gum (Scott 240), with grilled gum (243c), and in a horizontal pair on a granite paper souvenir sheet for the 1938 National Philatelic Exhibition in Aarau (242). It’s a far more tranquil scene than St. Gotthard, and was successful enough to be reprinted in 1948 in orange brown (318).
Both the 1934 and 1936 25c stamps (Scott 224, 233) depicting the gorge at Via Mala, which means “bad road” in Latin, show a claustrophobically narrow pathway, the sort of obstacle that has helped keep invaders out of Switzerland since 1499. Less than welcoming to potential tourists, too, this design gave way in 1948 to a 25c carmine stamp (319) showing Grisons National Park, located in the same Swiss canton.
The three stamps are shown above. Via Mala seems aptly named, whereas the theoretically more appealing Grisons National Park stamp reminds me of the approaches to volcanic Mount Doom of Mordor, where Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings saga reaches its fiery finale.
Nearby are the typographed (Scott 225) and the intaglio (234) 30c Rhine Falls Landscape stamps. Both are serviceable definitives, but only Bickel’s design conveys the untamed power of the rapids that dominate the great river at this point, a frequent subject of tourist snapshots.
The need for higher denominations brought two new Landscape stamps in 1936, a 35c yellow-green Balsthal Pass stamp (Scott 235) and a 40c stamp in gray showing the Alpine Lake of Santis (236). In 1948, the latter was reissued in ultramarine (321).
Finally, the 5c Mount Pilatus stamp in that most Swiss of shades — chocolate — also was issued in 1948 (Scott 316) because by then two other green Landscape stamps were in regular use (235 and 317).
That’s all the stamp designs, but it barely opens the book on what is collectible about them. Scott lists a few of the best-known varieties. For example, during 1936-40, all of the engraved Landscapes have smooth gum, although most have inexpensive and collectible counterparts printed on grilled gum as well (227a-2236a).
If you’re looking for more, you’ll probably be best served consulting European catalogs: the two-volume Zumstein Spezialkatalog Schweiz, or the Michel Schweiz-/Liechtenstein-Spezial-Katalog. Both are in German, and each has a wealth of information on paper and gum types, plate flaws, re-entries and more, along with the illustrations you’ll need to make sense of them.
You’ll also be well-served by the excellent graphic presentation of the engraved 10c by the American Helvetia Philatelic Society in the second edition of its Philately of Switzerland: An Introductory Handbook, available on CD for $10 from the society. For more information, visit the society’s website.
When I began this article, It initially struck me as odd that a stamp-issuing nation breaking from tradition would issue stamps unlike almost all those it had previously produced, and then when they fell into ill favor, would get someone else to produce the same scenes. However, I had failed to note the philatelic precedents for such a decision already set by Switzerland.
Well before the Landscapes, the Swiss had replaced unsatisfactory stamps of one scenic view with new stamps showing the same scene and denomination. Seen nearby, a 1918 3fr red stamp showing the Mythen (Scott 182), a pair of mountains in central Switzerland, was replaced in 1931 with a re-engraved orange-brown design (209) of the same locale, and a 1914 5fr deep ultramarine stamp depicting the spot where the Old Swiss Confederacy was first formed (183) was superseded by a second issued in 1928 (206).
One enjoyable way to collect the Landscape definitives is as overprinted Official stamps for use by the Swiss government and by the League of Nations.
The League of Nations was headquartered in Geneva from 1920 to 1946, when it was supplanted by the United Nations. Official stamps for the League of Nations stamps and its member organizations are far more numerous than those of the Swiss government, and most of the 1934-48 Landscapes saw use in that capacity, and all from 1938 on are Scott-listed.
For maximum visibility of the often tiny black overprints, I chose the 20c stamps printed in red or carmine for illustration, including the 20c St. Gotthard Railroad stamp both typographed and engraved with the nine-hole Swiss perfin representing the Swiss cross, used in 1934 and 1936 and unlisted in Scott.
Also shown are 20c Lake Lugano stamps with a 1938 Official cross overprint (Scott O5), the 1942-45 script “Officiel” (O23), the 1942-43 League of Nations overprint (2O69), and the 1944 International Bureau of Education Officials (4O5).
Though many collectors in North America scarcely know they exist, coil stamps have long been part of Swiss definitive issues. However, they are not as easy to collect as United States or Canadian coil stamps, which are easily identified by their parallel straight edges on two opposite sides.
Individual Swiss coil stamps look just like sheet-format stamps, because they are perforated identically, then coiled into rolls. The characteristics that identify them as coils vanish when they are used, so they are collected in mint singles or multiples. Nearby, I’ve shown the front and back of two coil strips of the 5c Mount Pilatus stamp to show how they are collected.
Vertical strips from complete coil rolls or from dealers who break them down can be collected in 11-stamp strips, which cannot have come from a pane of stamps printed 10 by 10. Similarly, these as well as shorter vertical or horizontal strips or even individual stamps can be collected displaying the counting numbers printed on the gum side of every fifth stamp.
In fact, the 10-stamp horizontal strip shown is one on which counting numbers of adjacent coil rolls have been retained together, showing how the stamps are counted, with alphabetical prefixes “A” through “K” followed by “7490.”
Se-Tenant and Tete-Beche
Swiss booklet panes from this period are prohibitively expensive to collect. It also seems that exploded booklets — carefully disassembled with covers, stamps and interleaving retained for display or exhibit — are virtually nonexistent. Even Michel catalogs, which show images of almost all rare German booklet panes, show very few for Switzerland.
Even so, se-tenant printing combinations are abundant and affordable, because the panes from which they were taken were sold to collectors by the PTT. Scott lists and values only tete-beche pairs, while the se-tenants with a perforated or printed label between stamps are listed in the European catalogs.
Se-tenant printings originate from 90-stamp printing sheets created to furnish booklet panes, which were then cut vertically so that the selvage can be used to bind the booklets, as on this pane of 20c Lake Lugano stamps. Tete-beche pairs can be taken from the third and fourth columns in the sheet, where six-stamp panes were printed back to back to make them easy to recognize and cut.
Pairs of stamps with printed or perforated blank labels come from columns six through eight. Whether these are perforated or overprinted with rows of Xs, the purpose was to make sure no stamp-sized piece of usable unprinted stamp paper could fall into fraudulent hands.
Which stamps, sets, or series make you glad to be a collector? Which ones do you turn to first when you meet with other collectors, or have occupied your interest and fascination for years? If you have one or more candidates, please write to me in care of Linn’s Stamp News, or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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