The story of the first Greek stamp
On May 6, 1840, the first stamp, the so-called “Penny Black” was put in circulation in Great Britain. Rowland Hill rightly claimed a place in the world community and the profile bust of Queen Victoria on a black background was destined to become a collector’s item, valued much more than a penny, that was the postage then for sending a letter. The innovation introduced by the British to the postal world was followed by Brazil (1843), Switzerland (1844), Finland (1845), the United States (1846), Russia (1848), France, Belgium, Bavaria (1849) and other countries, while Greece’s first efforts to issue a postage stamp date back to 1855.
The postage revenue systems, which applied something that could be called a self-adhesive seal, existed before the “Penny Black”. The idea seems to have already gone on for example in Austria and Sweden, and maybe even in Greece.
In Greece, the Ministers of Interior and Finance tabled a bill in Parliament (16.02.1855) to regulate the organizational details of the postal service and the introduction of postage stamps. At the same time, the General Consul of Greece in London, A. K. Ioannidis, addressed Perkins Bacon & Co for information on the cost of implementation. Ultimately, negotiations with the English company were not completed because of the high cost. Meanwhile, the bill was voted and published in the same year, but its implementation was postponed for a year due to reactions and followed a new extension by law on 06.05.1856.
The Stamp Act was voted on May 21, 1860, after a five-year postponement, and so the request was its implementation. The government turned through the Greek ambassador in Paris, Demetrius Kallergis, to Désiré-Albert Barre, general engraver of the Mint of France and son of Jacques-Jean Bar, who have had designed in 1849 the first French stamps with the bust of the goddess Demeter. The order provided for the issue of a complete set of seven classes. Barre agreed to take over the work by designing Hermes’ head, which carries a Thessalian sun hat (petasos) and looks from the left to the right of the image, following the pattern of the French postage stamp.
The French engraver spent six months with the Greek order and the result has been astonishing since he managed to give his creation an unparalleled taste and visual harmony. The head was in the middle of the stamp, with the shadow lines of the cheeks and the striped depth giving a unique sense of vitality to the messenger and god of commerce. Barre then printed a small quantity of stamps of each class in Ernest Meyer’s printing house in Paris and sent it to Greece along with the seven copper printing plates. This particular edition is still considered the most successful of all, since the print was made on high quality paper and was particularly taken care of.
The Greek stamp made its first appearance on 10.01.1861, when it officially came into circulation a series of large Hermes’ heads, made up of seven headings: 1 lepton, 2, 5, 10, 20, 40 and 80 lepta (subdivisions of drachma).
The printing had to continue in Athens, and it was an urgent need, since the demand – especially of the 20 lepta value- was quite high. The printing of all the values in October 1861 was unsuccessful, and that is why they are called “misprinted temporary versions of Athens”.
The prints, however, improved significantly afterwards, with the result that the Greek stamps (May 1862) were almost equal in quality to those of the Parisian edition. Innovations in the field of correspondence continued, as the new law introduced the principle of a single fee for correspondence within the homeland, regardless of distance, which is still the case. At the same time, the prepayment of the postal charge was established, the unit weight was doubled from 7.5 to 15 grams and the various postage free rights for a number of items of mail categories were gradually abolished. There was established also an interval period of one year, during which letters were normally accepted even if they did not have sufficient stamps.
With the exception of the years 1896-1898, when the first Olympic postage stamps appeared, the messenger of the gods was the official ambassador of the Hellenic Post at a particularly important historical period and in fact it was he who led the Greek postage stamps to the threshold of the 20th century. The Great Heads of the Messenger God completed their mission to the Hellenic Post in 1886 and gave their place to the Small Heads of Hermes, the second type of Greek postage stamp. Before they retired, however, they had given the famous Solferino, the most famous Greek stamp (issue of 1871), which is considered a color error after it was printed in pink lilac instead of the yellow or light pink color.
The end of the first Greek stamp era came due to two reasons. Initially, because the plates used to print them were worn out and, furthermore, because new stamps had to be issued for the new values of 25 and 50 lepta, as well as for 1 drachma.
The design and engraving of the Small Heads were undertaken this time by H. Hendrick and A. Doms in Belgium (Belgian publications 1885-1887), and later the printing plates were moved to Athens, where they began to be used since 1889.
Hermes’ “successors” have been officially unveiled since 1886 without perforation or with various ones, and are masterpieces in both engraving and design. The variants, colors and different types of paper used in Athenian publications played an important role in creating a truly unique collection that provokes the interest of every philatelist.
The philatelic collection of the PPM includes stamps and blueprints not only from the first or later publications, but also from other special issues such as the Autonomous Polity of Crete, Free Mountainous Greece (i.e. stamps issued by EDES during the German Occupation in WW II)
The bulk of the material consists of the artist’s original drawings (usually watercolors), the test pieces, i.e. test prints usually affixed to cardboard with comments for corrections, e.g. in color or in illustration, samples in various color shades, stamp sheets whithout perforation, i.e. standard proofs approved by the service (with stamps and signatures of the committee) and, of course, regular sheets of stamps, FDCs, color scales etc. Together with these, there are kept the printing films of the more recent issues, and the postmark stamps of the FDCs.
The Museum has also a large part of the old printing plates of the stamps and some rare lithographic stone plates.
Besides the Greek ones, postage stamps of other countries, members of the Universal Postal Union (UPU) are being also kept in the PPM, an institution established with the signing of a joint declaration from 11 countries and Greece in 1874 with a view to facilitate the international circulation of mail. This agreement was actually the founding act of the UPU.
The Museum collections include also donations and special publications of foreign Postal Services, commemorative medals and collector’s donations, such as the 3 vol. album of S. N. Nikolaidis with postmark stamps of all Postal Offices of Smyrna (Ottoman, Greek, Austrian, Italian, etc.) along with rare postcards and letters.