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Mesmerizing Maps On Stamps

Provide Rich Lessons in World History

by Leigh A. Kale

Volume 4, Issue 3
July–September 1995

Curious maps of a world long forgotten can be seen in a rare collection of stamps on display at the National Postal Museum. Maps on Stamps, a thematic collection based on maps from around the world, as well as images of famous map makers and explorers, opens September 20 and will continue through April 1997. 

Maps on Stamps, a thematic collection based on maps from around the world, as well as images from around the world, as well as images of famous map makers and explorers, opens September 20 and will continue through April 1997. 

Stamps in the collection range from images of maps detailing famous exploration routes or maps indicating old territorial disputes to famous errors and political propaganda. Unusual and historic, some of the stamp images evoke the world as it was thousands of years ago. 

Pages of the exhibit were selected from the collection of Allan Lee, who personally donated these marvelous philatelic items to the Smithsonian Institution. Lee began his collection of map stamps while serving in the Army during WWII. Acquiring the stamps was a challenge for Lee because there was no known comprehensive list of map stamps. To track these stamps down, Lee visited and corresponded with dealers from all over the world. By the end of 1976, he had acquired every type of map stamp found in the Scott, Minkus, and Stanley Gibbons catalogues. Lee had also obtained a number of unlisted stamps and rare items. Of the 26 volume collection, 114 pages have been chosen for display. 

"Exhibits such as this serve as a vehicle for learning about world geography in a new, interesting and fun way," said Joe Geraci, museum specialist. 

The stamps in the collection are separated by categories and mounted under subtopics that include geographical areas, ancient maps, political and territorial disputes, errors and varieties. Many of the stamps chosen for display are historic maps highlighting nations that no longer exist, or whose territory is dramatically different today. Detailed historical information compiled by Lee accompanies each album page. 

Among the highlights of the collection are a series of western and eastern hemisphere maps; a 1908 Austrian label showing the Ottoman Empire territory of Bosnia-Herzogovina under Austrian occupation; and 1918 Latvian stamps, issued shortly after the country gained its independence. The stamps were printed on the reverse side of military maps due to a paper shortage. 

Some stamps bear lively images, serving as testaments of national pride and self-interest. For example, an Irish stamp issued in 1922 displays all of Ireland without separating the Irish Free State from Ulster, making Ireland appear to be larger and more unified than it actually was. An 1894 Hawaiian postal card places Hawaii at the center of the world. Stamps with errors, including a 1938 Fiji stamp missing a degree in the map of the country, are displayed with their corrected counterparts. The oldest map displayed on a stamp has also been included in the display. Issued by Romania in 1975, the stamp features a Roman map of Dacia dating to approximately 325 A.D. 

Stamps featuring maps have often given designers the opportunity to create wondrous works of miniature art, providing both an historic topic and promising creative subject. In this fabulous collection, visitors will find many stamp designs that are also a source of healthy creative competition between national postal services, all of whom try to conjure the most historically unique and beautiful stamps. Among the most attractive stamps is one of the first map stamps issued by the United States. Issued in 1904, the stamp defines the areas obtained in the Louisiana Purchase. 

The collection also features stamps depicting people and objects that relate to maps, such as a 1964 Mexican issue that illustrates President John F. Kennedy and President Lopez Mateos shaking hands over areas purchased from Mexico by the United States. Explorers and travelers like Christopher Columbus and Vasco de Gama are portrayed on stamps. A stamp featuring George Washington, who was a surveyor during his lifetime, can also be found in this collection. Many of the stamps depict routes taken by explorers, showing the challenges of their journeys. Marco Polo's route from Venice to Peking in 1271 is traced in a 1954 Italian stamp. Another stamp details Christopher Columbus' 1493 Atlantic crossing. A Lebanese stamp focuses on the travel routes of the Phoenicians, and another shows St. Paul's journey to Rome. 

Symbols representative of the art of map making add yet another dimension to the collection. One stamp reveals postal routes depicted in many different colors, while another illustrates tunnels and railroad routes. 

Maps on Stamps is a fascinating thematic collection, not only for the exciting history it provides, but also for the in-depth information provided by Allan Lee on his beloved subject. Visitors will no doubt come away with a greater knowledge of world history as well as an appreciation for scholarship displayed in this superior stamp collection.