Iceland’s stamps are on the rocks

Iceland 2009 Nordia Puffin stamp

News out of Iceland last week has shocked the placid world of stamp collecting and made this puffin sad.

Customers of Iceland’s philatelic service last week received a distressing email from Vilhjalmur Sigurdsson, the head of philately for Iceland Post. Here’s an excerpt.

Dear Friends

Iceland Post, Stamp and Philatelic Department (Postphil) will be abolished at the end of this year after about 90 years in operation.

We still have two stamp issues left this year, on September 12th. and October 31st., but when they are done the department will be closed down for good and will stop serving stamp collectors, domestic and foreign, altogether.

The fact that the number of our philatelic customers have constantly been decreasing year after year has lead to years of deficit for Postphil.

Iceland Post has got a new CEO Mr. Birgir Jonsson, who is cutting down everything that is not profitable in this company, including Postphil, and that is due to the fact that Iceland Post currently has severe operating difficulties.

To-day, August 20 Iceland Post is laying off about 50 people throughout the company.

This is obviously terrible news for the employees of Postphil, and my heart goes out to them. Iceland’s stamps are vibrant and fascinating, and Postphil runs a particularly good website in no fewer than five languages.

Like many postal administrations worldwide, Iceland post is in deep financial shit. It falls to Jónsson to fix it. In the wake of this news, stamp industry commentators have pored over his CV and commenced personal attacks in the apparent belief that someone cannot possibly be a former heavy metal drummer AND possess the basic ability to read a balance sheet.

But that is missing the point. Rowland HiIl himself would struggle to steer a post office away from disaster in this age, when the only things dying faster than the letter business are stamp collectors themselves. Jónsson has the unenviable task of keeping Iceland Post afloat in a nation that’s only barely hauling itself up from the mat after a crushing recession, with a population of not even half a million people.

He speaks a little more for himself in the Iceland Review:

“Iceland Post has run an ambitious operation and postage stamp publication for decades,” said CEO Birgir Jónsson. “Now, the outlook for the company’s operational environment means that we cannot continue the publication. We’ve lost tens of millions each year on this operation. This is part of the rationalization measures which we’re in the middle of. Regrettably, we have to cut down there as we do in other departments.”

… The publication of new postage stamps is prepared years in advance. The publication will be continued through next year, and maybe a little bit into 2021, to finish prior plans. According to Birgir, the publication will cease then and Iceland Post will rely on its sizable postage stamp stock. “We have a stock of stamps which will last for many years, and maybe until the last letter will be sent.” Birgir says that if the stamp stock finishes before the last letters and postcards will be sent, it is possible to re-print stamps.

A stock of stamps that will last until the last letter is sent? He may have been exaggerating, but it’s an insight into the future faced by postal authorities worldwide. Someone does need to tell him that stamps can go on parcels too.

Iceland 2013 Europa Postal Vehicles - Ford Transit 350M
Probably one of Iceland’s less vibrant and fascinating stamps

Still, it’s suprising to hear a postal boss talk like this. In recent years, philatelic departments have been seen not as financial burdens, but as cash cows to be milked as letter volumes diminish. They’ve propped up postal finances by churning out thousands of unnecessary stamps and associated “collectible” products every year. Authorities rely on collectors who are hypnotised by the completist spell: we must have One Of Everything! For everybody else, pop culture gimmicks and tacky nationalism are pumped out to lure us through the door.

Well, that only works while a sizeable collector market exists for new issues. This week’s announcement sends a stark warning that philatelic services will only be around as long as they earn their place. It’s natural that smaller countries will feel the pinch first.

The irony is that stamp chat boards are full of collectors lamenting that they’ve been forced to give up collecting new issues due to the number of products issued by profit-hungry post offices. If you can’t afford One Of Everything, what’s the point in buying anything? Some have given up altogether; many have chosen a favourite nation or two and let the others go. Friends in the lifelong habit of swapping their respective nations’ new releases are deciding that this is a luxury that neither can afford any more.

But if ‘fewer stamp issues’ is the answer, be careful what you wish for. Iceland Post’s Jónsson has his sights set on more than just the philatelic department. He’d rather not issue stamps at all. From Vilhjalmur Sigurdsson’s email:

The current management of Iceland Post Ltd. prefers if possible to stop issuing new stamps altogether, but on the basis of current law, Iceland Post cannot unilaterally decide to do so.

However, there is some uncertainty as to how these matters will be handled in the future and the company is waiting for answers from its owner, the Icelandic state.

If the company must keep on issuing new stamps in 2020 and onward the number of new stamps will be very few each year and there will be no service for stamp collectors.

According to CEO Mr. Birgir Jonsson this task of producing and issuing new stamps could be given to outside contractors.

Jónsson has pulled back the curtain to reveal the stark truth that few have dared to speak: stamps are, quite simply, a financial encumbrance to modern postal administrations. Why pay for the constant design and printing of new stamps when counter-printed receipts or DIY adhesive labels do the same job for much less?

It’s anathema to even suggest such a thing in collecting circles. But spend any time in a post office watching zombie customers unquestioningly accept whatever they’re given by the counter clerk, and you’ll realise that if stamps were withdrawn tomorrow, the vast majority of mail-senders wouldn’t even notice.

Communications department accountants worldwide will be watching this move with excitement. This blog warned you about them four years ago. If Iceland’s Mr Jónsson can dispense with stamps with minimal outrage, a crack will have formed in the dam wall, and those accountants, those soldiers for the forces of Boring, will work their pencils furiously into that crack to widen the gap and end the days of the stamp forever.

There are, of course, many arguments in favour of retaining the humble stamp, not least the inestimable economic value of the ‘brand’ they present on outgoing mail, the convenience of prepaid adhesive postage (there’s still a market for that product – why not make it attractive?), and the social benefits of simply cheering people up on the rare occasion they actually get a letter with a stamp on it.

Íslandspóstur Iceland Post postbox

But if those arguments fail to be heard, then the end of Iceland’s stamps need not mean the end of collecting Iceland’s stamps. Philatelic ‘dead countries’ have one big attraction: completeness. You can collect from start to finish, knowing that there is an end-point, and you won’t find yourself bent over a barrel at the mercy of voluminous new issues. Even an austere limit on new issues will make Iceland’s stamps more affordable to the One Of Everything crowd, and may help to preserve collector interest.

In case you’re wondering, for all my realism, I am pro-stamp. I hope this dry economic irrationalism inspires Icelanders take to the streets, shrieking like Björk, ideally led by actual Björk. I hope Iceland is not so skint that it can’t at least issue a stamp occasionally. I hope philatelic bureaus elsewhere successfully pursue profit margins without pushing away collectors.

But most of all: next time you’re at the post office, half-asleep from the queues and the Muzak, and you finally reach the counter to post off that eBay lot or Etsy purchase, I hope YOU remember to refuse that dreary machine sticker for your 21st-century package.

Fight the boring. Demand a stamp.

Got an opinion? Drop a comment below or get involved over at my socials! I’m on FacebookTwitter, and Instagram!

© Philatelic product images remain the copyright of issuing postal administrations and successor authorities, assuming they haven’t been sacked by some pencil-sucking accountant

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

Storytime! Weekend at Punkie’s

There’s a new post on the way shortly, but let me put the reviews and rants aside for a moment and tell you about my weekend. It was exciting, but in a way that only my people will understand. (Philatelists are much like those who like fishing: we LOVE telling you all about our big catch.)

So I’d I popped into a local club auction to check out a set of commemorative covers. One of those not-strictly-what-I-collect-but-maybe-I-could-have-it-around kinda deals. In the end, I decided I didn’t need them. Game over for me. I began to mosey through the rest of the viewing tables on my way out.

And that’s when I spied them.

Continue reading

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

Circuit books: WTF?

Circuit book and catalogueHello and welcome to the new occasional segment I just decided to launch! Here’s how it works: you ask ‘WTF?’ and then I explain a thing. Got that? Great.

So a few years back I joined a local philatelic society. A stamp club. I hadn’t been in a stamp club since primary school, and it’s not something I mention to my normal friends, because we all know how it sounds (except for people who join stamp clubs, many of whom do not realize how it sounds). I also joined the club’s circuit book list.

Stop right there! “Circuit books” – WTF? 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

The 12 Stamps of Christmas

UPDATE! I’ve added a couple of reader’s nominations to the bottom of the list! Read on…

It’s the 12th day of Christmas. The Christmas tree withers in the corner, unwatered for days. The batteries on the toys have expired. The gurgling remnants of Christmas lunch are in a fight to the death with New Year’s resolutions. So it’s the perfect time for me to give you my 12 Stamps of Christmas! After all, I am your true love.

As mail revenues continue to plummet, for the postal administrations of Christendom, Christmas offers one last chance to hear the bells jingling on their cash registers. (Do you know how many Christmas cards I got in the mail this year? None. That’s a first. It might be that I’ve been crossed off multiple lists. But I choose to blame The Pace of Change.)

So which countries brought their festive philatelic A-game in 2018? These are my favourites of the stamps that crossed my radar. Continue reading

A new year, a new Punk. Get drinking.

France 1938 300th Anniversary of the Birth of Dom Pierre Pérignon - Traditional Costume of Champagne 1.75F stamp

It’s not very often I get meta about blogging this blog, but indulge me for one New Year’s Eve post.

A naughty little secret has been hiding in plain sight for a while now, alluded to in the ‘Punk Philatelist Manifesto’ page. If you haven’t spotted it, prepare to have your MIND BLOWN. Continue reading