“It was recognized even in the eighteen-sixties that collectors had to contend with not only forgeries of government-issued postage stamps but also stamps whose validity existed only in the imagination of their producers.”– Cinderella Stamps (1970) by L.N. and M. Williams
I love mail, mail art, the post office, postage stamps, rubber stamps. All of it. Mail art is a genre of artworks created for mailing and sent through the mail with the postal journey and markings being a part of the process. Mail art is meant to be shared, rather than sold; it’s whimsical and surprising.
And in a corner of mail art, you will find faux postage, stamps that mimic postage but serve another purpose, whether artistic, political, or simply to amuse.
Created between 1851 and 1857, the New England Whalers Home Express stamp was printed from a woodblock carved by a sailor from Nantucket, Massachusetts. It is now regarded as one of the earliest known faux postage stamps.
With thanks to “A Short History of Artistamps” by Eric Whollem
George A. Hussey
George A. Hussey ran a “local post” in New York City between 1854 and 1875, employing boys to carry letters between banks, insurance companies and other businesses. In 1858, Hussey renamed the firm “Hussey’s Instant Special Message Service” and issued his own stamps.
Early on, Hussey noticed that boys he employed were collecting stamps, including those from courier services like his own, even searching in waste baskets for discarded envelopes. So, he began selling his stamps to collectors for the stamp’s stated value. Then he branched out into the stamps of other local posts. They were scarce, so he had a printer create facsimiles.
Writing in Stamps Magazine (February 10, 1940), George Sloane noted that Hussey “made acquisition of specimens easier. He bought up, wherever he could, dies and plates of the stamp issues of these old posts, defunct and otherwise. It is suspected, too, that where such were not obtainable, or could not be pried loose, he had them remodeled.” And so George Hussey became a stamp publisher and dealer.
In the 1860s, Hussey printed and distributed 200 different stamps, flooding the market with rarities of private carriers and local posts, selling to collectors and dealers worldwide. Once the stamps left his hands, their status as facsimiles became hazy and many were sold as genuine.
In November of 1862, working for George Hussey, Thomas Woods printed the first recorded U.S. fantasy local post stamp: The Winans’ City Post. Hussey had now gone from fakes of existing stamps to stamps of companies that never existed, i.e., fantasy stamps, i.e., faux postage.
Samuel Allan Taylor
The Winans’ stamp was copied by many stamp printers in America, Canada and Europe. First among them was Samuel Allan Taylor, a prolific producer of bogus stamps, who described himself as “a man of flexible conscience and speculative disposition.” He created some 5,000 fantasy stamps during his lifetime, becoming known as “The Prince of Forgers” and “The Master Grafter.”
At first, his stamps were not forgeries, but facsimiles used as album fillers, or simply done for fun. He sold them for pennies. About 1862, he traded stamps with John Appleton Nutter of Montreal. After learning about the rising interest in obsolete carrier stamps, Taylor and Nutter began fabricating fictitious carrier stamps.
The first was Bancroft’s City Express, Montreal Canada. The stamp bears Taylor’s portrait in a central oval, posed as Mr. Bancroft. However, many stamp collectors did not see the humor in Taylor’s faux postage. And his innocent fantasy issues were complicated by his bogus stamps. He created stamps for Paraguay before Paraguay had stamps. He came to be marked as a stamp forger, leading to the discrediting of everything he created.
The Mormon Stamps
Among the more whimsical faux postage stamps created by Taylor were his Utah Territorial stamps. In 1863, an article in his Stamp Collector’s Magazine described a stamp issued in 1852 by Mormon leader Brigham Young for postage to and from Salt Lake City and the rest of the Utah Territory. The stamps were printed in several colors, with a likeness of Joseph Smith, founder of the Church of Latter-day Saints.
Taylor had poor timing. He issued these stamps while Brigham Young was still alive, and Young, when asked, said he’d never even thought of creating postage stamps. In December of that year, Taylor published an article in his journal admitting the stamps were “facsimiles.” The stamps lived on, however, as Taylor’s Utah Territorial stamps were forged by other stamp forgers.
James C. Jay
In 1887-1888, a young stamp collector, James C. Jay, carried farmers’ mail from Richwood, Iowa, to the La Hoyt post office, three miles away, for one penny per letter. He called his operation Jay’s Dispatch and Richwood’s Dispatch, and created a triangle self-portrait stamp to affix to each letter.
Another ancestor of faux postage, the photographic “portrait stamp,” was introduced to England in 1863 by Alexander Bassano of Regent Street, London. His stamp-sized photographs were a success and others took up the idea. An advertisement for Mr. Aldis, photographer of the Portman Studio, listed among his offerings “the greatest novelty in photography – the new penny signature portrait stamp, 120 for 10s., adhesive and perforated.”
Circa 1868, Louis Duprez, of Plymouth, England, produced this “Posto-Photo Portrait.”
In the United States, patents were issued in 1887 for a “stamp portrait apparatus,” first to Henry Kuhn, later to the Genelli Studio, both of St. Louis, Missouri. Both devices copied a previously taken image into multiple postage stamp-sized reproductions on perforated, gummed photo paper.
In 1888, H.A. Hyatt, also of St. Louis, purchased Kuhn’s patent rights and manufactured Hyatt’s Stamp Portrait Camera.
Another accessory for studio cameras was patented in 1893 by Andrew Klay and marketed by Peter Diller as Klay’s Multiplying Plate Holder.
In France, the timbre microphotographique of Ch. Guissard were exhibited at the Borges Exposition of 1897.
Johann Laifle was a photographer in Regensburg, Bavaria, Germany, active from 1865 to 1900. He had a studio and did traditional portrait and landscape photography, but late in his career he began creating Briefmarkenphotographie (stamp photos) and advertising them in magazines — “Your own portrait on a stamp!” Enhanced by a faux-postal border, the sitter’s photo was printed on sheets, perforated and gummed.
Circa 1900, Johann’s business passed to Oskar and August Laifle who did business as Gebrüder Laifle & Co. (Laifle Brothers). They introduced the Porträt-Postkarte System Laifle, the sender’s photo portrait and an artist’s scene combined on a postcard.
Michael V. Hitrovo
Mikhail “Mika” Vladimirovich Khitrovo (Хитрово) was born in St. Petersburg, Russia, in 1902, the son of Vladimir and Eugenia Khitrovo. As a boy, he began thinking of an imaginary realm, the Kingdom of Mikia. As a kingdom, it needed a post office and stamps. Mikhail created those stamps circa 1914, but his originals were lost in the chaos of World War I and the Russian Revolution.
Mikhail lived for a time in Prague, Czechoslovakia, and in 1925 came to the United States, bound for Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio. By then, his name had been anglicized to Michael V. Hitrovo. He retained his interest in philately, writing “Note on the White Russians” for Mekeel’s Weekly Stamp News, April 25, 1932.
Around 1937, he began to recreate the Mikia stamps of his childhood, eventually making hundreds of these faux postage stamps. We can see many of these today thanks to the efforts of James Warren Felter, who brought Hitrovo’s work to light in his Artistamps: Francobolli D’Artista (2000).
In 1936, Hitrovo married Susanne Bachelder, a librarian at Antioch College. That year he declared his intention to become a U.S. citizen and was naturalized in 1939 in Philadelphia. He registered for the draft in February 1942 while a graduate student at the University of Chicago. A social worker, collector of toy soldiers, writer, and prolific creator of faux postage, he died in Norristown, Pennsylvania, in 1982.
Another ancestor of faux postage is the poster stamp, introduced in Germany circa 1907 as an advertising medium; soon these Reklamemarken became popular all by themselves.
Noteworthy in the U.S.A. was the Art Stamp League of America that produced albums for poster stamp collectors.
The artists of the Vienna Secession produced some beautiful poster stamps; the set above is by Kolomon Moser.
Lick ’em, Stick ’em: The Lost Art of Poster Stamps (1989) by H. Thomas Steele is a fine history of the genre and a visual feast.
Sessler on Malta
In 1915, Karl Sessler, an Austrian prisoner of war held on Malta, created a series of fantasy ‘Kamp Post’ stamps, which he hand-printed on envelopes sent to Germany, Austria and Switzerland. Sessler died in the camp in December of 1916 and is buried in the Jewish cemetery in Malta.
In 1933, RKO Pictures created a Skull Island faux postage stamp to publicize King Kong, mailing a poster to theater owners in an envelope bearing the Skull Island stamp. The stamps exist with red frames and black photo centers, with a design taken from North Borneo stamps of 1931. Also, two postcards were produced, with the same stamp design but different colors, either a black frame with red center or with an orange frame and black center. The reverse of the postcards featured a photo of Fay Wray and Robert Armstrong, Kong’s co-stars.
Schwesig in Vichy France
In 1941, early examples of faux postage were created by German artist Karl Schwesig. An ardent anti-Nazi, he was imprisoned in Gurs, an internment camp in Vichy France. On the blank perforated margins from a real stamp sheet, he used colored ink to draw 27 stamps, featuring scenes of camp life.Schwesig played at setting up a counter-post. He wrote, “These stamps were all connected by perforations. I stuck them neatly in a little booklet, cut the censor’s stamp of the Sureté nationale from a letter, glued it underneath, making it the stamp of the Gurs Post Office, and wrote underneath: ‘Le directeur des postes Karl Schwesig.’ That was a coup; that was fun.”
A commemorative sheet, a portion of which is shown above, was made from Schwesig’s original images by James Warren Felter for the International Artistamp Exhibition at the Davidson Galleries in Seattle, December 1989.
Also during World War II, a number of German POW camps in Poland were allowed to have their own postal systems. Paper was gathered from scraps. Woodblock and linoleum cuts were made for the images. Perforations were made with a wheel from a watch. Gum from potatoes or flowers was used as the stamps’ adhesive.
In 1945, a Hollywood accountant and stamp collector, William O’Hara, did a favor for a producer who wanted to know about the legalities of showing postage stamps on film. O’Hara wrote to the U.S. Post Office and they forwarded his letter to the Secret Service.
No less an authority than Frank J. Wilson, Chief of the U.S. Secret Service, replied that photography of stamps could be done solely for philatelic or historical purposes. Wilson was not a stuffed shirt you could ignore. He was part of the team that brought down Al Capone for tax evasion and sent Bruno Hauptmann to the electric chair for the Lindbergh baby kidnapping. O’Hara passed a strong word along to the producer, who wisely had “movie stamps” made that looked like real postage, but not so real as to break any laws.
The faux stamps were patterned after the 1913 U.S. 5-cent Parcel Post issue showing a mail train, and first appeared on an envelope in A Letter for Evie, a 1946 romantic comedy released by MGM.
A collector himself, O’Hara wanted to share the novelty stamps. In the June 1946 issue of a collectors’ magazine, he wrote, “If any readers of STAMPS would be interested in getting a copy of this stamp for their collection, just send a request with a self-addressed stamped envelope.” O’Hara got 488 requests, from all but five states in the U.S., as well as Canada, England and the Netherlands.
However, one over-achiever tried to create a unique collectible by sending himself an envelope with the “movie stamp” as the only postage. Spotted by a postal worker, the counterfeit led to an investigation and a visit to Hollywood by humorless U. S. Secret Service agents, who confiscated of all the remaining “movie stamps” and the plates used to print them.
In 1957, French artist Yves Klein created “Timbre Bleu” (Blue Stamp) to be mailed on invitations for two exhibitions in Paris.
The stamps featured his signature IKB pigment (International Klein Blue). While they had a rectangular shape and perforated edges, like government-issued stamps, they were covered in blue and devoid of images or signifying information.
Between 1961 and 1964, Robert Watts, an experimental artist and founding member of Fluxus – a network of anti-establishment artists who “embraced the banal, heralded the unconventional, challenged authority, and rejected the distinction between high and low art” – produced full sheets of faux postage.
His stamps were sold as perforated sheets, and also in two-stamps-for-a-dime machines in New York art galleries.
Between 1971 and 1977, Donald Evans hand-painted postage stamps from imaginary countries, collected in The World of Donald Evans (1980) with text by Willy Eisenhart, a “must have” book for anyone with an interest in postal art.
Micronational stamps are issued by unofficial governments and often denominated in fantasy currency. Deh Sadang, a 19th century micronation in Vietnam, founded by Charles-Marie David de Mayrena, issued stamps in 1888.
Gold Island, a micronation in France, issued stamps in 1910. The Monmartre Commune in France declared its independence in 1920 and issued stamps.
Laura Steward, of the University of Chicago, refers to these types of stamps as “bogus cinderellas.” They are “bogus” because they don’t represent officially recognized entities, and “cinderellas” because they are stepchildren to genuine postage. “Most serious stamp collectors consider them illegitimate despite their extraordinary ability to conjure an entire nation on a tiny piece of paper,” Steward wrote.
Michael Bidner, an artist and artist stamp collector, coined the phrase “artistamp” in 1982 and it quickly became the descriptor of choice, especially among those who already wished to own the phrase “mail art.” One guide to the use of “artistamp” follows:
“With the term Artistamps, we mean ‘artist stamps,’ the graphic creations of artists who preferably orbit in Mail Art, in Visual Poetry and more generally in Conceptual Art. To be considered artist stamps (artistamps), the works must have the form of a stamp, the perforation, the small size and the use of gummed paper. This basic form may be distorted as part of the artistic operation, but always it must remain recognizable and therefore can still be perceived visually.”
John Held Jr., the Boswell of the Mail Art Movement, writes, “… it is best to distinguish the ‘History of the Artistamp Movement’ from the subject of artistamps and phantoms, etc., in general. It seems to be counterproductive to retroactively label micronational stamps, 19th century phantoms, Art Stamps from the turn of the century, and other classic faux postage stamps as artistamps.”
Being well past the age where I enjoy an argument, I leave “artistamp” alone and prefer “faux postage.” However, the best book on the subject is James Warren Felter’s Artistamps: Francobolli d’Artista (2000). It is out of print, but if you ever find a copy, snap it up, at any price.
Posting faux postage is legal, provided the necessary official postage is also affixed to the envelope or postcard, and the faux stamp itself is not likely to be mistaken for a genuine postage stamp.In rare instances, the legality of faux postage has been challenged.
In 1999, an artist was warned about creating counterfeit postage stamps; local authorities cited Federal statutes under Title 18, U.S. Code, Section 501, prohibiting the making of stamps “of the kind or type authorized by the U.S. Postal Service,” with a fine and/or imprisonment for not more than five years for each piece of mail placed in a mailbox. Nothing came of it. See The Stamp Art and Postal History of Michael Thompson & Michael Hernandez de Luna (2000) for details.
However, in a more extreme example, in 1977 artist and poet Clemente Padín of Uruguay created stamps that satirized his nation’s military; he was arrested, tortured, charged with “attacking the morale and reputation of the army,” and spent two years in jail before his release through the intervention of U.S. and French diplomats.
Forgeries vs. Counterfeits
The Scott Catalogue defines forgeries as “stamps produced to defraud collectors,” while counterfeits are made “to defraud stamp-issuing governments.”
Historically, governments are not happy with counterfeiting. In 1805, printer Richard Harding was found guilty of having forged tax stamps on decks of playing cards. He was hanged at Old Bailey, London, England.
Nathan Levine of New York City counterfeited the 1938 three-cent Thomas Jefferson stamp. With the stamp in great demand as the first-class letter rate, Levine easily sold 100-stamp sheets for $1.75 each until his 1949 arrest. (A single example of Levine’s counterfeit stamp now sells for $95.)
Organized crime focuses on high-volume, current-postage-rate issues sold over eBay or Asia’s business site, Alibaba. Postal Inspectors play a constant game of whack-a-mole to put these modern counterfeiters out-of-business. Most counterfeit U.S. stamps are printed in China, says Ken Martin of the American Philatelic Society. Lately, the crooks are becoming more brazen, Martin adds. “They even send out mass mailings saying they are a USPS-authorized discount seller and so forth,” he says. “It’s basically garbage — they’re counterfeit stamps.”
In Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49 (1966), a young woman, Oedipa Maas, stumbles upon the Tristero System, a secret mailing service that dates from the days of the Thurn & Taxis postal monopoly and survives to the present day. As the novel comes to a close, forgeries of U.S. stamps used in the Tristero System are being sold as Lot 49 at an auction.
“Oedipa knew them by heart. In the 15¢ dark green from the 1893 Columbian Exposition Issue (‘Columbus Announcing His Discovery’), the faces of three courtiers, receiving the news at the right-hand side of the stamp, had been subtly altered to express uncontrollable fright. In the 3¢ Mothers of America Issue, put out on Mother’s Day, 1934, the flowers to the lower left of Whistler’s Mother had been replaced by Venus’s-flytrap, belladonna, poison sumac and a few others Oedipa had never seen. In the 1947 Postage Stamp Centenary Issue, commemorating the great postal reform that had meant the beginning of the end for private carriers, the head of a Pony Express rider at the lower left was set at a disturbing angle unknown among the living.”
Unfortunately, the novel was not published in an illustrated edition.
In Paper Chase (1940), Alvin F. Harlow wrote about “a seedy character who went into a shop in Louisville and offered a tattered oriental stamp for sale, claiming that it was the identical one which had carried St. Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians.” This would be fraud.
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Links to Selected Sources
“A Short History of Artistamps” by Eric Whollem
Note: Whollem’s The Mermaids of Amphora (2000) included individual stamps, their backstories and this note: “My own cinderellas were created as an entertainment — to explore the potentials of graphic art in miniature.”
“Notes Toward a History of Artistamps” by John Held Jr.
“The Joy of Collecting Stamps from Countries that Don’t Exist” in Atlas Obscura
“The Subversive World of ‘Cinderella Stamps” in Atlas Obscura
“Collecting Carriers and Locals in the 1860s – George Hussey and his Reprints and Imitations” by Herbert A. Trenchard, US. Philatelic Classics Society, 1997
“Mock United States Local Posts” (1993) by Richard C. Frajola1957
“Filatelia Alternativa: Mezzo Secolo di Arte Postale” by Vittore Baroni