A beginner's guide to Czech stamps

Yvonne Wheatley FRPSL of the Czechoslovak Philatelic Society of Great Britain, provides a beginner's guide to Czech stamps

When I joined my first local society, more years ago than I care to remember, I had a school girl collection of the world.  When asked my specialisation, my answer ‘the whole world’ was met with the suggestion that I would need to concentrate on a much smaller field. 

I didn't know which country to choose so I looked through my album and the country for which I had most stamps was Czechoslovakia. I thought that if I did not find enjoyment collecting that country’s stamps I could always collect something else.

As I got more and more involved with Czech philately I realised I would never want to change.

The stamp history of Czechoslovakia
The country gained independence from the Austro Hungarian Empire on 28 October, 1918.
The government needed reliable workers for the delivery of important mail between the members of the national Committee, the police and government offices. This was undertaken by the scouts and two stamps were printed for this delivery service.

The Ministry of Posts wanted the country to produce its own stamps as soon as possible. 
The stamps produced in the first year of its independence provide a fascinating study. The first stamps designed by Alfons Mucha depicting Hradcany castle which dominates the skyline of Prague, produced many varieties as the printers learnt how to print and perforate stamps.

As part of the Austro Hungarian Empire the stamps in use had been either Austrian or Hungarian.
When the first definitive stamps were issued these could be exchanged at post offices for the stamps previously used. These were overprinted Pošta Ceskoslovenska 1919 and sold at 50% above the face value for charity.

Stamp design competitions
In order to find a suitable design to commemorate its first anniversary of independencea stamp design competition was held. This failed to produce a design suitable for the occasion but many designs which were submitted were used for subsequent stamps.  The essays produced for the competition make an interesting addition to the collection.

A second competition was held and although the winning design and the runner up did not feature on the issue, a set of six stamps commemorated the event. The issue was valid for use for eight days only for internal use.

This was also a charitable issue. There was no surcharge but the stamps were pre-cancelled with two different commemorative handstamps which encompassed four stamps. A fee, which formed the charitable donation, was payable for the handstamp.

The print run for the stamps far exceeded the number of stamps which could be used in such a short time.
The surplus stocks and handstamps were handed to the charity but it struggled to sell all the stock.
The remainders were eventually sold to dealers well below face value.

A new definitive set appeared in 1920 featuring allegorical designs and this issue like the Hradcany design are the subject of much research and plating studies.

The Ministry of Posts had to formulate a stamp issuing policy and this was modelled on the Austrian system which the country had used for many years. Stamps were produced for different purposes such as newspaper stamps for use on newspaper wrappers and express stamps for use on printed matter where the sender wanted the item to receive priority.

Stamp shortages
In the early days of the Republic there were shortages of stamps because of poor estimating of the quantities required. This was exasperated because of the different types of stamps that were required.

Stamps were frequently demonetised and these surplus stamps were overprinted and used for other purposes such as provisional postage due or airmail stamps.

Russian influence
The issues which followed reflect the communist influence on stamp design as well as the Russian influence with many issues devoted to space exploration.

One outstanding feature of many stamp issues is the fine engraving particularly on the stamps which depict paintings housed in the country’s art galleries.

Keen stamp collectors
As a nation the Czechs are keen stamp collectors as can be witnessed when attending stamp exhibitions in the country.  There are more people looking at the exhibits than there are at the dealers stands.  As a consequence new issues are in abundance.  Sheetlets of  four stamps in the annual art series are ready made for the collector and increase the revenue of the postal authority.  There is plenty to interest the thematic collector.  As the country has been keen to promote its own history on its stamps a collection based on the history of Czechoslovakia is also possible.

The country has had a troubled history which adds to the interest of the stamp designs. 

Wartime stamps
From 1 October 1938 that part of Czechoslovakia which shared a common border with Germany, known as Sudetenland, was incorporated into Germany until the German defeat in 1945.  During this period certain Czech stamps were overprinted with the denominations required for mail sent to Germany.  Other stamps were overprinted with slogans and the swastika.

On 14 March 1939 Slovakia was declared an independent state and issued its own stamps after a period of overprinting Czech stamps.  The following day Germany invaded Bohemia and Moravia making them a German protectorate.  Overprinted Czech stamps followed until stamps inscribed Bohemia and Moravia could be prepared.  Many of these stamps bore a portrait of Adolph Hitler.

At the same time the Hungarians occupied Carpatho-Ukraine, that part of Czechoslovakia closest to the Ukraine.

Military conquest by the Red Army was completed between October 1944 and 9 May 1945 and sovereignty reverted to Czechoslovakia except for Carpatho-Ukraine which was transferred to Russia on 29 June 1945.

Independent states in the 1990s
The stamp issuing policy continued as before until 1 January 1993 when the country again became divided and the independent states, the Czech Republic consisting of Bohemia and Moravia and the Slovak Republic which was the former Slovakia.  Each independent republic has followed its own stamp issuing programme.

It can be seen that Czech stamps can satisfy many different collecting interests from plating studies and stamp production to thematics and overprints.  There is also plenty of interest for the postal historian from the pre-stamp entires of the Czech lands, then forming part of Austria or Hungary, to the boundary disputes of the early days of the republic.

Further information concerning Czech stamps can be found at www.cpslib.org which contains a library of the stamp issues.