the “discredited” 1913 kangaroo stamp

It’s the centenary year of the production of Australia’s first national stamp.  Before 1913, the states had their own stamps and postal systems. It turns out that there’s quite a story to this little stamp with a kangaroo on a map of Australia.  The mixing bowl for this story has the following ingredients.

  • a stamp design competition held in 1911
  • a up and coming politician with a strong ego and point of view
  • robust opinions from newspaper contributors
  • an election in 1913 that changed the government
  • another politician with a point of view
iStock_000011053015XSmall

iStockphoto image

From the blog of Australian Geographic –

… in October, Charles Frazer became the new Postmaster-General. He took an interest in stamps and was shown the winning entries. Later, describing it to Parliament as “execrable”, he swiftly rejected Altmann’s design, and appointed the Victorian Artist’s Association to find an artist to create a new stamp. They commissioned a local watercolour artist, Blamire Young, who began working on the design while Frazer publicly hinted to the press: “If a picturesque stamp can be provided in which an outline of Australia is featured, I am certainly favourably inclined towards it.”

After Young submitted several designs to the Post Office, Frazer took a liking to the ones with kangaroos, finding them to be an apt representation of the Commonwealth, and wrote a note: “1. Get coastline of Aust. 2. Insert Baldy’s Roo (Edwin Arnold, one of those tied for second place in the competition). 3. Produce in colours for different denominats.”

After some more minor changes, the final design was ready by early 1912, though not without some mishaps, including one print that accidentally omitted Tasmania. Frazer, proud of the finished product, announced the design on 2 April, well before the stamp went on sale on 2 January, 1913.

From The Argus of 4 April 1912.

It is to be hoped that Federal Ministers expressed their feelings in a dignified  and tactful way on Tuesday when their colleague, the Postmaster-General, presented each of them with a copy of the new Commonweath postage stamp, a reproduction of which appears in our columns to-day. The public was given to understand, beforehand, that Mr Frazer’s design was “simple, yet expressive;” it is to be feared that that phrase may adequately describe the language which all Australians who have any artistic sense will use when they first catch sight of the design. Designs, it appears, were submitted by artists from all over the world, and a prize of £100 was awarded to that one which a committee of independent judges considered the best. Mr Frazer, however, whose modesty is evidently unlikely to mar his career, believed that he could himself, if he tried, beat the prize-winner; so he sat down to evolve “something which he thought would suit the simple tastes of  Australians.” Australian tastes must be simple indeed if they are satisfied with the result of Mr Frazer’s efforts. The     competing designs have not, of course, been made public; but it may be said with assurance that the prize-winners earned their money very easily if their designs were not more effective than Mr Frazer’s white map of Australia, with the piebald kangaroo endeavouring to look placid though evidently suffering from a severe attack of dyspepsia. Or perhaps the animal’s attitude is not due to dyspepsia, but to the necessity of keeping his ears out of Cambridge Gulf while his tail points to the Federal capital. Perhaps, again, the poor creature is merely conscious that he is marching to his Sedan. There is doubtless some obscure symbolism in the rabbit which has raised its head half out of the mouth of its burrow, in the background, although a magnifying glass is required to reveal the fact this this rabbit has one eye on the kangaroo. It may possibly stand for an intelligent minority keeping watch on a large and foolish majority, but the symbolism is not clear. What is clear is that the whole thing has a grotesquely foolish look, and that not a hint of beauty or dignity is discoverable in it.

It will be said, no doubt, that the ugliness of a postage stamp is a matter of no moment. Mr Frazer evidently does not take that view, since he has given time and thought to the question, and expended some of the public money on the effort to have a good stamp. And he is so far right; there is really a good deal of significance in the heraldry of the post-office. Our postage stamps go all over the world; they become, in course of time, a sort of national symbols; and it is therefore very annoying to find that our country is to be represented in the eyes of the world by a grotesque and ridiculous symbol, and that she will be a laughing-stock even to childish stamp-collectors of every nation. Mr Frazer has no good reason for departing from Imperial usage in this matter. Australia should do as the rest of the Dominions do; we should all alike have the King’s head printed on our stamps, because it is the most obvious and unmistakable symbol of the constitutional bond between the various members of our far-scattered empire. But even if Mr Frazer entertains republican sentiments, and thinks it his duty to express them by means of the national stamp, he might surely have found some heraldic device more noble and dignified than       that absurd kangaroo and that humorous rabbit.  It will be very unpleasant to reflect every time we post a letter that we are sending out to the world a pink or blue or yellow embodiment of the artistic incapacity of our country.

The Brisbane Courier commented – 3 September 1912

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Charles Edward Frazer - ADB

The story of the stamp continues in this excerpt from The Australian Dictionary of Biography from which the image of Frazer is also sourced.

After Labor narrowly lost the election in June 1913, the new government replaced the design of the penny stamp Labor had introduced, although it lasted for most other values for many years; Frazer had originated the design which featured a kangaroo ‘rampant upon a purely White Australia’.

The new government and Postmaster-General took no time at all to replace the kangaroo stamp.  Unsurprisingly there were comments on this design.  This not to subtle critique comes from The Worker, Brisbane – 10 July 1913

The ‘Courier ‘ published the design of the stamp it is proposed by the Anti-National Fusion Government to substitute for the kangaroo stamp. Without intending any disrespect to the Sovereign, the design is an atrocity, a confused jumble of unrelated and discordant drawings with the King’s head in the centre. The present kangaroo design may not be the final word in stamps, but its emblematic nature, clearness and simplicity show into pleasing contrast with the overloaded and freakish abnormality which the troglodyte Cook Government is about to inflict on us.

The Argus of 29 July 1913 reported thus.  Note that the new Postmaster-General could also not resist the urge to tinker.

NEW POSTAGE STAMP : APPROVED COMMONWEALTH DESIGN

Final action was taken yesterday by the Postmaster-General (Mr Wynne) in connection with the adoption of the designs for the new Commonwealth stamps, which are to take the place of the discredited kangaroo issue. Some weeks ago Mr Wynne announced that he had decided to avail himself of the first prize design, submitted by Mr Herman Altman of St Kilda, but a close examination of the drawing convinced him that it contained too many features to permit of effective reproduction. Accordingly, the designed was asked to alter his sketch so as to simplify the features.

This has been done by eliminating the coats of arms of the six States and substituting sprigs of wattle blossom in their stead. A much improved picture of His Majesty the King has also been introduced. The penny stamp will contain no national emblems apart from the wattle blooms, but the twopenny design is to be distinguished by representations of a kangaroo and an emu on either side.  A crown will also surmount the stamp of higher denomination. The Postmaster-General stated yesterday that he would expedite the issue of the new stamp as much as possible, but he had been informed that it might be necessary to send to England or America to have the permanent dies prepared. It he found it was impossible to secure the plates in the Commonwealth he would endeavour to carry on the production of the new stamps temporarily by some other expedient, pending the arrival of the engravings from overseas.

In accordance with the decision of the Berne conference the penny stamp will be coloured red and the twopenny denomination will be blue.

Postscript:  Charles Frazer died in November 1913.  He was 33 years old.

George V Australia stamps



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