What is a charity stamp?

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03 February 2021
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For almost 130 years, postal authorities have been issuing stamps with added surcharges to raise money for charity. Find out more about charity stamps, sometimes known as semi-postals, in this special guide.

Known as surtaxed, semi-postal, or charity stamps, these differ from tax/revenue stamps in that are bought by the public voluntarily, to raise money for good causes, writes Paula Hammond.

Scott catalogues prefix charity stamps with the letter ‘B’.

A history of charity stamps

Some of the earliest examples of stamps being used to raise funds were at the so-called Sanitary Fairs of the 1860s during the American civil war.

In 1890, the Royal Mail produced a selection of Penny Postage Jubilee stationery. A Jubilee envelope cost a shilling – 1d covered the price of the inland postage and 11d went to the Rowland Hill Benevolent Fund. The Guildhall Postal Card, issued the same year, cost 6d and also supported needy postal employees.

The first true charity postage stamp was produced by Australia in 1897 and, by the second decade of the 20th century, charity stamps had become widely established. 

Pro Juvente and Red Cross charity stamps

Switzerland began issuing charity stamps in 1913 and these proved to be so popular that they established their own charitable foundation (Pro Juventute/For Youth) to manage and distribute funds.

Children, refugees, and health charities – especially the Red Cross – are amongst the good causes that most commonly benefit from such stamps, but France has even issued stamps to support ‘unemployed intellectuals’.

In some countries, charity issues are eagerly anticipated, annual events, raising huge amounts of money. Germany, for instance, has each issued over a thousand semi-postals. Sadly, many English speaking nations, such as Britain have only issued a handful of charity stamps.

Popular charity stamps

  • 1923, Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic, set of four famine relief stamps, sold for $1,800 at auction.
  • 1931, New Zealand, Blue Boy FDC, up to $4,000 in fine, used condition. Be aware that stamps are widely forged and difficult to spot.
  • 1933, Belgium, Orval Abbey 40-franc semi-postal. Pane of 12 sold in 2012 for $26,868.
  • 1941, France, 70-cent S.S. Pasteur semi-postal with the missing red overprinted surcharge sold for $30,000 in 2017.

Five charity stamps to look out for

  • 1863-65, USA, Sanitary Fair postal issues. Eight Sanitary Fairs designed and sold stamps for use in Fair post offices. These functioned like local stamps and were not valid for US postage. Prices start at $40.
     
  • 1890s, GB, Penny Postage Jubilee charity stationary. Prices start as low as £20.
     
  • 1897, New South Wales, Diamond Jubilee ‘Consumptive Home’ stamps. The first true charity stamp. Prices start around $20 online.
     
  • 1912, Switzerland, three forerunners (known as vorläufers) of the Pro-Juventute semi-postals were issued in 1912. As these didn’t have the country name on them, they weren’t valid for postage and had to be used in conjunction with regular postage stamps. Prices from around £250.
     
  • 1936, Switzerland, Pro Patria stamps joined the already hugely successful Pro Pro Juventute annual issues. Examples start at a few pounds, with souvenir sheets available from £50.

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