map1‘Maps on stamps’ has long been a popular theme for topical stamp collectors. There’s something for everybody; the CartoPhilatelic Society offers a list of 40,000+ items which runs to 750 printed pages. Map stamps have been issued by almost every country, and some of them have led to diplomatic
crises and played a role in wars.

But how about ‘stamps on maps’? A stamp printed on a map…does such a thing even exist? Indeed it does, but ‘stamps on maps’ would be an awfully small topical collection. I know of only one instance of stamps being printed on maps.

From the era of the first postage stamps down to the present day, nations have used stamps as one way of announcing their sovereignty to the world. On November 18 of 1918, in the aftermath of World War I, Latvia declared it’s independence from Russia, and newly independent Latvia needed stamps. But the Latvian postal authorities immediately ran into a problem. Soviet troops were
occupying Latvian territory as fast as German troops were withdrawing from it. There were shortages of everything, including paper stock on which to print their first stamps.

map2Among the many things the retreating Germans left behind were maps; large numbers of unfinished maps which were stored in their Riga headquarters. So many, in fact, that they were being used in the Riga market to wrap fish. The map side of these foldable maps was finished, but their backs, which were to show the region name, scale, etc, were not yet printed. And they hadn’t been folded yet, so they were nice and flat, just waiting to be run through a press again.

Thus were born Latvia’s first stamps; Scott #1 and #2. Both stamps pay the same postage, 5 Kapeikas. Scott calls the imperforate stamps #1 while the stamps perforated 11.5 are #2. This is purely arbitrary since all 2.7 million stamps were produced by the same printer at the same time with the same design. About half were perforated, half were not. The stamps, printed in red, show 3 ears of grain in the center of a rising sun, with 3 stars spaced around the edges of the sun’s rays, the name ‘LATVIJA’ curving across the top of the sun, and the value of 5 Kap. printed at the bottom.

map3The German military maps on the back of these stamps, which are upside down versus the stamp design, are usually printed in brown and black on dark cream gummed paper. At least 68 different types of maps of Latvia and parts of Lithuania are known to have been used to print these stamps, with about 11,000 maps in all being fed through the presses. As you can see from the scans illustrating this article, the maps themselves, made to a scale of 1:1,000,000 are filled with fine detail such as roads, railroads, buildings, fields, rivers, and forests. At the lower left corner of the map on the upper left stamp in the block of 4 shown there is even what looks like a windmill.

Even though these map stamps have never been rare or expensive, there are forgeries believed to have been made in the 1920s.

One curious aspect of the maps used which is not apparent on most of the stamps is the longitude scale used. Western Latvia, for instance, is shown at longitude 39 degrees east. Current maps show the same area as 21 degrees 20 minutes east. What’s going on here? Even though Germany agreed in 1884 to use Greenwich as the prime (0 degrees) meridian, for some reason these maps use a prime meridian centered on the little town of Ferro (Hierro in Spanish) in the western Canary Islands. Ferro, at the western end of the Greek world, was the prime meridian used by Claudius Ptolemy in the second century AD!

The Latvians must have been pleased with using the back of pre-printed paper for their stamps; a few years later another couple of issues were printed on the backs of unfinished banknotes. So there’s another small topical collection: ‘stamps on money’.

Most of the information in this article was found on a marvelous website on the Latvian map stamps established by Bill Apsit (