The Collation

Research and Exploration at the Folger

The Shakespeare stamps

As several philatelically-astute readers quickly identified, the portrait of Shakespeare shown in last week’s Crocodile mystery is from a stamp!

   

These one shilling stamps were issued annually for a number of years at the turn of the 20th century. Each stamp used the same image of Shakespeare, a depiction loosely adapted from his memorial in the Holy Trinity Church in Stratford-upon-Avon, printed in a different color each year.

Image of Folger ART File S527.3 no.26 (size XS) via the Folger Digital Image Database.

These stamps are actually examples of what are often known in the philatelic community as “Cinderella materials.” They resemble postage stamps, but were not issued by a government mail office. They’re usually created as commemorative items or art objects. In this case, the one-shilling Shakespeare stamps were produced by the the Holy Trinity Church itself as one of the many fundraising schemes instituted by church leadership, particularly Reverend George Arbuthnot, starting in the late 19th century. (Another of Reverend Arbuthnot’s money-making plans, selling tickets to Shakespeare’s grave, was discussed in a previous Collation post.) 

Advertising in the church and on stamp packaging declared that buyers could use the stamps to send mail anywhere, including international addresses, for the flat rate of a single shilling, provided it was mailed from the church. Since the Shakespeare stamps were not actually valid postage,  church staff would then collect all items mailed from the church and apply legitimate Royal Mail postage stamps to them. In 1900, domestic postage rates varied between 1 and 7 pence per mail item, while foreign rates were slightly more than twice that, so the Church could expect to keep a generous proportion of most shillings (equal to 12 pence) they received for the Shakespeare stamps.1 Church visitors without mail to send could presumably buy the card shown above as a souvenir of their trip to Stratford-upon-Avon.

Unsurprisingly, this is far from the only time Shakespeare has appeared on a postage stamp. You can see other stamps in the Folger collection by searching for “Postage stamps” (or “Cinderella materials”!) in the genre field in Hamnet.

  1. Estimated postal rates courtesy of the Great Britain Philatelic Society.

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