World’s first semi-postal helped British raise money for postal workers
The main purpose of stamps, of course, is to prove the pre-payment of postage.
Sometimes, however, they can also do good work for society.
That is the case of the “semi-postal” stamp, a special issue that also raises money for good causes. The concept goes back much further than many collectors realize.
In 1890, Britain issued the world’s first semi-postal—a postcard with a five-penny surcharge over the penny postage rate. The extra money was put into a fund to benefit postal workers.
The idea caught on quick, and by the early 1900s, semi-postals were becoming quite popular in Europe. In 1913, Switzerland issued the first semi-postal in the “Pro Juventute” series, which supports a charity of the same name established in 1912 to support Swiss children and youth. The first stamps in the series go back even further to a group of three 10-centime labels with no postage value that were sold through the post office.
The next year, stamps were issued and sold for 10 centimes with half the money paying the postage and the rest going to the charity. By 1936, Switzerland began showing the postage rate and the charity amount as two separate values on the stamp.
During the First World War, semi-postals were issued to raise money for the Red Cross.
Another long-running series of semi-postals was issued by New Zealand beginning with its first health stamp in 1929.
MODERN SEMI-POSTAL STAMPS
Modern semi-postals usually follow the format of showing the two values, and although they are valid for postage, most catalogues list them separately as “back of the book” items and not part of the regular stamp issues.
In North America, Canada was the first nation to issue semi-postals with a series of four stamps issued between 1974 and 1976 to support the 1976 Summer Olympics held in Montréal.
The federal government committed to pay for the games by selling semi-postal stamps and collector coins. Postmaster General Andre Ouellete initially predicted collector sales would be sufficient to pay for the games.
The first series (Scott #B1-B3) was issued on April 17, 1974, and consisted of three stamps with a similar design—a series of Olympic rings forming the Montréal Games logo. Designer Alois Matanovic used a design with three background colours to represent the Olympic medals. The stamps were valued at eight-plus-two cents for bronze, 10-plus-five cents for silver and 15-plus-five cents for gold. The stamps were printed by Ashton-Potter. The post office ambitiously ordered more than 118 million stamps.
The second series was issued in 1975 with decidedly lower production figures. Known as the “Water Sports” series, it was introduced on Feb. 8 and consisted of three stamps with the same values as the earlier series. The multi-colour stamps (SC #B4-B6) were designed by Hal Wallis and show swimming (eight-plus-two cents); rowing (10-plus-five cents) and sailing (15-plus-five cents). The total production, by the Canadian Bank Note Company (CBN), was 64 million stamps.
On Aug. 6, another three stamps were issued commemorating combat sports (SC #B7-B9). Designed by James Hill, the three stamps show dramatic views of individual athletes. The commemorated sports were fencing (eight-plus-two cents), boxing (10-plus-five cents) and judo (15-plus-five cents). CBN also printed this issue with a total production of 53,000 stamps.
On Jan. 7, 1976, just six months before the games were to start, a final three stamps were issued (SC #B10-B12). Also designed by Hill, the stamps honoured team sports but once again concentrated on images of individual athletes. The three sports honoured were basketball (eight-plus-two cents), gymnastics (10-plus-five cents) and soccer (20-plus-five cents, which was a new value). They were printed by Ashton-Potter with a total production of 39 million stamps.
Even if all the stamps were sold, the total money raised would have fallen far short of the more than $10 billion the games would eventually cost.
After that, the Post Office Department, which became a Crown corporation called Canada Post in 1981, stayed away from semi-postal stamps for two decades.
CHARITABLE POSTAGE RETURNS IN ’96
In 1996, a new stamp was issued to support ABC Canada’s family literacy programs (SC #B12).
Designed by Debbie Adams, the stamp shows a pair of hands putting together a puzzle and the inscription “Literacy begins at home” in both English and French. The innovative design had a die-cut hole in the centre, representing the missing part of the puzzle.
It had a value of 45-plus-five cents and was produced in 10-stamp booklet panes. Ashton-Potter produced 10 million stamps.
In 2007, Moya Greene, then president of Canada Post, rolled out a new series of semi-postals issued to support mental health programs. Rather than select a specific charity, the Canada Post Foundation for Mental Health was created.
As a way of engaging Canadians, Canada Post launched a public competition both in the design and design selection process. The series’ first stamp was issued in 2008.
The stamps were printed by the Ottawa firm Lowe-Martin and had the then-new Permanent rate with a 10-cent surcharge.
In 2012, the program was changed to support a new foundation, the Canada Post Community Foundation. Semi-postal stamps continue to be a significant portion of its funding.
Production has remained low, starting at 10 million stamps and dropping to a 10th of that in more recent years.