It’s been a while since I’ve posted, but not for lack of interest in communicating with y’all. My cherished companion and I have just returned from a small-ship cruise of the Indian Ocean, from Mauritius to Zanzibar, tarrying along the way in Reunion, Madagascar, Mayotte and the Comoros. It was a part of the world I’d long wanted to see, and it didn’t disappoint.
I’m occasionally asked if my relentless globetrotting is in aid of my work. Since most of my books are set in New York, the answer would seem to be self-evident. While I did set Tanner on Ice in Burma, not long after our return from that country, I can assure you I didn’t have that in mind while we were over there. (I never figured I’d write anything more about Tanner, let alone send him off to Burma. Go know.)
My travel is for pleasure. No doubt it’s for other things as well—a shift of perspective, a break from routine, the alluring illusion of enlightenment—but it’s emphatically not for research. Why would I want to ruin a pleasant experience by writing about it?
Yet I will write about the cruise, and soon. For the past two and a half years I’ve been contributing a monthly column to Linn’s Stamp News, and I suspect my next column will concern the philatelic history of several of the places we visited. It seems appropriate; these are countries I’ve long known only through the medium of stamp collecting, and it’s interesting to me the way travel and philately tend to inform each other. Considering that three of our ports of call in Madagascar—Ile Ste. Marie, Diego Suarez, and Nossi-Be—were all individual stamp-issuing entities for a time in the 19th Century, I don’t think I’ll have much trouble filling a column.
As some of you know, I collected the first two years worth of columns and ePublished them this past December, under the title Generally Speaking. (That’s also the column’s title. I write from the perspective of a general collector, drawing on the stamps of the hobby’s first century, 1840-1940. In collecting as in scholarship, there are generalists and there are specialists. A scholarly generalist, of course, is a person who learns less and less about more and more, until he succeeds in knowing nothing about everything. A specialist, on the other hand, learns more and more about less and less, until he knows everything about nothing.)
The book, certainly, is likely to appeal most to collectors, and they’ve been an enthusiastic audience for it. But I’ve had enough positive response from non-philatelists to think that some of you with no interest in stamps might nevertheless enjoy these columns. So I thought I might print a sample chapter here. Some of you may actually like it enough to spend $2.99 on it at Kindle or Nook or Smashwords. (That’s still the price for the next month or so, before it bumps up a notch to $4.99.)
If nothing else, reading it will help you make sense of this post’s title.
HOW MUCH IS THAT DACHSHUND IN THE FENSTER?
Last month I found some observations to make on war—less as a deplorable presence in the world than as a great enricher of philately. All those occupation issues, all those provisional overprints, all those countries changing their names, all those colonies shuttling back and forth. And, when the tumult and the shouting dies, all those commemoratives—to honor heroes and generals, to celebrate victories, and even to herald the unlikely outbreak of peace.
If one of the effects of war is to give us more stamps to collect, a result of collecting them is a greater appreciation of the history they reflect. In my own case, I thought I had a fair grasp of the first World War, and what went on between the assassination of the Archduke at Sarajevo and the armistice some four years later. Troops from Australia and New Zealand slaughtered at Gallipoli, and a whole generation of British youth climbing out of the trenches and into a barrage of German bullets, and clouds of mustard gas drifting back and forth over the trenches, killing troops on either side, and the Red Baron and his Allied counterparts in their little toy airplanes, wearing leather helmets and flight goggles and dueling in the sky, and—
And so on.
But until I had a good look at the stamps of German East Africa, I somehow missed knowing that the war was not limited to Europe. In addition to extensive fighting in German East Africa, there were clashes in Germany’s three other African colonies, Togoland, Kamerun, and German Southwest Africa, and overprinted stamps provide evidence of the changed status of the overrun territories.
Since I submitted that column, I’ve found some paraphilatelic reminders of Germany’s former colonies. Sometime in the following decade, private firms in Germany issued undenominated labels. One series, which I’ve had the good fortune to acquire, provides a stamp to mourn each of the ten lost colonies. The designs are identical, the bicolor stamps differing only in the colony’s name and the second color of ink. Another series, with a stamp for each colony, shows stamps from the Kaiser’s Yacht series, in color on a black background, with a surrounding legend that translates to “Never Forget Our Colonies.”
Well, that’s war for you. Philatelically speaking, it’s the gift that keeps on giving.
This month I find myself ruminating upon another of the afflictions of mankind, inflation. Now let’s be clear about this—the four horsemen of the apocalypse are Pestilence, War, Famine and Death, and inflation, however harrowing, is just not in their league. But neither is it a walk in the sunshine. And it gives dramatic philatelic evidence of itself.
I should point out that I am not talking about the ordinary inflation that appears to be a constant in any free economy. What that form of inflation does is enable each succeeding generation to bore its grandchildren senseless with interminable examples of how much cheaper everything used to be. I’m old enough myself to remember nickel candy bars and fifteen–cent beers, and can remember too when I was young enough to consume both with impunity.
I can get a vivid picture of the gradual march of inflation during my own lifetime just by looking at the various US stamps that have had their turn carrying first–class letters. A 2¢ stamp, generally carmine rose in color, paid the rate for years, until it jumped 50% in the depths of the Depression. I was born six years later, in 1938, and the Post Office marked the occasion with the Presidential series. The 3¢ Jefferson showed up on most of the letters that came into our house, and the rate held for another twenty years.
And now it’s 44¢.
Well, that’s inflation. It happens, and we could debate whether it’s good or bad, desirable or undesirable, but why bother?
Now if the cost of mailing a letter suddenly went from 44¢ to, say, $50,000,000—well, that would be a little different, wouldn’t it?
Well, that’s pretty much what happened in Germany in the early 1920s. Runaway inflation, hyperinflation—call it what you will, but what it amounted to was that the German government kept printing money, and the German mark kept dropping in value, and that forced the government to print more money, which further devalued the currency, and—
Just what happened, and just how and why it happened, is too complicated for the pages of a stamp publication; if you’d like to look further, a few minutes with Google and Wikipedia will prove enlightening. As philatelists, we can get a decent overview of the whole business by considering the stamps the Weimar government printed, when they weren’t busy printing currency.
In 1920, the Germania series, Scott 118–132, ran from the 5 pfennig brown to the 4 mark black and rose. The following year saw the issuance of a regular series showing men at work—farmers, miners, iron workers—and Scott 137–155 range from the 5pf claret to the 20m indigo and green. Another set with a different watermark following in 1921–2, Scott 161–184, with a top denomination of 50 marks.
Scott 198–209, issued in 1922–3, has a 50m stamps as its lowest denomination, with a 100,000m vermilion stamp at the high end.
And they were just getting started. Ther long set of 1923, Scott 241–278, consists of stamps surcharged with new inflated values. There’s a 40 pfennig stamp raised to 5000 marks, a 400 mark stamp upped to 800,000 marks, and, finally, an already much inflated 5000 mark stamp surcharged with its new value of two million marks.
Next came a new design, with most of the stamp given over to its denomination—because the figures were high enough to take up some space. Scott 280 was the low–priced stamp, at 500,000 marks; the high value, Scott 299, came out at 50,000,000,000 marks. (That’s fifty billion the way we count, though the Germans used the word milliard for our billion; their billion is our trillion.)
And what exactly could you do with these high–flying stamps? The only reason for their existence was to mail a letter or a parcel, and you had to do so in a hurry because they were likely to change the postal rates in the time it took you to lick the stamp and press it onto the envelope.
From the looks of things, not many of them ever made it onto envelopes. That high flyer, #299, is pegged by Scott at 20¢ mint, 90¢ never hinged. A postally used copy is $32.50, a cover $55. (The stamp’s twin, Scott 309, serrate roulette instead of perforated, is more expensive at $1.60 mint and $5.25 never hinged, but commands a daunting $575 used and $775 on cover.)
It’s not hard to see that this sort of hyperinflation couldn’t go on forever. I don’t know that anyone ever did literally load a wheelbarrow with money and trot down to the grocer to buy a loaf of bread, but that’s been an enduring image over the decades. (And how could you go about buying the wheelbarrow in the first place? The money that would take would fill a railroad car. . .)
By the end of 1923, a new currency system was in place, and a set of postage stamps ranging from 3 to 100 pfennigs (Scott 323–8) had replaced its wildly inflated predecessors. Oddly enough, the design of the new stamps is virtually identical to the previous one; only the numbers have changed, and changed drastically.
The hyperinflated currency was widely collected outside of Germany, and in 1924 the Los Angeles Times speculated that there were more of the worthless German bills in the United States than in their country of origin. The same might well be true of the stamps. When I was a kid, buying packets and penny approvals and filling spaces in my Modern Stamp Album, nothing was easier to find and to afford than those German issues. Think of it, a stamp that cost fifty billion marks! And it was mine for a penny!
Back then, Scott listed them at 2¢ apiece. Now they’re ten times that, but it doesn’t mean they’re worth anymore than they were sixty years ago, just that creeping inflation has upped the catalogues minimum to reflect the higher cost of doing business. But I liked collecting the stamps then, and when I resumed collecting I enjoyed them all over again.
There are enough more elusive examples to keep it interesting. Scott 264a, for example, was surcharged in black instead of green, while 267a is orange-red instead of green. Neither was ever put in use; thus they exist only unused, and Scott values them at $35 each. Scott 269b, 2 million mark surcharged on the 200 mark carmine rose (instead of rose red) catalogues $1250—unless it’s watermarked sideways, in which case its price is only $1.40. And there are varieties with missing surcharges, and a scattering of imperfs, and one could fill one’s philatelic hours just specializing in these extraordinary stamps.
While Germany set the mark (so to speak) for hyperinflation, other European stamp–issuing entities were tarred by the same brush. The Free City and State of Danzig, while under the protection of the League of Nations until its 1939 seizure by Germany, seems largely to have shared Germany’s economy, and certainly fell victim to the same inflation. Stamp denominations in 1923 reached 500,000,000 marks. The currency reform at the year’s end saw a new denomination replacing the mark; four stamps were surcharged with values in guldens, with the gulden equal to a hundred pfennigs.
Austria/Hungary was allied with German in the Triple Entente, and its two segments, separated after the war, both show philatelically that they did not go untouched by the 1923 inflation. Two Austrian sets, Scott 250–287 and 288–298, have as their highest denominations 4000 and 10,000 kroner respectively; previously, no Austrian stamps were valued higher than 10 kroner. The subsequent currency reform may be seen in the 1925 set, Scott 303–324, with hellers and kroner giving way to groschen and schillings.
Hungary had already gone through a siege of postwar turbulence, with the kingdom giving way to a republic, which was supplanted by a short–lived Soviet regime. The kingdom was restored late in 1919, and a lengthy regular issue of postage stamps, Scott 335–377, began in 1920 and continued over the next several years, with new stamps coming out in higher and higher denominations. The highest–priced stamp the first year was only 50 filler. In 1922 the series sported a 100 korona high value, with a 500k stamp in 1923, and a 2000k capping the set in 1924. In 1925 Hungary issued three commemorative stamps (Scott 400–2) to mark the centennial of the birth of novelist Maurus Jókal; the stamps are 1000k, 2000k, and 2500k, so inflation, while less a good deal extreme than in Germany, was still alive and well that year. Currency reform came in 1926, when the korona was replaced by the pengo.
What was the effect of this phenomenon of hyperinflation? That’s hard to say. It’s often cited as a major factor in Hitler’s rise to power, but the facts don’t seem to support a direct relationship. The Hitler–Ludendorff Beer Hall Putsch did in fact occur in November of 1923; however, it’s worth noting that by then currency reform was already underway, that the putsch was inspired less by local conditions than by Mussolini’s successful march on Rome, and that Hitler’s putsch was itself an abject failure. It wasn’t until ten years later that Hitler was sworn in as chancellor and established the Third Reich.
Hyperinflation always falls most heavily upon the middle class. Savings become worthless overnight. The poor don’t have any cash, so while they may be grossly inconvenienced, they don’t lose anything. The rich may see their cash disappear, but in the end the still retain their real estate, their investments, their mines and factories.
Hungary’s worst period of inflation followed not the first world war but the second, from late 1945 through the summer of 1946. The numbers are impossible to cope with, so let me put it this way—in Hungary’s 1922–24 inflation, prices doubled every month. In July of 1946, prices doubled every 13 hours. On August 18 they replaced the pengo with the forint, and one new forint was equal to four hundred octillion pengo.
I’d love to show you some Hungarian stamps from that time, but my collection stops in 1940. And maybe it’s just as well. I can only count so high.
War, rebellion, economic catastrophe—human history, like life itself, does seem to be one damn thing after another. Isn’t it a good thing that we’ve got stamp collecting to take our minds off all that stuff?
Well, there you go. Depending on how you like what you’ve just read, the experience will either save or cost you a hot $2.99. But in light of what you’ve read, consider for a moment how very little that sum will buy for you in, say, 2020. May I suggest you do the wise thing and spend that money now?
Or, if you’ve got $4.99 to play with, let me recommend four Matthew Scudder titles, eVailable at last: #4, A Stab in the Dark; #10, A Walk Among the Tombstones; #12, A Long Line of Dead Men; and #16, All the Flowers are Dying. Even if you don’t want the eBooks, click the links and check out the covers, all in the style of The Night and the Music. What do you think? Does a subtle pattern begin to emerge?