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

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

Pedal to the metal

Australia 2015 Bicycles 70c 1910 Ladies' safety bike

Australia 2015 Bicycle $1.85 1930s men's sprung-frame bike stampI’ve become a bit of a new issues service for Australia Post lately. I didn’t mean to. It’s just that AP has been in great form. Also, I’ve only written about the stuff I love, not the issues that have left me feeling meh. This is the opposite of what writing on the internet is meant to be. You’re meant to ignore good things, while ensuring that anyone in public life who has done wrong knows all about how personally you have taken offence and how much you hate them. (See: many other entries on this site.)

Australia 2015 Bicycles 70c 1888 penny farthing stampI really like this week’s Bicycles issue. It’s unusual for me to be moved by such stark designs, but that’s just the contradictory kind of gal I am and if you don’t like it, you’re going to have to deal. Continue reading

Happy (not quite) Valentine’s Day

Love2013Australia Post would never release Valentine’s Day stamps. That would be commercial and crass – something Australia Post would never stand for.

But it just so happens that most years, AP releases love-themed stamps just weeks before Valentine’s Day. How amazingly convenient!

I’m not sure when ‘Love’ became so Australian that it deserved to be featured on our stamps. Asylum seekers on Manus Island would surely think we were playing mind games if a Love stamp turned up on a letter delivered to them as they queued up in the sun to ask permission to apply for the tampon raffle or to not get beaten up by guards that week.

Love2014But of course, these stamps aren’t celebrating an Australian phenomenon; they’re celebrating a worldwide trend among postal administrations to encourage romantics to put some thought into the stamps that will adorn their love letters, while encouraging stamp collectors to put their hands in their pockets and give postal administrations more money. Collectors are used to this by now, but if the gimmick encourages any thoughtful written communication from Romeos and Juliets in this internet age, then it’s all right by me.

(Australia isn’t the only country in on this game. I’ve mentioned some other countries’ contributions in a separate post here.)

I might be the target demographic, but Australia’s Love stamps often leave me cold. I’m over the girly pinks and the constant barrage of roses. (Not in real life, of course. Keep ’em coming.)

They’re also highly susceptible to a scourge infesting modern stamp design, which is WRITING the THEME of the ISSUE in BIG TYPOGRAPHY so that you KNOW what it’s ABOUT.


Oh! The pink rose means LOVE! I get it now.

So it’s with great delight Continue reading