No ordinary call of duty: to have your back licked, your front pressed, and spend the rest of your days confined to the corner (all this as the queen watches on). It’s a funny sort of tribute. Fifty years have now passed since the Royal Mail first went to print with its Special Stamps program, producing designs to honor all those people, achievements and things deemed important to “the UK and its national” character”. 2,663 stamps later, a digital retrospective in recognition of this landmark posts the full collection online.
Europe in Space, 1991: Two stamps make up the whole in this early '90s tribute to European space exploration
Broadcaster and historian, Dan Snow calls them “paper ambassadors”. It’s a nice thought; the role given to the Royal Mail’s elected representatives is just this. Discrete (though often colorful) emissaries, their job to make sure that every parcel heading for foreign shores disembarks swearing something of its sending country. No small duty, it explains the care that goes into their choosing; all designs put forward by Royal Mail, we’re told, are vetted by the queen before being released to the printer.
Post Office Technology, 1969: the stamp makers in more self-reflective mood
This careful, curated approach makes poring over the collection a bit like visiting monument. Spread out in the sequence, the stamps remind us of the different ways the nation hoped to portray itself over the various decades of its history. An idealised image, perhaps, though by no means complete. The open nature of a brief that’s remained more or less intact since its inception in 1965 makes sure of this.
Instead of illustrated history, we get clashing collage, a whacky patchwork where footballers, politicians and social reformers mingle in the same space, and where themes of D-Day commemoration and Royal wedding celebration sit alongside entries far quainter and more encyclopaedic in scope. Eccentric is a word exhausted through its association with Britishness. Few would begrudge its use here; the program counts titles such as ‘Inland Waterways’ (1993), ‘ Fashion Hats’ (2001) and ‘Farm Animals’ (2005) amongst its special releases.
Above: Designs produced to mark the International Year of the Disabled, 1981. Below 1987: St John’s Ambulance, 1987
It almost seems wrong, a bit like spoiling the fun, to go looking for patterns in all of this. But common themes and figures are there to be found. The obvious candidates, cultural icons – Churchill and the Beatles – and commendable causes – The Salvation Army and St John’s Ambulance – all turn out in force. So too, the inevitable anniversary fodder; Royal weddings, significant war dates, and centenaries by the dozen.
The Centenary of Alexander Graham Bell’s invention of the telephone, 1969
Yet perhaps a quieter, more meaningful mainstay of the collection is the celebration of the UK’s scientific and technological legacy. Some of the earliest ‘Special Stamp’ releases do a good job in flagging up the country’s more significant inventions – the radar, penicillin, the telephone. They set the tone. It’s these of sort of landmark discoveries that continue to crop up through every decade of the program’s history.
Above: Penicillin, Radar and the Jet Engine – part of a 1991 release. Below: British Discover and Invention, 1967. One of the earliest collections turns its eyes to the Jodrell Bank telescope, and the burgeoning British motor industry
No surprise, then, that one of this year’s most recent releases - ‘Inventive Britain’ – honors this tradition. Where previous selections may celebrate the big and the bold (the jet engine, the Jodrell Bank Telescope), ‘Inventive Britain’ focuses instead on those less visible discovers more liable to escape our every day attention; the science of fibre optics and DNA sequencing gets an equal berth alongside the admittedly less inconspicuous World Wide Web.
Inventive Britain, 2015: The latest release to celebrate the country’s proud technological legacy.
The designs serve as a reminder, both of Britain’s ongoing contributions in the field of technological innovation and of what the Special Stamp themselves have always been about. For though the history of these stamps is in part a story of looking back, they remain anchored to the present, one eye open to the story that’s not yet written. This likeable, lickable history of 50 years is not enough. Long may it continue.
Top image: Design Icons, 2009: Anglepoise, honored alongside the K2 Telephone Kiosk, Concorde and the Mary Quant mini skirt amongst others.
See the full collection of Royal Mail Special Stamps here
All stamp designs featured © Royal Mail Group Ltd.
Words: Tom Tytherleigh