When I was a youngster I collected packets of stamps that came in boxes of laundry detergent. These freebies usually consisted of three or four stamps in a cellophane envelope, sweetly scented with the smell of washing powder. They would come with an offer to receive more stamps “on approval” from mail order houses in Sydney or Melbourne (I lived in Adelaide).
The free stamps were often from Eastern European countries like Hungary, Bulgaria or Romania; strange places far removed from my native Australia. Nowadays I see those stamps from time to time, and they bring a smile of recognition to my face; I still remember the excited boy and the detergent!
Bulgaria, Scott 1240, butterfly, 1962.
Being an observant kid, I noticed a couple of curious things about those stamps. They were all used, but still had gum on their backs. And the postmarks were identical. Not just similar, but exactly the same: a small, circular postmark in the same corner of each and every stamp.
This was odd. I was old enough to understand the basic function of a postage stamp. You bought it new, or “mint,” from the post office, and put it on a letter in order for that letter to go where you wanted it to. When it got there, the stamp had been postmarked, or “franked,” with black marks so it could not be used again. These marks were sometimes circles, and sometimes bars, but the portion on the stamps was never identical. And when you soaked the stamp off its envelope no gum was left.
Hungary, Scott 1278, Fairy Tales, 1959.
I understood all this, but at the tender age of 8 or 9, I did not comprehend the full implications of a prepaid service. It did not occur to me that if you paid in advance for a service (by buying a stamp), and you did not use that service (posting a letter), then somebody, somewhere, was making a profit.
That “somebody,” as it turned out, was the government agency proucing the stamp. Although your stamp may have cost little, if enough people bought them and did not use them, there was serious money to be made. A stamp collector, who buys mint stamps but does not use them, is essentially giving money to the government.
No wonder the post office encourages stamp collecting!
It also did not occur to me that governments might precancel mint leftovers, and sell them to private agencies who, in turn, sell them to overseas collectors. None of these stamps were used in the way they were originally intentioned. I am ashamed to say that in recent years my beloved Australia has engaged in this scheme. You can buy “used” Australian stamps in packets from the post office that have preprinted cancels on them. (These are called canceled to order, CTOs, in some places.)
Left, Romania, Scott 2353, St. Michael’s Cathedral, 1972. Right, Romania, Scott 1967, truck, 1967.
My brother, five years older than me and much wiser in the ways of the world at that time, refused to collect the “laundry detergent” stamps. He didn't bother explaining why. All he said was:
"What a scam!"