My grandmother had no shortage of hobbies: she was a keen gardener, a painter, a sculptor – and a stamp collector. And she shared her hobbies with me as a child: she showed me how to make a pot out of clay; she instilled me with a love of flowers; and, when a new series of stamps was released by Australia Post that she knew I’d like (often ones depicting Australian native birds, or children’s book illustrations), she’d buy me the set, or occasionally an entire sheet of stamps.
It’s no wonder that stamp collecting is a popular hobby, given that postage stamps are often very cheap to buy, as well as being – by definition – easy to send around the world. But, in addition to their practical attributes, stamps are often quite beautiful – or at least colourful and quirky – and they offer a tiny, and sometimes fascinating, glimpse into the life and times of their country of origin.
Although I never became a serious philatelist, I have continued collecting a small number of stamps that I find particularly interesting – mostly to do with agriculture and – of course! – cocoa.
The first postage stamps I collected as an adult were a pair from the USSR depicting my agricultural hero, Nikolai Vavilov. (Anyone who finds the concept of an “agricultural hero” surprising should do themselves a favour and read Vavilov’s fascinating and harrowing life story. I’ve previously written a little bit about Vavilov, and his amazing contribution to agronomy and genetics, in an article about the history and origins of the cacao tree.)
The first stamp in my collection to depict cocoa was from one of my favourite places in the world: Vanuatu – or New Hebrides, as it was called in 1963 when this 10 centime stamp was first released:
The next addition to my collection was a set of Spanish stamps, released in 1989, and illustrated by the eccentric artist Alberto Porta (also known as Alberto Pornacido, or simply as Zush).
Personally, I find Zush’s illustrations (which depict native South American foods) quite disturbing – for starters, what’s with the crazy eyes on the tomato and the corn cob? Hence, I wasn’t very surprised to learn that Porta had been locked away in a psychiatric institution during General Franco’s dictatorship, emerging as “Zush”, and later declaring himself a one-man nation in the “Mental State of Evrugo” (which apparently has its own flag, currency, alphabet and prime minister. I wonder if Evrugo has its own postal service, too?). Reference: “Spanish artist proclaims himself one-man nation”.
The remaining postage stamps in my cocoa collection all come from cocoa-growing countries, including the Carribean island nation of Grenada, the South American nation of Suriname, and the West African nation of Togo: