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The Many Facets of Colombian Philately, from Philip IV to office clippings

By Alan D Anyon FRPSL

Colombia’s first postal issue was in August 1859. Somewhat surprisingly this was a year after the first revenue stamp, and comprised 5 values with the current name of the country, Granadine Confederation (Fig.1). There was a second issues in 1860. This was followed by the issue of 1861 when it had become the United States of New Granada and the 1862 issue for the United States of Colombia. This remained the country’s name until the creation of the Republic of Colombia in 1886. During the period 1899-1903 the country’s longest and bloodiest civil war occurred, the so called War of 1000 Days, prompting the creation of provisional issue in Cartagena, Cúcuta, Tumaco, Bogotá, Barranquilla and Medellín. When normal national stamps reappeared in1904 they left behind the inflationary period where and were based on gold currency.

Fig. 1

In 1637 King Philip IV of Spain introduced Papel Sellado (Stamped Revenue Paper) as a means of collecting taxes. The stamps were printed on large sheets of paper. This was extended to the Spanish American Colonies in 1640 and Fig. 2 shows part of such a document of 1640 used in Colombia in 1644. Stamped Paper continued in use, certainly until the 1990’s. Adhesive revenue stamps first came into being in 1858 and were often used in conjunction with Stamped Paper. Fig. 3 is part of a document with the second issue 1859-60 revenue stamp used on a 1858-59 Stamped Paper of the Sovereign State of Cudinamarca. Adhesive revenue stamps in a wide variety of designs were used continuously until the early 2000’s when they were phased out in favour of meter mark stamps.

Fig. 2


Fig. 3

Colombia had a well established network of telegraph offices and in 1881 special stamps were produced to pay the cost of sending telegrams. A number of issues appeared between then and 1906 and Fig. 4 shows one of the scarcer stamps, the 5 centavos of 1891. After 1906 normal postage stamps were again used to pay for telegrams and these can occasionally be found with telegraph office cancellations. Fig. 5 shows an example. In addition undenominated seals were created to close the folded telegram. Several printings of some designs and a variety of colours have been found. Fig. 6 shows 3 different types.

Fig. 4 Fig. 5 Fig. 6
The Colombian Red Cross started issuing stamps for a Red Cross week in 1933 in Bogota and Medellin and for Bogota, Medellin and Barranquilla in 1934 and use on mail was compulsory. For Medellin red edged labels were overprinted SELLO ADICIONAL as well as on a 1930 Red Cross label. The 1930 label was also used in Bogota overprinted with a large ‘5’ in 1933 (Fig. 7) and with 3 different large '5's for 1934 whereas Barranquilla used the 1930 label unoverprinted. It was not until 1935 that the first national stamp for a Red Cross Week was issued by the government and these weeks continued with different stamps until 1970.

Fig. 7

In 1938 the Colombian Antituberculosis League (Liga Antituberculosa Colombiana) was created as a special committee of the Red Cross and they issues annual voluntary contribution labels inscribed LAC, intended for use in the month of December. Their use required the permission of the President of the Republic each year and was discontinued after 2000. In 1944 the practice of surcharging previous issues with a new value and year was introduced to cover some years and this was particularly the case in the period 1981-86. Indeed in 1984 no less than 41 different surcharged labels have been identified. A very scarce label of 1947 shows the 1938 5c stamp surcharged $1.00 (Fig. 8).

Fig. 8

The postal laws of Colombia made it clear that when supplies of national postage stamps were unavailable, such as in times of war, the local postmaster should write on mail No Hay Estampilas (there are no stamps), the amount of postage collected and sign the declaration. Despite this instruction a number of postmasters had their own local labels prepared. The first was San Luís in 1863. However in 1879 the Cali postmaster produced small labels of 6 values, printed on 4 different papers with 4 separate printings and in sheetlets of 5 placeable stamps so a full “collection” would comprise 480 stamps. A complete sheetlet of the 20c printed on blue paper Plate I is in Fig 9. An even more flagrant example of disregarding regulations was in Barbacoas in 1902-03 during the War of 1,000 Days. So far 12 different types have been identified, one comprising 9 different designs in a sheet found on 22 different coloured papers.

One area of Colombian philately that has received almost no published information is Departmental and Municipal Fund Raising labels. These were often produced to raise funds for local Committees for Improvements & Public Works or to celebrate the anniversary of a town’s founding. So far 97 issues have been recorded from 43 locations comprising 7 Departments and 36 towns. A typical example is shown in Fig 10.

Another byway often overlooked is stamp essays. Sometimes a government would put out a tender for the printing of an issue of stamps providing no guidance on the design. At other times a security printer would produce and submit designs for a stamp or issue in the hope that a printing contract would follow. These essays are not easy to find but 2 examples comprise Fig 11.

Fig. 9

Fig. 10

Fig. 11

During the period 1923 to 1959 a variety of express mail carriers was operating within Colombia with government approval. Although a number of them issues their own stamps for use on the mail they transported, 18 have been identified several with more than a single issue, Government Decree 1574 prohibited their use effective 1st October 1933. The fact that mail was so carried after that date can only be determined by the carriers’ cancellations.

There is one important section of Colombian philately that has not yet received mention and that is postal stationery. The country has a rich selection of such items and one might say “all the usual suspects” are represented. Indeed an article could be written on that topic alone. However here only the national and states’ cubiertas, the insured letter labels, will be mentioned. There are large printed labels affixed over the flap of envelopes certifying their contents and humorously nicknamed “horse blankets” by American collectors. The first issue dates from 1865 and included a 25c label for certification without contents and a 50c label to include contents. Subsequently only 50c labels were issued until 1889 and 1890 when the 2 series ran from 10c to 1 peso, 1892 to 50c, 1905 to 25c and the final issue in 1908 with just 50c and 1 peso values. It is interesting to note that the 1865 and 1867 issues had the national flag in the design hand painted. National cubiertas were withdrawn from use effective 16 November 1912.

The Sovereign State of Cundinamarca issued a single cubierta in 1883 and that of Tolima produced 8 issues between 1879 and 1896 normally with values 5c, 10c and 50c but the final issue ran from 5c to 1 peso. The very first article I ever wrote was Colombia: The Insured Letter Labels that appeared in Stamp Year Book 1972 (Link House Publications). Besides the cubiertas used to certify normal mail a series of cubiertas oficiales was in use for government mail between post offices. An extremely large variety of designs was produced of which many included the place of origin in the design. The total number of these cubiertas oficiales is unknown as new types are discovered but they run to several hundred.

This article has attempted to cover the many various types of stamps and labels embedded in the philately of Colombia. Are there any specialist societies dealing with the topic you may ask? The Spanish Main Society included numerous articles in their long running magazine MAINSHEET but it ceased publication in November 1984. The journal of the Colombian Philatelic Research Society, COLOMPHIL, edited by that lion of the subject, Dieter Bortfeldt, who sadly died in January 2014, ran from 1998 to 2004 and contained much original research. The American based Colombia/Panama Philatelic Study Group, COPAPHIL, still publishes their journal, COPACARTA, 3 times a year. Their current secretary is Scott Schaffer, email address Articles do also appear from time to time in The Revenue Journal of The Revenue Society and Cinderella Philatelist, the Cinderella Stamp Club’s magazine, normally written by me I have to admit. I do hope that those readers who manage to work through this article will be tempted to start collecting the stamps of Colombia. You will find it very rewarding if my experience is any criterion.