The world’s first postage stamp, the penny black, was issued in the UK in 1840. English schoolmaster Rowland Hill came up with the idea of standardising the rate of postage in the form of a stamp, as he realised that the major costs of postage were associated with processing letters rather than the distance of delivery.
The Māori name for stamps is pane kuini (‘queen’s head’). Māori initially found the concept confusing, as in Māori culture the head is sacred and licking the head of the most prestigious person in the Empire seemed odd.
New Zealand’s first postage stamps were issued on 18 July 1855. They were called ‘full-face queens’ or ‘Chalon heads’ as they show a frontal view of Queen Victoria at her 1837 coronation based on a painting by Edward Chalon. Issues up until 1862 had no perforations to help tear them – the stamps were cut from sheets with scissors. Reprints occurred on different papers and in different colours but by 1870 the printing plates were worn out. A stamp featuring the queen in profile, a ‘side-face queen,’ was issued in 1874, and this was the main stamp format for the next 25 years. The first stamps prepared and produced in New Zealand were part of this series – the two-shilling and five-shilling varieties in 1878. However, most New Zealand stamps were actually printed in England until well into the 20th century.
The first pictorial stamps, in 1898, recognised that stamps had propaganda value – they could showcase the country’s scenic beauty and attractions. New Zealand was one of the first countries to dedicate a definitive set of stamps (13 in all) to landscapes and birds. Stamps featured birds such as huia and kākā, and landscapes such as Lake Wakatipu and Mt Cook. A competition for designs had been opened up to the public and 2,400 submissions were received – varying from crude drawings to high art. The eightpence stamp featuring a waka (canoe) was the first stamp recognising Māori culture. Images of Māori carvings and patterns were also employed in the decorative borders. Though Māori imagery appeared in some individual stamps of the pictorial sets (1898, 1935 and 1960), it was only in the late 1980s that stamp issues solely dedicated to Māori culture were printed.
The one-penny universal, introduced in 1901, meant that a letter could be sent to the UK and 70 other countries for the standard postage of one penny. This cut the rate for a letter to the UK down from two-and-a-half pence. Revenue went down initially, but the deficit was recovered in just two years as more letters were posted. By 1912 New Zealanders posted an average of 139 items per person each year– the highest rate in the Universal Postal Union (a global grouping of countries that agreed to deliver each other’s mail).
The first airmail stamps were issued in 1931, although few letters went by air until the later 1930s. The first official airmail from Australia to New Zealand arrived at Bell Block aerodrome, New Plymouth, on 12 April 1934.
Express-delivery stamps of sixpence denomination were first issued in 1903 and these lasted until 1948 – they were meant to be delivered as soon as possible after arriving at the destination post office.
Early stamps were printed in one colour only. The first two-colour stamp, a one-penny stamp featuring Lake Taupō, appeared in the 1898 pictorial issue. Two-colour stamps remained rare, but appeared again in the 1906 New Zealand Exhibition and 1935 pictorial issue. Multicoloured stamps became the norm from the 1950s. Stamp design is a specialised art, and for much of the 20th century two artists – James Berry and Leonard C. Mitchell – dominated stamp designs.
Health stamps are one of New Zealand’s distinctive features – they have been issued every year since 1929. The face value for postal purposes was one penny, but the stamp cost twopence, so buyers made a 50% donation which was used to fund children’s health camps. Over time the percentage that went to charity declined – by 2010 a 50-cent health stamp cost 60 cents, so only 10 cents went to charity.
The 1943 health stamps featured royal princesses, Margaret and Elizabeth, on the country’s first triangular stamps – a shape that did not appear again until 1995.
New Zealand’s stamp production has been relatively modest compared with other countries – from 1926 to 1931 the country produced no new stamps, except for the annual health stamps introduced in 1929. Prior to the 1960s there was often only one new issue a year, but by 2010 there were around 18 new issues each year.
Following the First World War a 1920 series of ‘Victory’ stamps was issued. After the Second World War the series was labelled ‘Peace,’ perhaps due to the longer duration of that war, the greater involvement of civilians and recognition that in war even the victors have suffered.
Definitives are regularly issued sets of stamps that are printed in greater numbers with a range of denominations to cover all postal costs. They typically have longer time frames between issues – often around five years.
Commemoratives are smaller issues on sale for a shorter period – around the time that a particular event is being celebrated. Commemorative stamps became much more common from the 1960s; from 1906 to 1950 there had only been a dozen.
It took over a century before a portrait of a New Zealand-born person appeared on a stamp: Sir Frederic Truby King, founder of the Plunket Society, in 1957. In 1973 the first paintings by a New Zealand artist appeared on a stamp, when a set of four stamps featuring works by Frances Hodgkins was produced. It took until 1989 for New Zealand writers (Katherine Mansfield, James K. Baxter, Bruce Mason and Ngaio Marsh) to appear on a stamp series. Artists honoured on stamps include Colin McCahon, with a set of four stamps in 1997, and Doris Lusk in 1999.
Images of nation building appeared in the 1940 centenary series and issues celebrating the centenaries of the provinces (Otago in 1948, Canterbury in 1950 and Westland in 1960). Royalty was a continuing theme, with the 1953 coronation and royal visit issues.
Slowly themes became more varied – in 1964 a stamp on road safety was issued to coincide with a road safety campaign. International subjects featured on stamp issues for the International Cooperation Year (1965), International Year of Human Rights (1968), the 1970 United Nations anniversary and the Expo (or World’s Fair) of 1970. This diversification marked the change in the country’s outlook away from the British Empire and towards the wider world.
New Zealand changed to decimal currency on 10 July 1967, but old stamps with pound, shillings and pence denominations remained valid for a few years after.
The 1931 one-penny stamp featured the goddess of health, Hygeia, reclining half-naked on a pedestal with a goblet of wine raised in one hand. A wry Australian philatelist observed that ‘she has evidently been indulging in an all-night orgy.’1
Christmas stamps were first issued in 1960. Stamps featuring scenic photographs or images, which were largely tourist promotion, were first issued in 1972 and every year since. Stamps showing sports also began to appear, with the 1968 health stamps featuring a boy running and a girl swimming with the Olympic logo in the background. Animal species other than birds also appeared in 1984, when images of Hamilton’s frog and native geckos and skinks were used. By the 2000s themes were largely determined by the market. Stamp designs such as the 2007 issues that featured the humorous Kiwi expressions ‘She’ll be right’ and ‘Bit of a dag’ would have been unthinkable in an earlier era.
In the 2000s stamp imagery was more varied than in the past, yet much remained the same in terms of the overall design – stamps were iconic and heroic. They also became less complicated – decorative borders had been replaced by clean white lines, simpler compositions and plain backgrounds.
In the early 2000s the Stamps Business of New Zealand Post planned what stamp themes would be produced each year and the number of issues. Commemorations and special events were prime candidates, and many suggestions were received from people and organisations.
Once a subject was chosen, designers were contracted to come up with some imagery. In the past these were sometimes open to anyone, but in the 2000s usually three designers or artists were given the brief. Submitted designs were usually about twice or four times the size of a stamp. New Zealand Post also had a stamp-designing competition for children.
The Government Life Insurance Office was the only government department to have had its name on a stamp issue. Initially, the department’s postal correspondence was free. Later, it was assessed at the end of the year. A dispute arose in late 1888 because the department felt the estimates of the Post and Telegraph Department (later the Post Office) were too high, and proposed to prepay postage through its own stamp issue. These stamps had to be of a distinct design so that they couldn’t be used for other purposes. The first of these issues was in 1891. It and all subsequent issues featured lighthouses (a 19th-century symbol for insurance). Government Life stamp issues ceased in 1989 when it privatised to become Tower Corporation.
In 1893 the New Zealand Post Office sold advertising on the back of stamps – one of the first countries to do so – but the public became concerned that licking the back containing dye might be unhealthy, so the practice was short-lived.
The Cook Islands, Niue, Samoa and Tokelau have had stamps issued while under New Zealand control. In the past stamp collectors referred to these Pacific Islands as ‘dependencies’. The number of issues per year grew over the late 20th century as selling stamps is one of the few ways of generating revenue for small islands such as Niue and Tokelau. The Ross Dependency, which includes part of Antarctica and offshore islands, was claimed by the UK in 1923 and then placed under New Zealand’s jurisdiction. The first Ross Dependency stamps were issued in 1957, and in the same year a post office was opened at Scott Base, New Zealand’s Antarctic base. It closed in 1987.
The name ‘Cinderella’ is used by collectors for a range of stamps (usually non-postage), stickers and seals used for collecting revenue, such as tax stamps, unemployment-relief and social-security stamps. Some postage stamps are also categorised as Cinderellas, either because they were not issued by the Post Office or had a restricted usage. For example, the Post Office had a monopoly on the postage of letters but not of newspapers and parcels. In 1890 New Zealand Railways introduced newspaper stamps – a newspaper was delivered for a halfpenny stamp whatever the distance. Railways newspaper stamps were in use until 1925.
On Stewart Island leaves of the coastal shrub Senecio rotundifolius were written upon and stamps affixed – these were posted and dubbed ‘Stewart Island postcards’.
The stamps of two companies offering a pigeon post service between Great Barrier Island (Aotea) and Auckland are also examples of Cinderella stamps. The first company was established in 1897, and its triangular stamps may well have been the first airmail stamps in the world. Pigeons carried letters on very lightweight paper, which was tied to their legs. Letters cost sixpence from the island to Auckland, but one shilling (12 pence) for the outward postage, as the pigeons had trouble being convinced to leave the city. The pigeongram service ended in 1908, when a telegraph cable was laid between the island and the mainland.
After deregulation of the postal market in the late 1980s a number of other postal services started up in competition with New Zealand Post. Some of them, such as Pete’s Post, issued their own stamps.
The Stamp Duties Act 1866 required new stamps that could be used to pay taxes such as stamp duty (a tax on official documents such as mortgage deeds). Some fiscal stamps were at times authorised for postal use and postage stamps were at times also used for fiscal purposes – this is why some old stamps have ‘postage & revenue’ inscribed. Cinderella stamps are sought after by some collectors, while others have a snobbish attitude towards them as most were not used for postage.
It has also become popular to collect postal ephemera, such as postmarked envelopes.
The earliest known New Zealand stamp collectors were active from the mid-1880s. The Philatelic Society of New Zealand began in Wellington in 1888. Societies also formed in Dunedin (1891), Blenheim (1894) and Auckland (1895). Stamp collecting was popular with children and adult men especially from the 1930s, while women have generally been less avid collectors.
Collectors bought and sold from each other and from dealers, and also swapped stamps. Some people collect by theme, others by country, and the serious collectors by rarity or value. First day covers are also collected – these are stamped envelopes postmarked on the first day that the stamps are issued. In the 2000s stamp collecting was less popular with children than it had been in the previous century.
One of the rarest New Zealand stamps is the 1906 New Zealand Exhibition Christchurch ‘one-penny claret’ stamp. It was originally printed with deep claret-coloured ink, which the exhibition committee deemed to be too dark. It was reprinted in a brighter vermilion red and all the claret stamps were destroyed, except one sheet, which somehow entered into circulation. In 1993 an envelope containing three of the claret stamps sold at auction for $44,000.
Stamp value is firstly determined by the rarity of the stamp, and then by the individual stamp’s quality. Because of the economic depression of the 1930s, the 1931 health stamp issue only sold 74,802 of the one penny and 111,929 of the twopenny stamps. The 1935 health stamp sold 1,275,057 – this largely explains why pre-1935 health stamps are more valuable.
Through the 1970s speculators drove up the price of rare stamps. Prices declined or held steady over the 1980s, before rising again in the 1990s and 2000s. As an investment, it is only rare stamps in fine condition that appreciate greatly in value. One of the most expensive stamps sold in New Zealand was a 1903 fourpence ‘Taupō’ stamp in which the centre was inverted. It was bought by New Zealand Post as an investment in 1998 for $125,000. There is only one known example. The highest price paid for a New Zealand stamp was $185,000 for an 1855 one-penny full-face queen, which was sold in 2006 by Sotheby’s in London.
New Zealand’s first commemorative stamps printed for the New Zealand Exhibition in Christchurch in 1906 raised the ire of the editor of London’s Gibbons Stamp Weekly. He felt it was ‘impossible to congratulate either artist, engraver, or printer on such shoddy work, nor the pettifogging Government that stoops to this sort of postal buffoonery.’1
The first New Zealand stamp dealer, Wilcox Smith and Company, began in Auckland in 1871 and was sold to Dunedin interests in 1883. It was the largest stamp firm in the country for decades. In 1965 Christchurch dealer Laurie Franks bought the firm and its 3.5 tonnes of stock. The stamp world was staggered at the price of $68,000 ($2.4 million in 2010 terms). Two of the previous Dunedin owners – William Hooper and then George Kitchin – had been hoarders. Within a year the company had paid off its borrowings and 20 years later still held some stock.
Pim & Co was established in Auckland around 1935 by Frank Walrond. In 1947 it employed 23 full-time staff and six part-timers, making it the largest stamp dealer in the southern hemisphere. Campbell Patterson was the editor of the company’s highly successful catalogues. He left Pim & Co in 1949 to set up his own firm. ‘CP’, as he was known, even did work for Stanley Gibbons, the leading international stamp company, in the 1960s and was awarded an MBE in 1979 for his contribution to philately.
In 1968 there were only 10 full-time stamp shops; import licensing introduced in the late 1950s had hit dealers hard with restrictions on importing stamps and stamp accoutrements. Within a year of de-licensing in 1968 the number of shops doubled, and in 1969 the New Zealand Stamp Dealers Association was formed.
Initially, dealers sold most stamps through postal orders. Since the advent of the internet, selling stamps online became more common. Mowbray Collectables of Ōtaki, New Zealand’s largest dealer, has been a publicly listed company since 2001.
Collins, R. J. G., and C. W. Watts. The postage stamps of New Zealand. Vols 1–9. Wellington: Royal Philatelic Society of New Zealand, 1938–2006.
Franks, Laurie. All the stamps of New Zealand. Revised ed. Wellington: Reed, 1981.
Gwynn, Robin. Collecting New Zealand stamps. Auckland: Heinemann Reed, 1988.
Marshall, Brian. If you take care of the pennies, the fullfaces will take care of themselves: a history of Pim and Company, stamp dealers. Auckland: Brian Marshall, 2010.
Strachan, W. N. A century of philately: a history of New Zealand stamp collecting: essays from twelve philatelists. Wellington: Royal Philatelic Society of New Zealand, 1988.
Wolfe, Richard. It’s in the post: the stories behind New Zealand stamps. Nelson: Craig Potton, 2010.