As the new millennium approaches, countries around the world will seek ways to celebrate the new age into which the masses will be propelled (with or without Y2K problems) on January 1, 2000. It is now becoming obvious that a common or universal celebration will be through postage stamps.
On February 3, 1998, the United States Postal Service (USPS) launched its Celebrate the Century Series as a tribute to the millennium. The first two of ten 15-stamp sheetlets, one for each decade of the 20th century, was part of the 1998 launch The rest of the USPS stamps are being released periodically with the sixth sheet, marking events of the 1960s, scheduled for an August issue date.
Canada Post Corporation has announced a very limited, special series for the millennium, and many other nations are on the verge of combining with specialist agents to create omnibus productions with which to mark the beginning of the next thousand years.
Perhaps the most extensive and unusual millennium series to date comes from Great Britain. Royal Mail, Britain's postal administration, devoted its entire 1999 stamp program to the millennium stamps. Although that plan was slightly upstaged by the recent Royal Wedding of Prince Edward and Sophie Rhys-Jones and a solar eclipse stamp for August, Millennium stamps have been appearing at regular intervals.
The 1999 Royal Mail program will look back over the past 1,000 years of British history and achievement, covering an impressive and exhaustive list of subjects. The first stamps were issued on January 12, 1999, and the schedule is designed for an issue of four stamps on the first Tuesday of each month throughout the year.
In 2000, Royal Mail will have another 12 sets of four stamps each and a final Millennium issue in January 2001, for a combined 25 sets or 100 stamps with which to celebrate. The themes of the 2000 and 2001 stamps have not been finalized.
It is also of significance that all 48 stamps for 1999 will be designed by 48 different internationally-acclaimed British artists and image-makers. Each stamp, moreover, will be numbered in descending order. (In other words, the January stamps were numbers 48, 47, 46, and 45.) The stamps all have an inscription: Millennium 1999/48, etc.
English author and historian Jeremy Black said the stamps in the Royal Mail initiative "offer a new way of looking at our history. Linking to actual historic artifacts, they will celebrate the past and the future as we move from the old Millennium to the new."
The 1999 Royal Mail Millennium stamps have monthly themes which span the centuries from 1000 A.D. Patterned after Geoffrey Chaucer's famed The Canterbury Tales, each issue focuses on a tale of the centuries. January, for instance, captured the Inventor's Tale emphasizing time: establishing time with Harrison's Chronometer and the Greenwich Meridian, reducing time with steam power, freezing time with photography, and accelerating time through computers.
Other 'tales' from Britain include, in monthly chronological order, Travellers, Patients, Settlers, Workers, Fans (sport), Citizens, Scientists, Farmers, Soldiers, Pilgrims, and Artists. Each of the four-stamp issues reflects on a major event in its particular theme.
It was a creative challenge for Royal Mail to cite four specific topics for each month's stamps, but the success of the venture indicates choices were well-made.
What gives the British stamp series a universal appeal is the nature of the featured events. The Settlers' Tale, for example, looks at emigration to America, Australia, Asia, and the Caribbean. Travellers includes global travel, while Patients recalls many aspects of medicine that have helped generations.
Other important images focus on explorer Captain James Cook, jet travel, the Magna Carta, various methods of farming, the King James version of the Bible, Shakespeare, and scientists like Newton, Faraday, and Darwin. Although the stamps may have specific British connotations, there are several stamps whose events made a distinctive difference in world progress throughout history.
When the British stamps first appeared in January and February, there was a singular description that they were ugly compared to many of the more recent issues from Britain's post office. Nonetheless, as the stamps appear, there is evidence that the overall impact will deliver a most desirable collection, clearly defining the last 1,000 years of history through the postage stamp.
Millennium stamps will abound in the next two years, but few will capture the imagination, the breadth, and the spectacle of the Royal Mail issues. Now is the time to make sure these sought-after items become part of a lasting collection.
Michael O. Nowlan was born in Chatham, New Brunswick Canada. He grew up on a nearby farm, was educated, and became a teacher. In retirement, he follows his life-long avocation of writing. His credits include 16 books (four books of poems, two children's titles, and anthologies for schools). In recent years, he has written extensively about stamp collecting for Canadian Stamp News, Gibbons International Stamp News, and other philatelic publications.
Michael O. Nowlan was born in Chatham, New Brunswick Canada. He grew up on a nearby farm, was educated, and became a teacher. In retirement, he follows his life-long avocation of writing. His credits include 16 books (four books of poems, two children's titles, and anthologies for schools). In recent years, he has written extensively about stamp collecting for CANADIAN STAMP NEWS, GIBBONS INTERNATIONAL STAMP NEWS, and other philatelic publications.