Stamp stories: The Canadian Stamp Collection

March 10, 2014

Is there anyone who hasn’t carefully torn off the corner of an envelope to save a particularly exotic stamp? Many of us collected stamps in childhood — some even developed a passion for philately, later building it into a career.

The charm of postage stamps lies largely in the fact that they are more than small, utilitarian objects: they transport us to the heart of the country that issued them, and share its stories. By the same token, the Canadian Museum of History’s impressive philatelic collection — which contains over 500,000 items — teaches us about various aspects of Canada’s history, while helping us get to know our fellow Canadians a little better.

For example, did you know that Canada was the first country in the world to issue a postage stamp bearing neither the portrait of a government leader, nor a national emblem? Our very first stamp, issued in 1851, actually featured the humble beaver — long before the beaver became an official symbol of Canada.

Interesting anecdotes abound in relation to these unassuming bits of paper. As Bianca Gendreau, Curator of Post and Communications, puts it: “Stamps are miniature works of art, as well as unofficial ambassadors — in this case, sharing the history and accomplishments of Canadians and making them better known, both here and abroad.”

The stories behind the stamps are highlighted in a new permanent exhibition, The Canadian Stamp Collection. This chronological and thematic presentation shares fascinating information on stamps in the Museum’s collection — the only place in the world where visitors can see all 3,000 or so postage stamps issued in Canada from 1851 to the present day.

Stamps frame various chapters in our history, from a stamp’s design and creation to the specific people and objects it features. In this new permanent exhibition, society, the economy, philately, culture and sports are a few of the eight major themes explored through stamps. These themes are further supported through displays of rare or unusual artifacts related to some of the stamps. These include the hand-engraved printing plates for a sports-themed stamp, and the actual stained-glass window used for a Christmas stamp featuring the Nativity.

Exhibitions like this give new life to these utilitarian scraps of paper, which we tend to overlook in our electronic age. Stamps still exist, are still used and collected, and will be around for many years to come. And they will continue to tell our stories.

The Canadian Stamp Collection, a new permanent exhibition, opens on March 28, 2014.