These stamps have stories worth hearing

by Andrew Mahon

These 1986 stamps from Japan feature a dragonfly
and beetle

Think of them as 200 small canvases, most measuring 2.2 cm by 2.5 cm, depicting a spectacular combination of wildlife, history, artistry and, above all, engaging stories from around the world.

These particular canvases are actually stamps and they comprise a new exhibition aptly entitled, Every Stamp a Story, which will open on January 12, 2017, in the lobbies on the main and fourth floors of the McLennan Library Building.

The exhibit was curated by David Lank, director emeritus of the Dobson Centre for Entrepreneurial Studies, entrepreneur, conservationist, art enthusiast, and inveterate storyteller – along with support from colleagues Eleanor MacLean, the head librarian and bibliographer for the Blacker-Wood Library of Biology; Professor David Green, the Redpath Museum's curator of vertebrates; Trenholme Dean of Libraries Colleen Cook, and the Friends of the Library.

From more than 50,000 stamps in the David Lank Collection at McGill (the largest university philatelic resource of its kind), Lank selected the eclectic assortment which make up the exhibition.

A 1990 Cook Islands stamp with a Rarotonga fruit-dove

“As long as the image [on the stamp] has wildlife, it qualifies for the exhibition,” says Lank. The other important criterion was the history behind each stamp. “Every stamp is a story, what counts is the story.”

Visitors to the exhibition can look at the original stamps and larger reproductions while reading the stories, all meticulously handwritten by Lank, which accompany each exhibit. Although billed a stamp exhibition, not every item is technically a stamp. In fact, the exhibition begins with a letter, posted in 1810, sealed with wax and sporting a chicken feather.

“The feather indicated to the illiterate postman that the letter was to be sent special delivery,” explains Lank.

A tour of the exhibition reveals a preponderance of stamps featuring birds as well as a variety of animals including a hedgehog, guinea pig and otter – to name a few. Many stamps commemorate unusual, strange and sometimes humourous events and there are also some philatelic firsts.

In 1851, this became the first stamp in the British
 Empire without a portrait of Queen Victoria. The
stamp predates Confederation by 16 years and
“Canada” referred to Upper and Lower Canada
(now known as Ontario and Quebec)

There is the first airmail stamp (used on a delivery from Auckland to Great Barrier Island, New Zealand) dating back to 1890 – pre-dating the advent of aviation by 13 years. Lank explains that this was pigeon post (basically a piece of toilet paper with a message, wrapped around a pigeon’s leg). There is also the first stamp in the British Empire (issued in 1851) which did not feature an image of Queen Victoria (she was replaced on this auspicious occasion by a beaver). Also featured is the world’s biggest stamp, a glorious image of a Blue Whale measuring 13 cm by 5 cm, issued in Canada in 2010.

Then there are tales of the odd and the outrageous.

There was the fake stamp scandal during the notorious Duvalier regime in Haiti whereby a crime ring led by President Jean-Claude Duvalier’s sister printed counterfeit Haitian stamps (featuring wildlife artwork by Haitian artist Jean-Jacques Audubon). The stamps were printed in Russia, falsely authenticated and placed on world philatelist markets. Millions of dollars’ worth of stamps were sold before an eagle-eyed expert blew the whistle. A sham trial ensued, the culprits got off lightly and the scandal only served to increase the value of the stamps.

A 1994 stamp issued by the former Soviet Republic of
Abkhazia cheekily paired Groucho Marx with John Lennon

Then there was the politically incorrect human resources poster from Pony Express looking for “young, skinny, wiry fellows willing to risk death daily – orphans preferred.” For sheer chutzpah, it’s hard to beat the stamp issued in 1994 by the former Soviet Republic of Abkhazia, possibly as a rebuke of the fathers of the revolution, and featuring Groucho Marx and John Lennon.

“So many countries are represented in these stamps and in these stories,” says Lank, who insists that the exhibition is not just for stamp collectors, but for everyone. “There is profound artistry and beauty here. It is monumental art on a miniature scale.”


The Grand Opening of Every Stamp a Story takes place on January 12, 2017 at 5:30 pm at Cyberthèque (Redpath Library Building, ground floor) with a lecture by David Lank, followed by a tour of the exhibit located in the lobbies on the main and fourth floors of the McLennan Library Building. An RSVP is required if you wish to attend the lecture via [email protected] or (514) 398-5711.

published in December, 2016

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