Out In The Universe...Stamps -- Triangular Philately

Michael O. Nowlan - April 14, 2000
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Traditionally, stamps have been manufactured in squares and rectangles. Imagine the concern that must have been expressed in 1853 when the Cape of Good Hope dared to produce two stamps in a triangle shape! That had to be a bold move only 13 years after the first stamp appeared. Nonetheless, the Cape got away with it and produced a second set of four triangle stamps in 1855. By 1863, Cape of Good Hope had released two more triangle issues for a grand total of 12 stamps.

Surprisingly, that was the last of the triangle venture by that nation. Throughout time, however, other countries have created a combined 331 issues for a total of 1,655 stamps. Newfoundland, then a colony of Great Britain, seems to have been the second postal administration with a triangle stamp to its credit with a special issue in 1857. 

The early triangles were all imperf types. Ecuador was the first with perforations in 1908. Right angle, isosceles, equilateral, obtuse, acute, and scalene triangles are all part of the styles that collectors seek. It is almost like geometry lessons all over again. Although the triangle stamp dates to very early usage, it never caught on as a common way to design stamps. By the way, Chris Green has done a remarkable job of cataloging Triangular Philatelics

The United States Postal Service, for example, only produced one triangle-shaped set. It was the two-stamp attractive issue to celebrate transportation and the international stamp show Pacific 97 held in San Francisco in May-June 1997. Canada's only venture into triangles was last October as part of an astonishing set of stamps featuring kites for Stamp Month. Great Britain, where the postage stamp was born, has never issued a triangle. Liberia leads the triangle parade with 31 distinctive issues for a total of 84 stamps. Surinam has only 14 issues but 131 stamps in its triangle list. 

What about other shapes for stamps? I notice there are some wonderful new ideas on the stamp market. It is becoming very obvious that stamp designers are restless. They want to present their product in a different fashion. They want change that speaks well for a new age. And they seem to have done well with the initial attempts.

Let's go back to Canada's 1999 Stamp Month issue. The stamp theme was kites and each stamp was designed to simulate a particular type of kite. Of the four stamps, only one was in a traditional shape. That was the Gibson Girl box kite which was rectangular. The Dragon Centipede kite, which was an example of Chinese handicraft, was a fine trapezoid while the Indian Garden Flying Carpet beautifully depicted its subject. The last of those four Canada kite stamps was the first Canadian triangle.

Although Canada Post Corporation made new strides with its captivating shapes, they are not the only stamps which have been designed to reflect the object or subject, and some new issues indicate that such innovation could well lead to some amazing standard designs in the future. 

Very recent press information from Crown Agents Stamp Bureau contains two new die cut series with the stamp in an unusual shape. 

The most striking are the stamps issued by the Kingdom of Tonga to celebrate the millennium. The stamps are circular with a dove of peace hovering above the circle from the upper left edge. The message on the souvenir sheet says "The Kingdom of Tonga : First to the Millennium with a Message of Peace" As well as a souvenir sheet which depicts two stamps in denominations of $2.70 and $2.50 respectively, Tonga issued sheetlets in four different denominations. Having looked at hundreds of millennium stamps, these definitely take the prize for design and artistry. The circle and dove actually form the stamps' shapes. click here to see stamp

Another unusual design comes from Trinidad & Tobago which used the 175th anniversary of the Angostura distillery to create three stamps in the shape of bottles. In denominations of $4.50, $3 and 75 cents, they are a self-stick variety and come in a souvenir sheet or in separate sheetlets. The attractive souvenir sheet depicts an Angostura Bitters bottle and two non-alcoholic cocktail bottles against a background of the old Angostura distillery site on George Street.

When we add these new issues to previous unusual designs, they reveal this progressive trend. In October 1999, the Isle of Man Post Office issued two souvenir sheets to pay tribute to the musical group the Bee Gees. Nicely designed in circular fashion, the stamps within the center of the circles reflect compact discs. Another circular design was part of an omnibus created last July to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the first manned moon landing. A series of 14 different souvenir sheets each portrayed a view of the moon from earth in a circular stamp. 

A most appealing shape change came from Pitcairn Islands. Issued on August 21, 1999 to commemorate China 99, this souvenir sheet has one self-stick stamp in a perfect hexagon shape. The complete sheet is extremely colourful with a local flora theme.

The United States Postal Service made the art of die cutting stamps to shape a particular object an act of love. The USPS Love stamps issued January 28, 1999 (in of all places Loveland, Colorado) were designed as Victorian hearts and cut accordingly. The floral heart on the 33-cent stamp contains pink roses, white lilies-of-the-valley and green leaves. The 55-cent stamp has a pastel purple background covered with white lace that is based on English valentine paper lace. The cut lines for each stamp trace the floral heart shape. 

Will squares and rectangles soon vanish from stamp design? Probably not. There is too much tradition in the industry. The new direction, though, has to be recognized, not only as a product of the genius of creativity, but also as a practical way to depict a subject on a stamp. They deserve special attention and they will probably get it.

Die cutting to shape has generated a completely new topic or theme for collectors. Are the topical people listening? It may be too early to have a study group or a society, but once the product is there, the other factors follow. It will be interesting to follow stamp exhibits to see who will be the first to exhibit unusual designs at a national level.

How far this multiple-shape-trend goes is anyone's guess, but I think it will be a common stamp-printing strategy in the future. It will never be universal, but that will not be necessary. 

What do you think? Did I miss your favorite die-cut-to-shape stamp? Write me at Collectors Universe. Your thoughts will be shared with other collectors.



Michael O. Nowlan was born in Chatham, New Brunswick Canada. He grew up on a nearby farm, was educated, and became a teacher. In retirement, he follows his life-long avocation of writing. His credits include 16 books (four books of poems, two children's titles, and anthologies for schools). In recent years, he has written extensively about stamp collecting for CANADIAN STAMP NEWS, GIBBONS INTERNATIONAL STAMP NEWS, and other philatelic publications.

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