The centennial of the League of Nations gives us an opportunity to look back at the organization, reflect on its notable figures, operations and activities, and review the rich philatelic legacy of this once-promising organization.
The League was created at the end of World War I, at the Paris Peace Conference that convened January 18, 1919. Five separate meetings culminated with separate peace treaties between the Allied Powers and the five belligerent nations: Germany, Austria, Bulgaria, Hungary, and the Ottoman Empire. The most significant of these meetings, which resulted in the German treaty and the initial incorporation of the Covenant of the League as Part 1 of the Treaty of Versailles, was signed on June 28, 1919.
Figure 1 shows a June 28 cover with the purple handstamp of the German Peace Delegation addressed to the 10th arrondissement of Paris, franked appropriately enough with a 50 centime + 50c Lion of Belfort semipostal to benefit the orphans of World War I (Scott B8). The full covenant went into effect January 10, 1920, with the opening of the first League Council meeting in Paris.
British politician Lord Robert Cecil and South African statesman Jan Smuts of the British delegation to the Paris Peace Conference are credited with developing the general framework of the League Covenant, including a structure for the League and its semi-autonomous International Labor Organization and Court of International Justice, as well as defining key roles and responsibilities.
The First Secretary-General of the League was Sir James Eric Drummond, a British career diplomat, who also had been a member of the British delegation. Drummond conducted League business from Westminster, London, establishing a permanent Secretariat.
In November 1920, the headquarters of the League was moved from London to a succession of hotels in Geneva, Switzerland, and in February 1921, the Hotel National became home to the organization for the next 15 years. Following an architectural competition in 1929, a second permanent home for the League was constructed in Ariana Park, Geneva, and the League took up residence in 1936 while construction continued for two more years. A postcard showing the Palace of the League of Nations appears in Figure 2, and the new headquarters also was honored as the 30c and 60c denominations in a set of stamps issued by the Swiss Postal Telegraph and Telephone agency (PTT) on May 2, 1938. A secondday cover sent from the Hellenic Delegation to Prague franked with that stamp is pictured in Figure 3. It is there, at the Palais des Nations, that the League’s successor — the United Nations Offices in Geneva — remains to this day.
Figure 3. Switzerland Scott 239, depicting the Palace of the League of Nations appears on this second-day cover.
The League consisted of a General Assembly representing all member states, an Executive Council with membership limited to major powers, and a permanent Secretariat to facilitate meetings and activities of the Assembly and Council, and administer the general duties of the League. Postal evidence of the various sections of the Secretariat exist primarily in the form of origin cachets applied to the mail piece to indicate their origin.
Figure 4, for example, shows a League of Nations business envelope to Sweden’s Head of Health Services at the Directorate of State Medical Services in Stockholm, and the small boxed black “EPID.” handstamp at left indicates that it was sent by the League Epidemiology Office. These markings kept track of where mail originated within the organization.
Figure 4. Handstamp “EPID.” top-left indicates that the envelope was sent by the League of Nations’ Epidemiology Office.
Figure 5 shows how service inscriptions on custom-designed mailpieces sometimes help the postal historian deduce their use. This postcard inscribed “SOCIETE DES NATIONS / Section d’Information GENEVE” is addressed to a medical correspondent for a national newspaper, and clearly served to disseminate information, a key function of any international organization.
The International Labor Organization (ILO) also was created in 1919 under the Treaty of Versailles, with its own Governing Body, General Conference and Secretariat. Like the League, postal and ephemeral material documents this organization and its activities.
Figure 6 shows a registered airmail cover sent to a collector offering three different postal connections to the ILO. The most obvious is the twoline bilingual inscription across the top of the envelope itself. The second are the cancellations on the stamps in French showing that it entered the Swiss mail stream at the International Labor Conference in Geneva. The third is the registration label itself, handstamped in purple specifically for use at that event.
Special overprints or stamps also were sometimes created to mark these events, as in Figure 7. It shows a set of three Famous Germans definitives from the Weimar era overprinted “I.A.A.” (the initials for “International Arbeits Amt,” the ILO in German) for a six-day conference in October 1927.
The Permanent Court of International Justice (PCIJ) was described in the League Covenant, served by court judges elected by the League’s Council and Assembly, with the latter providing the court’s budget. The court was created to hear and decide on international disputes and to provide advisory opinions on questions Like the League and ILO, postal evidence of the court includes specially overprinted stamps and service envelopes for Official court mail.
Figure 8 shows a bilingual PCIJ corner card from the Hague with a French “officiel’ handstamp franked with a Netherlands Official stamp printed for use by the court. (Issued from 1934 to 2016, these are at the tail end of Netherland’s back-of-the-book listings in the catalog as Scott O9–O64.) The dark gold overprint on a 12½-cent sapphire stamp is affixed upside-down, but the 1940 stamp (O17) is overprinted in five lines “COUR PER / MANENTE / DE JUSTICE / INTER / NATIONALE.”
The League administered its own postal operations at a local post office within its headquarters, open 7:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m. daily. Service mail outside those hours and all ILO correspondence was initially processed at the local Rue du Mont-Blanc post office “Genève 1.” Early League correspondence is identifiable by its special service envelopes or cachets, and after 1922 by the use of Swiss stamps with League service overprints, cataloged as Switzerland Scott 2O1–2O90 for League issues and Scott 3O1–3O82 for ILO stamps prior to the end of World War II.
Mail service at League headquarters included domestic mail, airmail, registered, and express, as well as special handling such as insured mail to international services. Like many early postal operations finding covers showing some of the more exotic services such as express or insured mail are a challenge.
Figure 9 shows a cover franked with pairs of William Tell and Tell’s Son definitives with April 4, 1922, “GENÉVE 1 / SOCIÉTÉ DES NATIONS” datestamps. The Express label adds interest, and still more noteworthy is the early use of Geneva League of Nations registration label “No. 4.”
Because of the doubling of international letter postage from 20 to 40c in Switzerland in February 1921, for a very brief period the League actually carried some correspondence to its Paris office, where letters were franked with French postage and sent via the French postal system, as was the cover in Figure 10.
Beginning May 24, 1922, the Swiss Post Office had some stamps overprinted “Société des Nations” for use on official correspondence only. Initially, sale to collectors and non-official use were forbidden. Similarly, starting on March 27, 1923, Official service stamps overprinted “S.d.N Bureau International du Travail,” for use by the ILO were made available to the organization with the same restrictions. Used examples of both overprints are shown in Figure 11.
After collectors petitioned to allow stamp sales to the public, on September 7, 1922, the Swiss PTT authorized sale of canceled-to-order stamps at the Central Post Office. Although many unused stamps made their way onto the marketplace over the next two decades, it was only with the release of the final series of League and ILO overprints on February 1, 1944, that the Swiss allowed collectors to buy mint stamps, including all remaining stock.
Figure 12 shows one of the scarcer overprinted stamps, the high-value 5-franc depicting the Rütli on Lake Lucerne in Switzerland. Two versions were issued, this one in ultramarine in 1922 (Scott 2O28) and another in blue in 1928 (Scott 2O35). Valued in used condition at $67.50 and $80 respectively, both are listed with a line (−) indicating that unused stamps are known, but too little is known about their quantities to accurately estimate market value.
Between 1922 and 1946, the Swiss PTT overprinted about 91 issues for use by the League and 82 for the ILO, ranging from the modest 2.5c used on bulk rate mailings to high values up to 10fr used on heavy domestic and international mail. These overprints also were revised periodically. For the specialist, studying the overprints reveals some constant plate flaws and errors, a fascinating area for continued exploration. The scarcer of the two inverted overprints, catalogued only in used condition according to Scott, is the 1.20fr Swiss Cross Shield definitive with ordinary gum in Figure 13.
League and ILO stamps were issued on either flat (or smooth) gummed paper or, in limited cases, on grilled (or ribbed) gummed paper. The latter were created to reduce curling caused by gumming the stamps. The scarcest of the grilled versions are very valuable. Regrettably, the high-resolution scans I made of these fail to adequately show the difference, so I urge you to acquire mint lower value stamps of both gum types to familiarize yourself with them.
On November 8, 1920, the Swiss PTT provided the League post office with a special circular cancel for use on Secretariat service mail like the ones that appear in Figure 9. The “Genève 1” cancel continued in use through August 14, 1927, when it was permanently replaced by a “Genève 10 Société des Nations” cancel used throughout the remaining years of the League until its replacement on January 2, 1947, by the United Nations cancel, “Genève 10 Nation Unies.” Examples of the latter two are shown side by side in last- and first-day postmarks on piece in Figure 14. Many other boxed cancellations and special League assembly and council postmarks also interest collectors.
Beginning with the special diplomatic conference at Spa, Belgium, July 5, 1920, special cancels were used on League Council correspondence as a convenience to attendees and to commemorate the gatherings. In 1929 for the League Council meeting in Madrid, Spain went one step further, overprinting a set of 14, most portraying King Alfonso XIII, with “Sociedad de las Naciones LV Reunion del Consejo Madrid.” Special cancels were used as well. Philatelically inspired covers have survived in some quantity, while it is difficult to find official usages of these stamps and cancels, like the one shown in Figure 15.
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Read part two of “The League of Nations at 100” here.
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Those interested in the full story of League of Nations postmarks and postal history are invited to learn more from author Greg Galletti’s award-winning exhibit “History of the League of Nations,” hosted at the website of United Nations Philatelists, Inc.: aps.buzz/GallettiLoN
To those who enjoy League of Nations stamps and their complexities, we recommend pages from a purpose-designed album created by “stoltzpup” at The Stamp Forum: http://thestampforum.boards.net/thread/2022/league-nations
Learn more about United Nations Philatelists, Inc. at: http://www.unpi.com/
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