Saturday, September 29, 2018

Rafael Trujillo: "Benefactor of the Nation"

Dictators tend to be vain, but few if any could ever match Rafael Trujillo, president of the Dominican Republic from 1930 to 1961.   Changing careers early in life from not-so-petty criminal to soldier, Trujillo was able engineer his "election" to the presidency with 99% of the votes cast.  Four years later he started issuing stamps bearing his image.
Dominican Republic, Scott 287 (Wiki Commons)
Scott number 287, shown above, was one of a set of three stamps issued to commemorate Trujillo's 42nd birthday.  The stamp itself is attractive, produced by engraving, an expensive process but which produces, in my opinion, stamps with the best visual appeal.  Trujillo is described here as presidente, a title which should have satisfied anyone, but not him.

Dominican Republic, Scott 323 (
In 1937 Trujillo had a set of stamps issued (Scott Nos. 323-325) issued commemorate the renaming of the country's capital from San Domingo to Ciudad Trujillo.  He also had an obelisk constructed, which looks suspiciously like the Washington monument. 

Consistent with his view of himself as the George Washington (and then some) of the Dominican Republic, Trujillo awarded himself new titles, shown on Scott 323 the not overmodest Generalissimo, Doctor, Benefactor de la Patria 
("Supreme War Lord, Esteemed Scholar, Benefactor of the Nation.")  

Nothing was out of reach of the Trujillo ego.  Need a stamp for Mother's Day?  Trujillo's mother is on the stamp, but not just one stamp, but a set of four (Scott 358-361).  Father died four years ago?  Issue another set of stamps.  (Scott 346-350). 
Scott 328,"Year VII of the Benefactor" (
Already by 1937, stamps issued ostensibly to commemorate other events, had the dual purpose of promoting Trujillo, for example Scott 328, issued to mark the first national Olympics, but which also bears the legend Ano VII del Benefactor ("Year VII of The Benefactor").
Scott 552, "My greatest friend has been the 
working man" (
The Benefactor was assassinated in 1961.  This was murky affair, and there has been talk for a long time of possible CIA involvement.  Trujillo's toadies were able to run the country for a while, long enough to have stamps issued which mourned Trujillo's death (Scott 548-557).  
Scott 562, showing the capital's name restored to
Santo Domingo (
The attempt to carry on Trujillo's legacy ended soon after his death, and one year later, the day of his assassination, May 30, 1961 was depicted in a completely different light on Scott 562, with the figure of Justice rising above a map of the country, and the capital's name shown as Santo Domingo rather than Ciudad Trujillo. 

Sunday, September 9, 2018

National Parks issue 1934

Times were very hard in the early1930s, memorably so.  The stock market had fallen by 80% in value, huge numbers of people were unemployed, and the banking system had collapsed.  In some countries, dictatorship seemed to be the answer, and there were those in our own country who felt the same way.  Fortunately in this never came to pass here, and one of the reasons why it did not was that the government remained in touch with the needs of the people.

In those days, the position of Postmaster General was a political appointment, usually reserved for the head of the President's party.  In the 1930s, that person was James Farley a canny politician who perhaps more than anyone else was responsible for the election of Franklin Delano Roosevelt.  Farley hit on the idea of using stamps to promote tourism and related businesses.  

To this purpose, the ten stamps of the National Parks issue were released in mid-1934.  The designs were beautiful and the colors were bright but still muted.  Valued simply from one cent to ten cents, the stamps featured national parks in California, Arizona, Washington State, Colorado, Wyoming, Oregon, Maine, Utah, Montana, Tennessee and North Carolina.  The images below are all from Wiki Commons except the 8c, from

Huge numbers of the stamps were issued, consistent with the purpose to promote tourism.  They are not at all rare, and can be still be acquired today by anyone at a very low cost, proof again that the esthetic value of a stamp has no relationship to its market price.

Compare the 1934 designs to a recent (2016) National Parks issue.  These stamps certainly have nice photographs, but they still look like peal-off stickers, which is exactly what they are, with perforations (the zig-zag lines along the side) added for looks only, with a minor anti-forgery purpose.  
Attrib: USPS                                                                                              
Sadly USPS stamp art has, for the most part, fallen far below the standards set in years past.  There are exceptions, some of which I hope to address in future blog posts.

Saturday, September 8, 2018

Trench of the Bayonets: Myth and Reality

Trench of the Bayonets, Scott B7 (from eBay)
France lost over a million men during World War 1.  The worst battle was that of Verdun, which lasted from February to October 1916.  The focal point of the battle was a pre-war French fortress Douaumont and the nearby village of the same name.  By the end of the battle, Fort Douaumont had been captured by the Germans, recaptured by the French, and the village had been completely destroyed.  

Fort Douaumont after Battle of Verdun (left), a lunar landscape of shell craters and trenches, and pristine polygonal layout before the battle (right), (Source: Wikicommons).

Huge numbers of artillery shells were fired into the battle zone by both sides, and up to 20 percent of those shells did not explode upon impact, but rather plowed into the ground.  They remain there, still capable of killing over century later.  For this reason Douaumont and eight other destroyed villages were never rebuilt.

When the battle was over, a French officer walking over the battlefield found a row of rifles, some say twelve, others say twenty-one, jutting out of the ground.  Beneath each rifle were the remains of a French soldier.  These soldiers were from the 137th Infantry Regiment, and the position, a trench to the west of Fort Douaumont, then in the hands of the Germans, had last been seen under heavy German artillery fire.  

The place first became known as the Tranchée des fusils (Trench of the Rifles).  The most likely explanation was that the men had been killed either in the trench or nearby, the trench then was used as a make-shift grave, and the rifles had been set up against the trench wall as grave markers.  

For the post-war newspapers and propagandists, it was not enough that the men of the 137th Regiment had died in defense of France; instead a modern Thermopylae was required, particularly where the meagre results of the war looked like poor bargain indeed for the huge loss of life.

Soon the Trench of the Rifles became the Tranchée des Baïonnettes, the Trench of the Bayonets.  

Scott B7, a semi-postal stamp issued by France just after war, for the benefit of war orphans, illustrates the new story.  

Supposedly the soldiers had fixed their bayonets on the ends of their rifles, and placed them against the trench wall to defend against the imminent German infantry assault.  Rather than retreat, the men stayed at their posts until buried alive by exploding artillery shells which collapsed the trench.

This is almost certainly untrue.  While large numbers of soldiers had been killed in trenches all at the same time, it appears that in no case were rifles found placed along the trench walls.  And it was much harder for artillery shells to collapse a trench than the press of the time supposed.  

Despite all of this, in the early 1920s, a memorial to perpetuate the myth was built at the supposed site of the trench, and that memorial remains to this day.

The Trench of the Bayonets sort of propagandizing continues to this day, in other countries, including our own.  We have seen a number of examples in our country's recent wars. 

Consider the false reports that Private Jessica Lynch, during the early days of the Iraq war, had put up a heroic defense when her vehicle was attacked; in fact, as she herself insisted, she  had been injured so severely in the wreck of her vehicle  that she was captured while unconscious.  This, like the Trench of the Bayonets, was offered as a distraction from a very real controversy over the involvement of a nation in war.

The people most addicted to creating this sort of propaganda, both then and now, seem to be living in safety well away from the battle zone.  Such tales are an insult to the actual fighting men and women, who, just as the soldiers of the 137th Regiment at Verdun, need no glorification in the press to prove their courage and devotion to their country.

Monday, September 3, 2018

Russian imperial post and the zemstvo issues

Scott #41 (
Russia issued its first stamps in 1857, and from then until 1913, all stamps issued by the imperial post followed a common pattern: the imperial coat of arms, consisting of the double-headed eagle, with a crown, scepter and orb, at the center, sometimes embossed, with a frame around it, the words Почтовая марка (Pochtovaya marka: "postage stamp").  Under the imperial eagle appeared crossed lightning bolts and post horns.  

The above stamp, Scott 41, first issued May 14, 1889, face value 4 kopecks, is typical of these issues.  Note the background pattern of intersecting lines, which was an anti-forgery device known as "burelage."
Tsar Alexander II.  Scott 89 (first issued Jan. 2, 1913)

Tsar Alexander II was a reform-minded ruler who is best known for his role in freeing the serfs.  Another reform of his was setting up semi-democratic local governments called "zemstvos" (Ru: земство) , from the Russian word zemlya meaning "land, territory."  

The imperial post typically ran only to the larger towns in any particular region, leaving the rural areas unserved.  For this reason, the zemstvos were authorized to set up their own local postal systems, and even issue their own stamps, provided those stamps did not appear to be copies of stamps issued by the imperial post.  

In the United States collectors often fall into a habit called "collecting to the catalog." This means they seek stamps listed in Scotts the premier North American stamp catalog.   Stamps that aren't listed aren't collected.  Except for the United States, Scott does not list local stamps, including zemstvo issues.

Not listing local issues is simply an editorial decision.  Local stamps were often fully authorized by government authorities and valid for postage and actually used on mail.  There over 3,000 zemstvo issues, so one can see the justification for the Scott decision to omit them.

A few of the zemstvo issues are shown below.  You can see what collectors might be missing by "collecting to the catalog."  With only a little study it is easy to read the few Russian words on the stamps.
Tikhvin, 1886 (from Ebay).

Vetluga (from Ebay)

Yelets (from Ebay)
The stamp below was issued by Kreis Wenden, a local government which was part of the Russian Livonia, a territory now divided between Latvia and Estonia.  The stamp is printed in the German language, Kries meaning literally "circle."  According to Wikipedia, German speakers constituted only 3.5% of the Wenden population; presumably they had disproportionate local power or influence (or both).

Wendon, 1880 issue (from Ebay).
As to Alexander II, his reforms went too far for the conservatives of Russian and not far enough for the radicals, and he was assassinated in 1881 by a radical group calling itself Народная воля (Narodnaya Volya: "People's Will").  His son, Alexander III, and his grandson, Nicholas II, took the assassination as a lesson that Russian needed an autocrat and no reform should be made.  

The Bolsheviks abolished the zemstvos and their postal systems after they assumed power in 1917, but a 2015 Russian stamp commemorating the zemstvo posts is a testament to how far the present Russian government has rejected (up to certain limits) the policies of the former Communist regime.


Sunday, September 2, 2018

Revolutions in Iran

Stamps often show rapidly changing conditions in a country.  The stamp below is from Iran, then called Persia in western countries.  

Scott #44, issued 1879 (
Scott #44, 2 chahis, was issued in 1879, and shows shah Naser al-Din Shah Qajar, (born 1831; assassinated 1896).  The monarch, who in 1873 was the first shah to visit Europe, perceived himself to be something of a reformer.  

The shah is shown wearing western attire except for his ceremonial headdress.  The stamp bears the lion and the rising sun, the symbol of imperial Persia.  Otherwise no country information is given.

Scott #59, issued 1882-1884 (
The next stamp, Scott 59,  is from the early 1880s.  By this time Iran had become a member of the Universal Postal Union, a multi-lateral treaty organization still operating today, which allows mail to be sent between countries by postage paid solely to the sending country, and not to all countries in transit, as had often been the previous case.  

Scott 59 now complies with UPU rules for international mail, showing the country’s name in Roman letters and in the French language, and expressing the stamp’s value in Arabic numerals.  

Shah Naser-ed-Din, the same monarch shown in Scott 44, is shown in Scott 59 in a traditional royal robe, but under it he wears the starched white collar and necktie of the western gentleman of the day.

Scott #703, Pahlavi overprint (
The Qajar dynasty stumbled along until the throne came to Naser’s great-grandson, Ahmad Shah Qajar, who became Shah in 1909, at the age of eleven.  Attempts at reform of the weak Iranian government failed, and in February 1921 Ahmad Shah was effectively stripped of power in a coup led by an army officer, Reza Khan, backed by the British empire.

In 1925, Khan, having changed his name to Pahlavi, formally overthrew the Qajar dynasty and had himself crowned as Shah.  In the stamp above, Scott #703, the rays of the sun rising behind the imperial lion of Iran block out the face of the former shah.  Reza Pahlavi took major steps towards modernizing Iran.  

Scott #789, issued Feb 21, 1935 (
In 1935 the Iranian government released a set of stamps showing improvements in transportation, industry, and communications, the first Iranian stamps ever to show anything other than the image of the shah or the imperial lion and sun.  One of the stamps in the 1935 series, Scott #789, shows the new Tehran airport with a row of military airplanes lined up in front of aircraft hangers.

Mohammad Reza Shah, 1944 (
Reza Pahlavi tried to keep Iran neutral when World War 2 began in 1939.  The war drew in much of the Middle East, which both sides deemed vital to control because of the oil sources in the region and also critical transportation links, such as the Suez Canal.  Great Britain and the Soviet Union came to regard Reza Pahlavi as being pro-German, and so after a short war in the summer of 1941, he was overthrown.  Britain and the Soviets divided Iran into occupation zones and appointed Reza Pahlavi's son, Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, as shah.

1979 stamp of Iran overprinted "Islamic Republic of Iran" (
In 1979 Mohammed Reza Pahlavi was overthrown in the revolution which led to the establishment of the Islamic Republic of Iran.  As in the 1925 revolution in which the Shah's father, Reza Pahlavi had overthrown the Qajar dynasty, the image of the Shah on stamps was overprinted with lines, and the new regime's name placed on the stamp design.