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Monday, November 23, 2009

April Fools' Day in the Stamp Album

By- Kenneth R. Lake
One of the world’s first mail services began on April Fool’s Day. That was in 1680, when William Dockwra’s Penny Post started carrying mail in Old London Town. At that time, Britain’s General Post Office merely connected the country’s major towns, and Dockwra launched his epoch-making service in these glowing terms:

“A Penny Well Bestowed, or a Brief Account of the New Design contrived for the great increase of Trade, and the Ease of Correspondence, to the great Advantage of the Inhabitants of all sorts, by Conveying of Letters or Pacquets under a Pound Weight, to and from all parts within the cities of London & Westminster, & the Out Parishes within the weekly Bills of Mortality, for One Penny.”

To use the service you had to pay in advance, as we do today. There were attractive postal markings applied to letters, including some shaped like hearts, and the triangular Dockwra PENNY POST PAID mark is regarded as the world’s first postage stamp. The service was so effective that the government had it officially suppressed – then opened it again under their own control!

Now we can skip to April Fools’ Day in 1772, when in the Austrian city of Vienna the “Kleine Post” (Little Post) was begun. This one had mailmen who walked the streets sounding a wooden clapper so that people could come from their houses and hand over mail to be carried.

Philatelic All Fools’ Days seem quiet for a while, but in 1851 both Denmark and the Italian state of Tuscany issued their first stamps. One the same cheery day in 1857, Ceylon engaged the firm of Perkins Bacon – who were responsible for the Penny Black, the world’s first stamp – to provide their own issues, while it was on April Fools’ Day in 1860 that the government of the colony of British Honduras took over control of its own mail service, previously operated by the British GPO in London.

Wells Fargo gallops on to the philatelic scene exactly a year later with 2 stamps, somewhat unbelievably denominated $2 and $4, for its Pony Express service. So costly was this idea that I suspect the $4 was an April Fools’ Day joke, for it was never actually used at all.

The first stamps of the Netherlands Indies appeared on our famous date in 1864, hotly followed by the Russians in 1865 who suppressed the former local issues for Poland and introduced their own stamps for use from that day forward. In 1879 the GPO upset the Irish – for neither the first nor the last time, I imagine – by issuing Penny postal cards inscribed “Great Britain”. That term refers solely to England, Scotland and Wales, but the cards were declared valid for use in Ireland, though by October they relented and withdrew the offensive issue, replacing it with cards inscribed “Great Britain and Ireland”.

Cyprus, acquired by Britain in a curious manner that we haven’t time to examine right now, was given its first stamps on April Fools’ Day 1880. When just two years later stamps were provided for tiny Funchal, which is merely a small part of the island of Madeira, everyone was perplexed. Why separate stamps for such a tiny place? That was a busy day, though, for it also saw the issue of the first stamps of Cochin – not to be confused with either Cochin-China or Cochin-Travancore or, for all I know, cochineal either.

The French Post Office at Port Lagos (nothing to do with the Nigerian capital city of Lagos, which also had its own stamps at one period) was given its first issues on April Fools’ Day in 1893; the French place was just a seaport in the former Ottoman Empire. The same day brought the postal control of British Bechuanaland into the hands of the Cape of Good Hope, though they didn’t formally annex the area until 16 November 1895 when the local stamps were withdrawn and replaced by Cape issues.

Up till 1897, the German colony of the Cameroons managed without its own stamps, using ordinary German ones; on April Fools’ Day they were given overprinted stamps for two good reasons – to demonstrate German political Sovereignty, and to raise money from philatelists for the Treasury. Then in 1898, the world’s very first “omnibus” series of stamps appeared on April Fools’ Day.

To add these to your collection, check them out under Portugal, the Azores, Macao, Madeira, Portuguese Africa, Portuguese India and also Timor. The stamps mark the 400th Anniversary of Vasco da Gama’s epic voyage around the Cape of Good Hope to reach India by sea, and since that seven-country omnibus appeared nearly ninety years ago we have seen countless such issues from all around the world, so maybe there really is something in the fact that they appeared on April 1.

Entering the 20th Century, we find that a collection devoted solely to April 1 stamps can be expanded considerably. In 1903 the French “Sower” design appeared for the first time – and remained in use, in varying states and denominations, right into the 1960’s. Before the 1st World War broke out, tiny Monaco saw an amazing event – an Aerial Rally, for which souvenir cards were issued & used with a rare airmail vignette attached – all for April Fools’ Day, 1914.

By 1920, April 1 marked the opening of the Belgian airlines Sabena airmail service between Kinshasa and Gombe in the Belgian Congo; from April 1 through 15 in the Saar, French overprinted stamps were postally valid alongside un-overprinted stamps of Germany and Bavaria – is this unique, I wonder?

April 1, 1921, saw the first airmails carried from Memel to Konigsberg and on to Danzig, though no stamps were available till July 6, and from now on the pace seems to hot up.

Thus the British decided to hand over the administration of mails within the new Irish Free State on April 1, 1922 – but to be precise this was merely a Provisional Government of Ireland, for although IFS stamps had been issued already on February 17, the Free State was not proclaimed until December 6, a typically confused Irish situation.

The next year brought Kuwait its first stamps, overprinted on Indian issues; in 1924 it was the turn of Southern Rhodesia and in 1925 of Northern Rhodesia; in fact April Fools’ Day really came into its own that year, for that’s when the USPO issued a 25c “special handling” stamp having the effect of allowing 4th class mail to be treated as 1st class mail!

Our famous – or infamous – day in 1926 was marked by Syria issuing its first semi-postals, including an airmail set, with a subject that’s strangely apt today: the relief of refugees of the Djebel Druze War. The first Malta airmail stamps appeared on that day in 1928 – and upheld the curious nature of our chosen date because mail prepaid with them went not by air but by sea all the way to Egypt, then it was transmitted onward by air.

More airmails in 1929 – the first Panama Canal Zone issue, overprinted on a regular issue. More April Fools’ Day fun in 1930 brought Transjordan’s first semi-postal stamps, overprinted on regulars to raise money for the defeat of a plague of locusts!

The Indian Feudatory State of Morvi had its first stamps on that date in 1931, and Iraq the following year for the first time as an independent kingdom (earlier issues had been under British Mandate).

Many collectors are fascinated by the uncatalogued stamps of the tiny island of Lundy, in England’s Bristol Channel; the first local airmail stamps for use on mail flown to and from the island appeared on April Fools’ Day in 1935, and the British connection turns up again in 1941 when – again appropriately – our date saw the issue of the first stamps by the German occupation forces in the Channel Island of Jersey.

Up till 1937, Aden had used Indian stamps; that year’s April Fools’ Day saw the appearance of the famous Dhows set, but one of the most striking commemoration of our chosen day occurred in 1939. Argentina hosted the 11th Universal Postal Union Congress then, and demonstrated its unique “Fonopost” service: you made a little 8-inch 78rpm acetate phonograph record as a personal message, and used the Fonopost stamp and a specially reinforced container to mail it to a friend.

Two wartime issues appeared on April 1, 1943: Japanese occupation provisional stamped envelopes in the Philippines, and the now rare and sought after “Afrika Korps” label, showing a palm tree and swastika, used in North Africa.

April Fools’ Day 1948 saw the issue of British stamps with overprints, and in some cases surcharges too, for use at British Postal Agencies in Eastern Arabia – such places as Muscat and Dubai, for example; these issues were later to cause headaches because those merely overprinted were made fully valid for use in Britain, while those surcharged in strange currencies were not valid. Lots of people got confused, & lots of mail was again surcharged for Postage Due.

Oh, I nearly forgot; it was on that same 1948 date that the Maharajah of Bahawalpur issued his own first specially designed stamps. These had an immense following at the time because they were so unusual and because the Maharajah himself was a keen collector and a colorful character, but when later the state disappeared with the partition of India between the new Indian government and that of Pakistan, they fell into a hole somewhere and have never regained popularity with collectors. Maybe the Maharajah should have chosen a more auspicious day of the year for their launch! And it was in fact on April Fools’ Day 1950 that all the Indian Feudatory States postal services were closed down unilaterally by the new Indian government, never to reappear and robbing us of some of the world’s most intriguing stamp designs, some so weird that they are to this day collectively know as “The Uglies”!

Yes, I did forget to mention the fact that in 1949 Newfoundland became the tenth province of Canada – but did its own stamps disappear on or before that date!

On now to 1957, when the name of Qatar appears as Britain supplied it with its first stamps, used by the British postal administration in the Sheikhdom.

We draw close to our April Fools’ Day survey with the appearance in 1960 of the first US Federal Boating stamps, in $1 and $3 denominations, and finally we turn to Britain and growing interest there in tourism.

The town of Hastings is where William the Conqueror landed in 1066 and subsequently defeated King Harold and took over the whole country; to welcome tourists, on April Fools’ Day 1963 the city of Hastings used Britain’s first pictorial tourist slogan postmark, which read rather amusingly “We’re ready for your invasion at Hastings”!

I leave it to my readers to dig out any events in subsequent years; that’s quite enough April Foolery from me!

This article has been reprinted from Global Stamp News April 1991 – Issue #6