Choo the fat with ‘Mainline Railway Stamps’

Mainline Railway Stamps, Howard Plitz

A few months ago I received a new book: Howard Plitz’s Mainline Railway Stamps. As I’ve made clear on the blog, I am bang up for receiving free stuff, so I’m delighted to return the favour with this site’s first ever book review!

Howard is a lifelong philatelist and railway aficionado, and this book is the sequel to his Narrow Gauge Railway Stamps of 2018 (which I haven’t seen). He has chosen a dangerous path in life. What if he made a minor error? The consequences of incurring the combined wrath of philatelists AND trainspotters are too gruesome to contemplate.

Well, Howard can relax for now. This philatelist and secret train fan was all aboard as soon the box was opened. This is just a beautiful book to hold. The size and weight feel satisfying in the hand. It’s handsomely put together, and the vibrant images leaping from the page during a flick-through just made me want to tear straight in.

The feast for the eyeballs continued inside, with colourful railway stamps exploding off the shiny paper stock, illustrating the potted railway histories told around them. The book makes clear at the outset that it’s not a catalogue of railway stamps for thematic collectors; it is not exhaustive in either stamps or railways, and nor does it attempt to value the illustrated stamps. On the railway side, its vision is commendably global, but on the stamp side, it wisely eschews the meaningless postal agency wallpaper and fraudulent collector-bait.

Switzerland 2017 150th Anniversary Brienz Rothorn Railway stamp

Mainline Railway Stamps is tremendously readable, if you can forgive Howard’s occasional meandering sentence bordering on stream-of-consciousness. (And whom among us is innocent of that?) You could devour it in a solid few hours, or dip into it in over a cuppa as life allows. And while the appeal to philatelists is obvious, it would make an attractive option if the railfan in your life is as difficult to buy gifts for as the one in mine. (Yes Dad, that’s you.) The spotlight in this volume is on mainline, mostly broad-gauge railways, with a selection of preservation lines thrown in, along with their cinderellas. And Thomas the Tank Engine hasn’t been forgotten.

As the child of a train fanatic, I inherited a love of smelly old steam engines, but I’ve also been subjected to more technical specifications than I’ll need in my lifetime. (Admittedly, I get the same way over Australian decimal postal rates. I am available for your next dinner party.) Howard’s impressive achievement with this book – against all odds – is to enthuse about trains and stamps without dwelling on details that would cause the average reader’s eyes to glaze over. A note here and there on gauge sizes or postal developments is to be expected, but the text is informal in tone and never gets bogged down. Rarely spending more than a paragraph on any railway service before moving on, the reader is kept engaged, and alert to the next discovery.

And discoveries abound. A real joy of this book for me was a constant stream of little wow! moments. Did you know that Switzerland’s Brienz Rothorn Bahn tourist railway (as featured in the stamp above) was never electrified, with most trains operated by steam locomotives built in the 1890s – so it followed that the same company could supply new steam locos a century later in the 1990s? Did you know that due to track gauge discrepancies, trains leaving Spain for France can adjust the distance between their wheels on their axles?

Cuba 1950 Communications Retirement Fund stamp

Can you believe that in 1950, Cuba released a set of stamps depicting a train accident – and then featured one again in a 1987 stamp-on-stamp? Piltz was unable to dig up information on that incident, or on the two men depicted. But he got me intrigued. Thanks to an old bulletin I found from the Cuban Philatelic Federation, I can tell him they were drivers who lost their lives in a 1947 derailment on the San Luis Oriente line. The original issue concerned a retirement fund for postal employees.

I’m already a collector, of course, and yet this book represents trouble. I’ve always verged on being a ‘trains on stamps’ kinda Punk. Adding this book to my shelf will be like racking up cocaine in front of a model. At the very least, I’m on now the hunt for this Japanese issue marking the 50th Anniversary of the Shinkansen. I like a miniature sheet that screams ‘Get out of my way!’ Stick these stamps on your mail and you can rest assured it’ll get there on time.

Japan 2014 50th Anniversary Shinkansen stamp

Publishers Pen & Sword bill themselves as military and nostalgia experts, but they might be carving out a niche for themselves in the philatelic market. There exists an enormous gap between entry-level ‘How to be a stamp collector’ books, and serious-philatelist catalogues and monograms on specific issues. Magazines and the internet fill that gap somewhat (hello!). But amid the hand-wringing over the  “future of the hobby”, a few more books as attractive and as engaging as this, pitched at normal human readers, might trigger a philatelic itch in a few. (Especially if they were to cover subjects that are, dare I say it, slightly less old-manny.) Mainline Railway Stamps generously ends with a chapter that puts the trains aside and gently introduces the reader to the attractions of stamp collecting. It’s a lovely touch.

I’d like to thank the good people at Pen & Sword (which IS mightier? Sounds like they’re on the fence) for allowing me to preview Mainline Railway Stamps. If you think this effusive review was part of the deal, please know that I warned them that I owe it to my readers to be critical if I felt the need, and they were OK with that and sent it anyway. They must have known they were onto a good thing.

Mainline Railway Stamps, Howard Plitz. Pen & Sword

Narrow Gauge Railway Stamps, Howard Plitz, Pen & Sword

Narrow Gauge Railway Stamps, Howard Plitz

It’s getting steamy in here

Lots of collectors like trains on stamps. But there are trains on stamps, and then, to paraphrase Samuel L. Jackson’s character Neville Flynn from Snakes on a Plane: there are motherfucking trains on motherfucking stamps.

Have a look at these beauties marking the 150th anniversary of the completion of the first transcontinental railroad across the USA:

USA 2019 150th Anniversary of the Intercontinental Railroad stamp strip

There’s some cute design work going on. The Transcontinental Railroad was built across the United States from each direction, with the ceremonial meeting of the tracks taking place at Promontory Summit in Utah in May, 1869. The two engines depicted each hauled a trainload of dignitaries to the ceremony – Jupiter from the west, and No. 119 from the east. The so-called golden spike was then driven into the ground between them to ‘finish’ the railroad. This significant engineering feat cut the time it took to cross the nation from months down to about a week.

American pop culture gives us a certain depiction of an old steam engine: the bulbous chimney, the cattle-grid cowcatcher, a giant headlight, a colorful paint scheme and brass trim all over. It’s only when I see old American locomotives that I’m reminded that they actually looked like that! If the framing was a bit wider, you’d see a moustachio’d villain tying a damsel to the rails. It’s a shame they went for the golden spike in the middle stamp, instead of two runaway convicts pumping one of those see-saw handcars. Continue reading

Fondue is big this year

Switzerland 2018 Fondue CHF1 fondue caquelonSo I look away for one moment and suddenly everyone is putting fondue on their stamps. And by ‘everyone’ I mean mostly Switzerland, but also Jersey.

Switzerland can be forgiven. Fondue as a mainstream dish is a surprisingly recent development in cuisine, but it’s theirs, and it’s a thing of national pride. Back in the 1930s, sitting around dipping stale bread into a pot of melted cheese must have been a fun way to pass a cold Alpine evening while discussing in four languages how the nearby rise of fascism left you feeling completely neutral. Continue reading

Jammin’ and jammin’ and jammin’, jam on

Clearly the ‘vintage commercial design’ thing must be making big bucks for Australia Post, because AP have gone back to the well, or in this case, the jam tin, once more. I’m not judging. I’ve made my love of the retro vein pretty clear in the past.

About a month ago (when I was a tad too busy to blog about it), Aussie Post released this lovely set featuring jam labels from ye olden days, depicting a diversity in development, location and the companies involved.

What arrests my attention in this set is the bold use of perspective. Those jam tins sit right fat in the viewer’s face, threatening to burst off the stamp and cover us in their delicious, fruity goodness. It’s a fantastic way to pay tribute to the colour and vibrancy of the original designers’ work.

Australia 2018 Vintage Jam Labels $1 Peacock's stampWhat’s your favourite? For mine, it’d a close-run thing between the Melray and the Peacock’s. I’d probably have to go with the Peacock’s, partly because I love apricot jam, but mainly because “Peacock’s”. For more details on the specifics of each label, you can hit up the Australia Post Collectables website.

Given recent form,  I can only assume Aussie Post is going to keep churning out vintage shit on its stamps. What do you reckon will be next? My money is on biscuit tins.

Now if you don’t mind, I’m off to the kitchen. For some reason I have a massive craving for toast.

Help me spread my sweet, sweet love… share this post on your socials! Meet me on FacebookTwitter, and Instagram! Follow this blog! And I always love to read your thoughts in the comments. x

© Philatelic product images remain the copyright of issuing postal administrations and successor authorities

Cold War propaganda stamp of the day

Poland 1973 30th Anniversary of Polish People's Army 1zl T-55 tank stampPolitics and human rights abuses aside, I love propaganda stamps. When I was very young, almost everything I knew of life behind the Iron Curtain came from my kiddie stamp collection. Countries like Poland, Romania and Hungary must have earned some sweet forex coin getting their stamps into the Western collector market. Eastern Europeans, I knew, were mad for Lenin, space, the Winter Olympics and military hardware.

This stamp isn’t the most propaganda-y of my propaganda collection, but it was always a fave (despite the damage at the bottom, marking this as a genuine Punk Philatelist artefact of the era).

I looked into it this week, and found that it was one of a 1973 set marking the thirtieth anniversary of the Polish People’s Army. That’s the kind of thing they called armies when the Soviets ruled the roost.

Look at that stamp again: it’s so action. It says more than “We have tanks.” It says “We have tanks and they are coming for YOU!”

Poland 1973 30th Anniversary of Polish People's Army 1zl MiG-21 D fighter stampThe issue also featured a plane, a ship, and a missile, all of which are also coming for YOU.

What makes them so dynamic? Sure, there are streaks of color representing the dust being kicked up, and the turbulence caused by the various aircraft, and there are the foamy breakers against the battleship’s hull.

The answer lies in one simple design feature: Continue reading

Love this retro Jersey

Jersey 2017 Popular Culture: The 1960s - moon landing, language, leisure stamps Jersey is one of those funny little islands in the English Channel that are closer to France, and part of the UK, but get to put out their own stamps.

Jersey 2017 Popular Culture: The 1960s 63p music stampInterestingly, this practice began during the Nazi occupation of those islands, when they were cut off from the mother country. This is just one of the reasons why nerds who are into postal history find them so delectable. (If you think you might be one of those nerds, you should check out the Channel Islands Specialists’ Society.)

I’m not one of those nerds, but I do like how these islands churn out pretty stamps, because, let’s face it, what else have they got going on? I mean apart from tax avoidance schemes.

Jersey 2017 Popular Culture: The 1960s 73p fashion stampRecently Jersey jumped on the retro stamp bandwagon with a 1960s Popular Culture issue.

I love the Hendrix-inspired psychedelic guitar player with his groovy vibes and his remarkable fused fingers on his strumming hand.

The models (or are they just ’60s housewives?) on the fashion stamp take me back to a childhood spent rifling through Grandma’s sewing pattern magazines.

And it eludes me why more stamp administrations don’t honour the cheese and pineapple stick on their postal stamps. Continue reading

Australia Day: an awkward first date

Australia 1979 Australia Day 20c Union Jack stamp

This Friday, January 26, is Australia Day, and that means it’s argument week down under. Crack open a tinny and celebrate with a very rare Punk Philatelist Longread!

Australia Day is Australia’s national day. It’s called Australia Day because obviously the names of all the other countries were already taken. Australia Day has been celebrated on many different dates in different regions in different eras, but it’s only since 1994 that it’s been uniformly observed on January 26.

We maybe should’ve thought that one through. Continue reading

London’s burning

UK 2016 Great Fire of London stamp setHere’s a stamp issue I just have to share with you before 2016 becomes too tiny in the rear view mirror. It was undoubtedly my favourite release out of any that caught my eye last year. And you don’t have to be a stamp nerd to love it, though it’ll help if you are a history buff, comic book geek, or pyromaniac. Continue reading