New Zealand’s stamp production has been relatively modest compared with other countries – from 1926 to 1931 the country produced no new stamps, except for the annual health stamps introduced in 1929. Prior to the 1960s there was often only one new issue a year, but by 2010 there were around 18 new issues each year.
Victory and peace
Following the First World War a 1920 series of ‘Victory’ stamps was issued. After the Second World War the series was labelled ‘Peace,’ perhaps due to the longer duration of that war, the greater involvement of civilians and recognition that in war even the victors have suffered.
Definitives and commemoratives
Definitives are regularly issued sets of stamps that are printed in greater numbers with a range of denominations to cover all postal costs. They typically have longer time frames between issues – often around five years.
Commemoratives are smaller issues on sale for a shorter period – around the time that a particular event is being celebrated. Commemorative stamps became much more common from the 1960s; from 1906 to 1950 there had only been a dozen.
New Zealanders on stamps
It took over a century before a portrait of a New Zealand-born person appeared on a stamp: Sir Frederic Truby King, founder of the Plunket Society, in 1957. In 1973 the first paintings by a New Zealand artist appeared on a stamp, when a set of four stamps featuring works by Frances Hodgkins was produced. It took until 1989 for New Zealand writers (Katherine Mansfield, James K. Baxter, Bruce Mason and Ngaio Marsh) to appear on a stamp series. Artists honoured on stamps include Colin McCahon, with a set of four stamps in 1997, and Doris Lusk in 1999.
Images of nation building appeared in the 1940 centenary series and issues celebrating the centenaries of the provinces (Otago in 1948, Canterbury in 1950 and Westland in 1960). Royalty was a continuing theme, with the 1953 coronation and royal visit issues.
Slowly themes became more varied – in 1964 a stamp on road safety was issued to coincide with a road safety campaign. International subjects featured on stamp issues for the International Cooperation Year (1965), International Year of Human Rights (1968), the 1970 United Nations anniversary and the Expo (or World’s Fair) of 1970. This diversification marked the change in the country’s outlook away from the British Empire and towards the wider world.
New Zealand changed to decimal currency on 10 July 1967, but old stamps with pound, shillings and pence denominations remained valid for a few years after.
Hygeia, goddess of health
The 1931 one-penny stamp featured the goddess of health, Hygeia, reclining half-naked on a pedestal with a goblet of wine raised in one hand. A wry Australian philatelist observed that ‘she has evidently been indulging in an all-night orgy.’1
More issues and greater diversity
Christmas stamps were first issued in 1960. Stamps featuring scenic photographs or images, which were largely tourist promotion, were first issued in 1972 and every year since. Stamps showing sports also began to appear, with the 1968 health stamps featuring a boy running and a girl swimming with the Olympic logo in the background. Animal species other than birds also appeared in 1984, when images of Hamilton’s frog and native geckos and skinks were used. By the 2000s themes were largely determined by the market. Stamp designs such as the 2007 issues that featured the humorous Kiwi expressions ‘She’ll be right’ and ‘Bit of a dag’ would have been unthinkable in an earlier era.
In the 2000s stamp imagery was more varied than in the past, yet much remained the same in terms of the overall design – stamps were iconic and heroic. They also became less complicated – decorative borders had been replaced by clean white lines, simpler compositions and plain backgrounds.
How stamp designs are chosen
In the early 2000s the Stamps Business of New Zealand Post planned what stamp themes would be produced each year and the number of issues. Commemorations and special events were prime candidates, and many suggestions were received from people and organisations.
Once a subject was chosen, designers were contracted to come up with some imagery. In the past these were sometimes open to anyone, but in the 2000s usually three designers or artists were given the brief. Submitted designs were usually about twice or four times the size of a stamp. New Zealand Post also had a stamp-designing competition for children.