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Smoke through the post

Although tobacco smoke itself traces fleeting patterns in the air, the smoking habit has inspired more interesting artistic creations and designs, such as more or less famous paintings, prints, photographs and even postage stamps.

 

Early stamps bore the faces of monarchs and little else, whereas the latest ones could be compared to a sophisticated collection of trading cards. Indeed, just like trading cards stamps can feature almost anything nowadays, even tobacco and its uses. In order to pinpoint when tobacco was first featured on stamps we need to skip the first decades, when the aim was to prevent counterfeiting and (like currency) to spread the effigies or symbols of power, and fast forward to when important events were commemorated, or else specific issues displayed that required improved techniques, more complex organization and a general change of mindset.  First appearing in the more advanced nations at the end of the nineteenth century, postage stamps that depicted a specific image were slow to catch on at first, but became increasingly popular owing also to their collectability. Thus, tobacco also made its appearance eventually.

It is hardly surprising that one of the first countries (or maybe even the first country) to feature tobacco on a stamp was Cuba. In1928, in order to mark the occasion of the Sixth Pan-American Conference in Havana, Cuba issued a set of 10 stamps, and the 13 cent. stamp featured a tobacco plantation. It is well-known that Cuba is the home of tobacco and its stamps have often depicted it, ranging from its natural form to a box of cigars. Two years later, in 1930, the Italian Postal Service issued a set of 7 values for Libya on occasion of the Fourth Tripoli International Fair, and the 50 cent. stamp features a tobacco plant. Thus, tobacco found its way into large-scale events through stamp collecting. As early as 1935 even Paraguay promoted tobacco through a set of 4 airmail stamps, together with the slogan "el tabaco paraguayo es de excelente calidad".

From then on tobacco was increasingly depicted on stamps, whether as part of a series on plants, flowers, industry, export or else individually reproduced or in sets commemorating conferences and exhibitions, as well as other events focusing on tobacco. Thus, the plant was depicted and viewed in a neutral manner, insofar as it represented a product to be proud of, the distinctive feature of a sector or nation with no negative overtones.  In this period a noteworthy example is the 1950 Italian set of stamps commemorating the “European Conference on Tobacco”, whose 3 values depict Virginia Bright Italia tobacco, Kentucky Italia and a countrywoman holding a plant of Lecce Yoka. Other conferences or exhibitions followed, such as in Rhodesia in 1963 and in Greece, 1966. An Austrian stamp from 1959 commemorates 175 years of State Monopoly, and a French postage stamp from 1961 commemorates 400 years of Jean Nicot’s introduction into France of his tobacco plants when returning from his diplomatic mission in Portugal.

In the same period another type of stamp was issued on this fragrant weed, less institutional but still important enough to represent the country of issue. In this case it was Hungary that issued a stamp connected to tobacco in 1959 on occasion of Stamp Day. The figure smoking a pipe is a turning point, as from being just a profitable product tobacco is now depicted as a consumer product. In this instance a classic smoking device hangs from the lips of a stranger, the “tradition” genre. In other cases it represents a famous person, the subject of a well-known painting, or else the hero of a story smoking a pipe, cigar or cigarette. In other cases, it is the object itself that is highlighted, such as a pipe from a museum or example of local craftsmanship, a cigar or even a packet of cigarettes (only once, however, as we shall see shortly, and in special circumstances). Among the famous people depicted are Van Gogh (St Vincent, 1990), Popeye (USA, 1995), and Sandro Pertini (Italy, 1996). As for the pipes, we can find René Magritte’s famous surreal pipe with the phrase “Ceci n’est pas une pipe” on a 2011 stamp issued by Mozambique and also a set of four ethnic stamps issued by Angola in 1993. In general, however, this was not a direct invitation to take up smoking tobacco, but rather a way of recording the traditions of a place and period. It is true to say that even if a connotation, the message seemed to be less neutral than the previous examples. In any case, this type of postage stamp was issued along with the more institutional ones until the 1980s when things started to change.

There had already been some examples of anti-smoking campaigns on stamps as early as 1976, where we find an interesting stamp from Czechoslovakia which displays a man and woman smoking cigarettes associated with a skull. However, 1980 was a crucial year.  Spurred by the growing wave of anti-smoking campaigns and an agreement between the postal services from 24 nations, a series of anti-cigarette stamps were issued. Since then,  this approach to the issue, which was markedly different from the previous attitudes towards tobacco, has taken root on the international scene of stamp issuing, even if in the following years the depictions were nowhere near as aggressive as in 1980. It is true to say that since that moment onwards the three types of stamps on tobacco have shared the field, with the anti-tobacco type dominating slightly and the other two types carrying equal weight.

In the anti-tobacco type postage stamp, the cigarette is almost always present, whereas the pipe is never really featured. A man or woman smoking often figure, with reference to the heart or lungs, together with a skull. However, there are countless metaphorical and pictorial variations. The messages are definitely not neutral, being almost always strong and direct, rarely softened by irony. The most ironical, appealing stamp to be issued was in 1983 in Israel, featuring an ashtray which is heaped with Smarties, sold together with an explanatory counterfoil that states: “Life is sweeter without smoke”. There was another, more subtle way to wage war against tobacco, which was to eliminate all traces of it. For instance, in 1994, Robert Leroy Johnson (a 1930s bluesman who had inspired numerous future musicians) was honoured with a postage stamp bearing his name, issued by the US Postal Service. It was based on a photograph of him playing his guitar with a cigarette between his lips. However, the stamp featured him minus the cigarette. A great deal of debate ensued as regards the notion of false history, which was further exacerbated when the same treatment was applied to the image of James Dean (1995) and Jackson Pollock (1999). A 2013 Austrian postage stamp seems to have swung the other way in answer to this excessive zeal by depicting a packet of cigarettes. However, this story is rather ambiguous and complex, and is worth telling.

Waltraud Höllinger, née Waltraud Lehner, is an Austrian avant-garde artist born in 1940 who decided to change her name in 1967 to the pseudonym VALIE EXPORT. It is complicated to say why she chose this particular name, but it suffices to say that it is inspired by a famous brand of cigarettes, Smart Export. The packet that is depicted on the stamp with the artist smoking in the background is an ironical reworking of the original packet sold by tobacconists. Thus, the Austrian Postal Service did not mean to advertise the brand, but rather it was a homage to the artist. In any case it took some courage to issue the stamp in such an anti-smoking climate, as can be seen by the ensuing reactions.

One country that has never really bothered to hide its admiration for the fragrant plant and in particular for cigars is Cuba, and even in the last few years its Postal Service has not hesitated to celebrate its importance in local production on postage stamps. Going back in time in Cuba, we find the 1970 set of stamps particularly interesting with its three values dedicated to the  "historia del tabaco".

 

Thus we have come full circle, starting and ending with Cuba. However, it is the stamp collecting world itself that is thought-provoking, both as regards the treatment of tobacco as a theme and as regards history and art. The resulting theme-based collection could prove quite fascinating even for non-smokers, but much more so for those who peruse their collections while taking puffs and blowing wisps of smoke into the air.

 

This article originally appeared in the specialist magazine for stamp collectors, “L'Arte del Francobollo", issue no. 47, May 2015. We thank C.I.F. srl Editore for their kind permission to reproduce it here in an adapted form.

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