Today, using a postage stamp to mail a letter hardly seems extraordinary. But an upcoming exhibition at the Smithsonian’s National Postal Museum reveals how a stamp can change the world.
“The Queen’s Own: Stamps That Changed the World,” an exhibition of materials from Queen Elizabeth II’s own Royal Philatelic Collection, opens April 6, at the National Postal Museum and will continue through January 11, 2005. The collection is considered the finest and most comprehensive holding of British and Commonwealth stamps in the world.
The exhibition has three sections, the first of which draws on a wealth of rare of unique materials from the British Royal collection, that tell the story of the great British postal reform of 1839-1841. Among other changes, the reform reduced the cost of mailing a letter to a penny, making postage affordable to the great majority of the population for the first time. It also introduced the world’s first postage stamps, the Penny Black and the Twopenny Blue. The postal reform was so successful that dozens of countries adopted similar measures within two decades (the United States issued its first stamps in 1847). By helping to make postal service accessible to almost everyone, the first postage stamps truly became the “stamps that changed the world.”
“Prior to the Great British postal reforms, sending mail was outrageously expensive,” said philately curator Wilson Hulme. “By simplifying the system—for example, through prepayment of postage—it was less expensive and sending mail became affordable to the common man. In that sense, these reforms revolutionized how we communicate.”
The exhibition also features some of the more extraordinary pieces in the Royal Philatelic Collection, personally chosen for this display by the Keeper of the Collection Michael Sefi.
Among the remarkable philatelic rarities is the matchless unused Two Pence Post Office Mauritius, which many consider the best stamp in the collection. The Post Office Mauritius stamps were the first to be issued by a colonial Post Office; they were issued by the British colony of Mauritius (east of Madagascar) just seven years after the first postage stamps.
The final section of the exhibit brings the story full circle with stamps commemorating Queen Elizabeth II’s own coronation in June 1953. The initial and approved designs for the stamps show the stamps in development as well as in their final issued versions.
The Royal Philatelic Collection was begun in the late 1800s by Queen Elizabeth II’s grandfather, the Duke of York, who became King George V in 1910. The future King became a serious philatelist with the help of his uncle, Prince Alfred, the Duke of Edinburgh. He once wrote to his philatelic adviser, J. A. Tilleard, “I wish to have the best collection & not one of the best collections in England.” Tradition has it that the King spent three afternoons a week with the Collection whenever he was in London. King George VI later added significantly to the Collection, as has the Queen.
To commemorate the exhibition opening, the National Postal Museum will offer the opportunity to obtain a free special event cancellation on Tuesday, April 6 from 10 a.m. to noon in the museum atrium. Keeper of the Royal Philatelic Collection Michael Sefi, National Postal Museum Curator of Philately Wilson Hulme, and National Postal Museum Director Allen Kane will be available for signing cachets created especially for the exhibition.
In addition to “The Queen’s Own: Stamps That Changed the World,” the National Postal Museum will have on exhibit an award-winning private collection of stamps about Queen Elizabeth II. Kristen Ollies started the collection as a fifth-grade student in 1997 and was able to show her collection to the Queen herself at the Festival of Ontario in 2002. The Queen deemed Ollies’ effort “splendid.”
“Kristen Ollies’ collection is an example of the fun and enjoyment that can be found in stamp collecting at any age,” said National Postal Museum Director Allen Kane. “It amazes me what young people can accomplish when they are challenged by something that really interests and excites them. Enthusiasm is the key.”
The National Postal Museum is devoted to the colorful and engaging history of the nation’s mail service and showcasing the largest and most comprehensive collection of stamps and philatelic material in the world. It is located at 2 Massachusetts Ave. N.E., in the Old City Post Office Building across from Union Station. The museum is open daily from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. For more information visit the museum’s Web site at: postalmuseum.si.edu.
# # #