By Dag W. Walker
My mother was a status-conscious woman back in the old days when working class people had aspirations of climbing the social ladder into the dizzying heights of the middle class. My mother, realizing she would never be the high-achieving being she longed to be, determined that I would be her surrogate, that shining social success she failed to become. Success, mine and hers, depend on me to rise, according to my mother’s limited understanding of success, to the professional heights as a doctor or a lawyer, I was in my forties before I realized that “a doctor or a lawyer” wasn’t one word.
Yet another afternoon, my mother was drilling into my mind that I had to be something important, “a doctor or a lawyer!” What did I want to be when I grew up? For me, the answer was dead simple. When my mother asked one day, I told her, “I want to be an ornithologist.”
As I realised she was charging across the room to beat me senseless, I hurriedly corrected myself, crying out, “NO, I meant that I want to be a philatelist.” One would think this helped my cause, but, sadly, no, it did not. If you look closely you can see the scar right here. Such was but one horribly horrific incident in my tragically pathetic childhood.
Of course, when I taunted my mother I had no inclinations whatsoever to be either an ornithologist or a philatelist. But, can life be ironically strange! Over the long decades lived hard as a wandering scribbler, I have sent many a postcard from distant realms, some of which were attached to the most strikingly beautiful stamps of exotic birds. One such far away place has stamps of the most colourful birds on earth, Liberia, Bird stamps. Who knew?
In the 1930s there was a travelling journalist named Gordon Sinclair who ventured to Liberia to write about the nation and its people. He visited a penal colony in French Guiana, where he wrote about Devil’s Island, (Loose Among Devils, 1935) and from there went on to Liberia. While in Monrovia he visited the post office, which he found did not have any stamps. Of course not. What good are stamps if they sit in an office collecting dust? Stamps must fly– like birds. Or swim– like fish, if they are to be useful to letters and postcards. Who needs them in an old building in Monrovia? Ha. But he did miss out on finding some of the best bird stamps in history.
Liberia is renowned for many interesting things, perhaps the nifties thing about the nation being it’s excellent postage stamps. The Liberian bird stamps are the finest of the lot. One may state this position knowing of the depth of feelings many stamp collectors have for the Liberian butterfly stamps. Happily, this is a book, and there will be no fighting in the aisles this time.
As most scientists are sure to know, birds have been around for ages. They have been around even longer than postage stamps. “A schoolmaster from England, Sir Rowland Hill, invented the adhesive postage stamp in 1837, an act for which he was knighted. Through his efforts, the first stamp in the world was issued in England in 1840.” This was a common thing for roughly 150 years; with this new age of email, soon we will have to explain to the young what a postage stamp is and what it was meant for. Surely they will laugh into their cell phones.
The young today will find much of the previous world difficult to believe. “Before adhesive paper stamps came along, letters were hand-stamped or postmarked with ink. Postmarks were invented by Henry Bishop and were at first called “Bishop mark.” Bishop marks were first used in 1661 at the London General Post Office. They marked the day and month the letter was mailed.”
Things change, but now so quickly that yesterday is a lost era. There was a time when one could expect a letter in the mail at some point. Now, it is instant; and fairly often, it is of no interest. To wait by the post at the sidewalk for the mail to come with news from the far away, that used to be a time of wondrous excitement or terrible anxiety. The mail. As the English poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote, “The mills of God grind slow but exceeding fine.” The mail is no longer slow, and the use of stamps is dying. Coarseness, it reigns.
“The first issued postage stamp began with Great Britain’s Penny Post. On May 6, 1840, the British Penny Black stamp was released. The Penny Black engraved the profile of Queen Victoria’s head, who remained on all British stamps for the next 60 years.”
Even with the advent of email, one can’t claim it has improved writing skills, as we see above, that Penny Black, probably a fine woman, if we turn our heads away and giggle, somehow wrestled Queen Victoria to the ground and engraved Her Highness’s head on the side of the monarch’s face. Or something. The point being, speed is not valuable if the message is written by an idiot. Previously, the saving grace of an illiterate letter was a sometimes beautiful stamp on the envelope.
“The first stamps of Liberia were issued in 1860, depicting a sitting Liberty with a sailing vessel in the background.”
But, the best Liberian stamps are those of birds.
Liberia was a bit late to the stamp game. The nation made up for that slow start by issuing bird stamps that are the ultimate electric thrill of every bird-watching stamp collector I know. Take old Homer back home, for example, who, when he wasn’t on his bicycle delivering the mail, was probably at home dreaming of Liberian bird stamps. Prob’ly so.
Yeah, the selection above is pretty thin. The gentle reader is left asking just where are the images of these excellent Liberian bird stamps I’ve been going on about so much here? Let me think. Yes, I have it.
Ho Ho, dear reader, they are obviously in transit. Even the post office takes time these days to deliver on such promises. Trust me, they are really great-looking bird stamps. Birds, and lots of ‘em. Hey, look out the window: there’s a Liberian pterodactyl attacking that space monster in the park! WOW, did you see that? Incredible.
OK, back to Liberian bird stamps. As soon as they land, I’ll show you ‘em. A whole flock of ‘em. I promise.
You know, some days yer Liberian bird stamps are on the Internet, and when you go back to look again, whammo, they’ve flown the coop. I’m stumped.
Stamps aren’t fine art. They can be aesthetically interesting, though. Some, like Liberian bird stamps, are genuinely pretty. If not fine art, on special occasions, stamps can be personally significant even if they’re otherwise dull. Take a stamp in an old passport for example, a stamp dated Bethlehem, Dec. 25, 1999. Or, a week later, Armageddon, Jan. 1, 2000. These are stamps worth keeping even if they’re not in themselves expensive and unique. Liberian bird stamps are lovely. Some are actually pretty expensive, too.
There are whole books about Liberian stamps, for those interested. [See notes below.]
“While still in London in the 1930’s, Kasimir bought up huge box lots of Liberian stamps and became the leading dealer in the stamps of that country. He broke up the unique sheet of 60 of the 1906 Inverted Elephant, now a world-class rarity. He published H. Rogers’s A Century of Liberian Philately in 1971, a beautiful and comprehensive 204 page book listing all issues from 1860 to 1960 including all known varieties. It is really a wonderful work regardless of what country’s stamps you collect. He single-handedly made the stamps of this little known country a very highly sought after field.” Bileski, Kasimir. A Century of Liberian Philately, 1971.
In summary I have two things for which to be eternally grateful, the first being that my mind is indelibly stamped with the images of the beautiful birds of Liberia; and second, that my mother is not here to beat me for not going to law school. Life is good!
Herbert Hillary Booker 2nd, Postage Stamps of Liberia – 1905 to 1947 Part 1. Tujunga, California – 2009
A Century of Liberian Philately / Rogers, Henry H. / 1971
Liberia Specialized Catalogue, 1975 / Von Saleski, Lothar / 1975
“Waterlow Color Die Proofs 1892-1897” / pp. 7-13 / LPS Journal / Korn, Bryant E. / Apr-Jun 2019
“Waterlow and Sons Liberian Sample Stamps of the 1892-1894 Pictorial Issue” / pp. 6-14 / LPS Journal / Korn, Bryant E. / Jan-Mar 2018
“The First Liberian Pictorials” / pp. 12-13 / Journal of the Liberian Philatelic Society / Hamilton, Ben / Jul-Sep 2006
“Random Notes” / p. 8 / Journal of the Liberian Philatelic Society / Bird, Sidney / Jan-Mar 2005