Thursday, 28 September 2017

France 1956 - Benjamin Franklin

To say he was a man of many talents would be a massive understatement. He was the very definition of the title "polymath". Inventor, scientist, politician, printer, and diplomat to name but a few of his pastimes. The man, if you haven't already guessed, is Benjamin Franklin. 

To write an in-depth biography of Benjamin Franklin I'd need far more space than I usually allow for a blog - probably need a rather large book actually! So what I'll do here is try to concentrate on some of the more uncommon things about Benjamin Franklin. First off let's quickly get acquainted with Benjamin Franklin. He was born in Boston, Massachusetts on January 17 1706. His father, Josiah Franklin, was a soap and candle maker. Josiah had two wives, fathering seven children with the first, and a staggering ten with the second wife! Ben was the fifteenth child. Ben started out working in his father's shop, but melting wax all day wasn't for him. He then tried his hand at the printing business under the tyrannical rule of his brother. He hated working for his brother, so he struck out on his own by moving to Philadelphia. From here his career thrived.

Now to some things about this great man that I personally didn't know.  Ben Franklin is rather famous for his inventions such as bifocal glasses and the lightning rod. But I did not know that he also invented the flexible urinary catheter. I also didn't know that he never chose to patent any of his inventions, believing that they should be freely accessible to all.

Franklin also revitalized the idea of Paying it Forward. This is the concept of doing a good deed of some kind to a person and instead of the person paying you back they in turn do a good deed for someone else. An excellent practice in my opinion. This idea was first introduced as a key plot in Menander's play Dyskolos (The Grouch) which was performed in Athens in 317 BC. In a letter to Benjamin Webb dated 25 February 1874 Ben Franklin suggests the use of such a concept.

Another interesting tidbit I just read about. Ben was a very accomplished chess player, and his travels in Britain and France gave him the opportunity to duke it out with some of the greatest chess minds of the time.. When in Paris, both as a visitor and later as ambassador, he visited the famous Café de la Régence, which France's strongest players made their regular meeting place. Unfortunately, no records of his games have survived, so it is not possible to ascertain his playing strength in modern terms.

I also didn't realize Ben Franklin was the first Postmaster General of the United States. And interestingly, aside from George Washington,  Ben Franklin appears on US postage stamps more than any other famous person. He first appeared on a US postage stamp in 1847. 

Benjamin Franklin also appeared on the famous long-running Washington-Franklin series from 1908 to 1923. And many more issues, but amazingly on only a few commemorative issues. One commemorative issue he did appear on was engraved by perhaps the best stamp engraver in the world, Czeslaw Slania. This stamp issued in 1983 was a joint issue with Sweden.

He died on April 17 1790 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania at the ripe old age of 84. 


On 12 November 1956 France issued a set of six stamps featuring famous foreigners who worked in France. One of the stamps features Benjamin Franklin, who, as mentioned above, worked as a ambassador in France. The stamp was designed and engraved by Albert Decaris. In this design, Decaris captures the witty and playful nature of Franklin not seen in a lot of his portraits. I like this stamp. It was fun and quirky.

Until next time...

Friday, 22 September 2017

France 1956 - Samuel de Champlain

His skills and accomplishments were numerous. Among other things, he was a navigator, cartographer, draftsman, soldier, and explorer. He was instrumental in the founding of Quebec City. And he was later dubbed "The Father of New France". So who is this rather remarkable fellow? We are, of course, talking about none other than Samuel de Champlain.

Samuel de Champlain was born in Brouage, France. There is some contention as to the actual date of his birth. Some say as early as 1567. Other theories include dates up to and including 1575. Scholarship is now fairly certain he was born on or before 13 August 1574. Whatever the year of his birth was, we do know that he began his life as an explorer and seaman in 1598 when he travelled on the ship Saint-Julien with his uncle-in-law. The ship had been commissioned to carry Spanish troops to  Cádiz. During the journey, which was apparently long and hard (over two years) Champlain was given the opportunity to "watch after the ship". This was an excellent opportunity for him to learn the art of seamanship - to "learn the ropes" as it were. And Champlain also took the opportunity to hone his burgeoning writing and cartography skills. He wrote detailed notes of his journey, including illustrations. So good was the work that upon return to France, King Henry IV rewarded Champlain with an annual pension. Then when his uncle died in 1601, he left Champlain his considerable estate along with a merchant ship. His future as an explorer was set.

In 1603 he made his first voyage to North America as an observer on a fur trading expedition. Making the trek across the Atlantic and exploring parts of North America became second nature to Champlain. Indeed, in 1604 and again in 1605 he was back over there, exploring the eastern coastline as far south as Cape Cod.

But it was in 1608 that Champlain would forever cement himself in the annals of history. Sent back across the Atlantic at the command of a fleet of three ships to find a suitable spot for a colony on the St Lawrence River, he came across a nice spot which he would name "Quebec", which comes from the Algonquin word kébec meaning "where the river narrows". This was the origin of Quebec City. The first settlement consisted of three buildings, a stockade, and a moat, which Champlain called the "Habitation". The Habitation became Champlain's lifelong passion. He even built himself a large dwelling he called Fort Saint Louis.

Throughout his life, Champlain also settled the area that became the city of Montreal, and he made detailed maps of the Atlantic coast and the Great Lakes. By 1620 he had settled into an administrative role as the de facto governor of New France from a command post in Quebec. Samuel de Champlain died on December 25, 1635, in Quebec.


On 11 June 1956 France issued a set of six stamps honouring famous French people. One of the stamps features Samuel de Champlain. The stamp was designed and engraved by Albert Decaris. The stamp is a semi-postal with a face value of 12f with a 3f surcharge for the benefit of the Red Cross. When I first saw this stamp I wasn't really all that enamoured by it. But over time I have come to like it. The strong bold lines and the penetrating eyes of the explorer, the eyes of a visionary. And of course I love the beard!

I'd like to end this blog with a nice little quote by Champlain himself:
“The advice I give to all adventurers is to seek a place where they may sleep in safety.”
—Samuel de Champlain
Until next time...

Saturday, 16 September 2017

France 1956 - Marshal Franchet of Esperey

Considered by some as the personification of a howitzer shell with the steely disposition of a tyrant, Louis Félix Marie François Franchet d'Espèrey, was a French General during World War I. Yet outside his tough military demeanor, d'Espèrey was a kind man with, as we shall see, the heart of an adventurer.

D'Espèrey, born 25 May 1856 in Mostaganem in French Algeria, was the son of a cavalry officer in the Chasseurs d'Afrique. Following in his father's footsteps, d'Espèrey began his life-long military career in 1876 after being educated at Saint-Cyr. Before the outbreak of World War I, d'Espèrey had already forged a distinguished career. After serving in a regiment of Algerian Tirailleurs (native infantry), he served in French Indochina, and then in China during the Boxer Rebellion in 1900. He was then packed off to France where he was given command of various infantry regiments in France. He obviously did something right, as in 1913 - just a year before the war - he was given command of I Corps.

During WWI, d'Espèrey served on several fronts. Most notably, he was given command of the large Allied army based at Salonika. It was in this role that he led "the successful Macedonian campaign, which caused the collapse of the Southern Front and contributed to the armistice" (Wikipedia). After the war his military successes continued with the command of operations against the Hungarian Soviet Republic in 1919. Then on 19 February 1921 he was given the honour of the title of Marshal of France.

Skipping ahead to 1924, we find d'Espèrey now in the role of inspector-general of France's North African troops. It was in this capacity that he "became interested in the strategic potential of the "grand axis" north-south route across the Sahara" (Wikipedia). And it was later in this same year that the adventurous spirit within d'Espèrey was unleashed.

On 15 November 1924, d'Espèrey joined a trans-Saharan expedition led by Gaston Gradis in three six-wheel Renaults with double tyres (see image below). Interestingly, this was Gradis' second trans-Sahara expedition, the first being earlier in that same year. Other members of the expedition included the journalist Henri de Kérillis, commandant Ihler, the brothers Georges Estienne and René Estienne, three Renault mechanics and three legionnaires. Overall the expedition travelled 3,600 km of rugged terrain to reach Savé in Dahomey on 3 December 1924. One can only imagine the stories of the adventures these intrepid explorers had to tell. Any one of them would have certainly made an entertaining dinner guest!


On 28 May 1956 France issued a stamp commemorating the 100th anniversary of the birth of Marshal Franchet d'Espèrey. The stamp was designed and engraved by Albert Decaris. In this design Decaris manages to capture the fierce pride and determination of a great French leader with the heart of an adventurer. It is also worth noting that Decaris has discreetly incorporated one of France's defining landmarks, the Cathedral of Notre Dame. Can you find it?

Until next time...

Wednesday, 6 September 2017

I Muse... On Going Un-Hinged

As I set out on my epic quest to collect all things Albert Decaris, I made a decision to collect all stamps with his name attached. In hindsight this can perhaps be viewed as slightly deranged! And maybe it is. But I prefer to think of it as a decision made out of naivety. I simply did not know what I was getting myself into. For instance I did not know of the numerous definitive sets with several values of the same design bearing his name. I did not know that he worked on several omnibus sets, which were often printed with 21 different colony names, for instance the Victory issue. Of course, after having armed myself with this new knowledge, I could have changed my mind and amended my collection parameters. But, truth be told, I set myself an interesting - far more challenging than I first thought - goal, and I decided to stick to it. I have spoken with many different collectors since I have started this thrilling adventure, and some, like me, have chosen to go down the path of collecting everything, while some collect one example of each design. Ultimately there is no right or wrong answer. Collecting is a very personal thing and we are free to choose our own collecting goals.

There is, however, one parameter within this sphere of collecting that for me is still somewhat of a conundrum. The un-hinged vs hinged debate. I have noticed there to be a tendency for those in the "un-hinged" camp to frown upon those who choose to be less selective with their mint stamp purchases. I think this is quite unfair. Let me first say that I do fully understand the idea of the preference of un-hinged stamps for high-end collections. After all, a hinge mark literally is damage to the stamp. Having said that though, is this consideration of such vital import to a collection that is primarily to admire what is on the front of the stamp! I collect engraved stamps, which means that I collect the small pieces of art adorning one side of a piece of paper. So long as it doesn't show on the front, does what's on the back really matter? When it comes to an artwork that we hang on the wall, do we really care what the back of the frame looks like? 

I really do think that simply going un-hinged with a collection because it's commonly regarded as the "done thing" is not the best approach. I know there are those who will vehemently disagree with me, citing reasons sch as "value" and "depreciation". This is totally fine. As I said earlier, we can choose how we wish to collect. But when I first stared to collect I was told in no uncertain terms by a dealer that collecting anything other than un-hinged was a total waste of time. Is it really? Now that I have a few years of experience under my belt, I really don't believe so. But at the time it really scared me because when buying stamps there is still a premium on unhinged merchandise. which is fair enough. But what if your budget doesn't allow you to pay that premium? Do you simply give up? Most assuredly not! If, like me, you collect engraved art, you are paying to admire the beauty of the art. Plain and simple! Don't be pressurised into spending more than what you need to spend. And whatever you do, don't be bullied out of what can be an immensely enriching and thoroughly rewarding hobby. 

To be perfectly frank, if I were to restrict myself to un-hinged copies of all my Decaris stamps, there would be no way I would be able to collect all his omnibus issues, all his definitive issues, and all his high value airmail issues. When it comes down to it, I am actually really very happy that "hinged" stamps have less value! It means I can buy more volume for quite a reduction in price. So, go forth and collect in whatever way you want!

Anyway, that's enough ranting from me. I will, however, end by posing a question. Take a look at the image below. Does it really matter if there is a tiny mark on the back of this stunning piece of art?

Until next time...