Spad printing is quietly enjoying a moment. Lockdowns have inspired stale collectors to dust off their albums. Generation X, heir to boomer collections, has sometimes resisted its natural instinct to sell them on eBay. For a younger audience, the stamps really stand out on Instagram; there are philatelic influencers, bloggers, YouTubers, even TikTokers now.
Postage stamps are underrated as pop culture artifacts. They can be issued by governments, but they must please the people. They are temporary and disposable, but they forever capture the looks and priorities of their time; they broadcast the self-image of a nation.
So I’m here to bring you the greatest Australian stamps of all time. These are not all conventional classics. Some popular themes are missing altogether, and I only list post-federation stamps. (I’ll tell you about some colonial-era gems when you invite me to your party.) These are simply our greatest stamps in my 100% correct and foolproof opinion.
13. Kangaroo and 1913 map
Let’s start at the very beginning. Our first postage stamp was incredibly modern in its time and widely mocked. Maps were almost unheard of on stamps; the kangaroo hero was “a grotesque and ridiculous symbol”, shouted the Argus. More scandalously, WHERE WAS THE MONARCH? Of course, he was 10,000 miles away, unlike this kangaroo. Provoking Australia in a time of king and empire, this humble stamp represents nothing less than the first shot of revolution.
But wait – what is it? There is some evidence to suggest that the mainland’s white color may have been deliberately chosen in line with government policy. Yes it is literally a white Australia. Sorry, Republican Kangaroo, but appropriately enough, I can’t let you in because of your past. You are no longer on the list! It’s not a good start.
Most “Roos” collectors don’t know his dirty secret, which has been swept under the rug and buried in the Hansard archives. How Australian is it?
12. Side face of King George V of 1914
The list REALLY starts here, when King George V finally gets his cup on our stamps. Politics aside, the design beautifully exemplifies the ancient art of engraving, with intricate lines providing depth and shading. Issued in rich colors and many denominations, KGVs are the finest of a gang, as pictured here. They evoke Warhol’s screen-printed Marilyn, but more bearded. Treasure hunters fetishize the bewildering number of tiny variations in KGVs or ‘Roos. If they find the right detail, they could retire tomorrow, which would be a more exciting prospect if most of them hadn’t already retired 20 years ago.
This is the last royal appearance on the list, as Australian stamps are obviously a ridiculous platform on which to honor European aristocrats.
11. 1938 Koala
Koalas are fame-seeking little publicity pigs whose diva requests for stardom regularly see them appear on our stamps. But none have ever topped Mr. Koala 1938. Look at his plush teddy bear and oddly heavy smile. Moreover, it is a green stamp, which everyone knows is the best color.
10. 1950 Gwoya Tjungurrayi, or ‘One Pound Jimmy’
The “noble savage” subtext to this stamp isn’t great – but there is a subversive touch. Until the 1997 Australian Legends stamp series, the only identifiable living people who could appear on our stamps were members of the Royal Family. Yet this 1950 stamp unmistakably depicts the Walpiri-Anmatyerre man Gwoya Tjungurrayi, a survivor of the 1928 Coniston Massacre. Known during his lifetime as One Pound Jimmy, you may recognize him today as the name of The Bloke From The Two-Dollar Coin. So we can arguably celebrate Tjungurrayi as the first identifiable living Australian to appear on a postage stamp. Suck that, 1997 Aussie legend Don Bradman! In a nice postscript, a 1988 stamp featured artwork by Tim Leura Tjapaltjarri, one of Tjungurrayi’s sons.
These days, Australia Post throws anyone alive on a stamp if there’s money in it.
9. 2021 Nature’s Mimics: Leafy Seadragon
This stamp is from a great wildlife camouflage issue so recent you can buy it today and throw it on your mail. Because you can, You know? You are totally allowed to demand stamps and cover this package with vibrant images to delight others. Or, accept the dreary barcode label. The post office staff may hate the inconvenience of getting the stamps out for your mail, but just think of it as your revenge for being carded by the postman when you’re home.
8. 1996 Precious gems: Diamond
Some tampons come with gimmicks: scents, weird shapes, pieces that look like 3D. The diamond on this stamp is a variable optical device – call it a “hologram”, everyone does. It works beautifully (trust me), reflecting and refracting all the colors of the rainbow. It didn’t cost more than face value and it looked fantastic on an envelope. The surrounding design is a bit 90s, but you don’t care, because you wave the diamond in the sun and say “Whooaaah!”
7. 1971 Sydney Stock Exchange Centenary
Highlighted by its shiny silver border, this eye-catching little number showcases the colorful conceptual designs enabled by new printing techniques. They are lucky that the centenary of the Sydney Stock Exchange has not taken place a few years later, otherwise the lines would collapse.
Incidentally, decimal stamps are usually plentiful and can often be purchased for less than face value, which is why your old collection stashed in your mother’s garage probably isn’t “worth a fortune now.”
6. Marine Life of 1985: Pineapple Fish
THE FISH LOOKS LIKE A PINEAPPLE.
5. Street Art 2017: Rutledge Lane
Australia Post can surprise fans of philatelic culture with bold thematic choices. In 2017, street art joined the pantheon of artistic styles showcased on these tiny canvases. Forever Curious by Rone and Phibs is probably the only Australian artwork chosen to appear on a stamp that was repainted at the time of the stamp’s release. A beautiful image, and a beautiful subject for a stamp issue. Congratulations, Aussie Post! Now please find and deliver the package that was sent to me across town two years ago.
4. Christmas 1977: Santa Surfer
In 1976, Australia’s first non-religious Christmas stamp was reasonably cautious: tree, bauble, koala diva. But a year later, the jolly Surfing Santa received a huge backlash from people who thought it was disrespectful. Can’t they see that he went to the trouble of holding holly while maintaining his shaka? Very fun and irreverently Australian, this stamp received its own tribute stamp in 2007. Nobody complained.
3. 2006 Dangerous Australians: Redback Spider
The theme was Dangerous Australians, and Bessie here was in the frame with octopuses, snakes and other killers. But that design was pulled after someone realized that a stamp-sized red back was also a life-size red back, and that people opening their mailboxes could have heart attacks. Nevertheless, this unperforated version was issued in a limited edition sheetlet to the milk revenue of stamp collectors (which essentially accounts for 90% of a stamp’s work these days).
2. Browsing History 2020
Predictably, the bicentenary of James Cook’s arrival in 1970 was marked by white men raising flags and “discovering” things. Well, the 250th anniversary brought us this souvenir sheet consisting of five extra-long stamps. Co-designed by Australian Aborigine Jenna Lee and first-generation Australian Niqui Branchu, it replaces “discovery” with “encounter”. The theme of each stamp – botany, for example – is told from the stories of Aboriginal culture and the Endeavor voyage. The value of each stamp is divided between its two halves, giving the stories equal value. And I love non-traditional colors. It was a mature and intelligent treatment of a sensitive subject; they dropped the folder from the park. These stamps should have been distributed at the counter to start conversations, but unfortunately the problem remained very discreet. It was hard to find in post offices and marketed mainly to collectors as a novelty. Word on the street is that he was seen as potentially too confrontational for flag-planting Cook fans. (Yeah, you heard right, I treat in the street. Stamps, that is. Are you continuing?)
1. 2012 Living Australian: Lunch on the Harbor
Here it is: the largest Australian stamp of all time. The Living Australian series featured photos submitted by the public. A brave choice from Australia Post, Damian Madden’s Lunch on the Harbor depicts the gutting of a nation built on flight, where greed, corruption and manipulation by the powerful end up wearing down the ordinary people who are just trying to feed their families.
No, it’s probably just a picture of a seagull. But the stamps serve as ambassadors to the world, and given that our early messages involved probable racism and a distant king, it’s reassuring that we are now broadcasting such images of accessibility and self-confidence. “This is Australia”, says this stamp. “Come on, give us a chip.” Bludging at the beach: what could be more Australian than that?