National Stamp Collecting Month: The Dove of Basel

Switzerland - Michel #2407 (2015)
Switzerland – Michel #2407 (2015)

I have quite a few extremely valuable stamps in my collection. However, these all appear on other stamps released quite a few years after the originals had become classics. Stamps on stamps is definitely my favorite topical along with those showing something of our hobby (such as yesterday’s stamp album). The Basel Dove is a relatively recent addition to my collection, via it’s portrayal (complete with magnified detail) on a Swiss stamp released in 2015 to commemorate the 125th anniversary of the Federation of Swiss Philatelic Societies. The original 2½-rappen stamp was the only postage stamp issued by the Swiss canton of Basel and became the world’s first tricolor stamp upon its release on July 1, 1845.

The Swiss cantonal system originated with three confederate allies which were referred to as the Waldstätte as early as 1289. This became the Acht Orte (“Eight Cantons”) between 1353 and 1481) and Dreizehn Orte (“Thirteen Cantons”) during 1513–1798. Each canton, formerly also Ort (from before 1450), or Stand (“estate”, from circa 1550), was a fully sovereign state with its own border controls, army, and currency from at least the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648

The old system was abandoned following the French invasion of Switzerland in 1798. By March 19, 1798, the Helvetic Republic had come into being; although it was not until September 1798 that the entire country was conquered. According to Napoleon, the country was :liberated” to form itself into a new State, which assumed the title of Republique Helvetique Une et Indivisible. The Republic was administratively reorganized into twenty-two (22) Cantons. Later, that number was reduced to nineteen (19) due to mergers and to some changes at the frontiers. With the Napoleonic period of the Helvetic Republic the term Kanton was also fully established in German-speaking regions. The cantons of the had merely the status of an administrative subdivision with no sovereignty.

Cantons of the Swiss Confederacy
Cantons of the Swiss Confederacy

In September 1798, all postal mail was ordered to be “a natural and necessary property of the state” or, in modern parlance, nationalization was ordered. Thus, the cantonal and private mail services were taken over. The country was then divided into five postal districts as follows: Berne, where Fischer Posts were entrusted with the administration of the mails; Basel; Zurich; St. Gallen; and Schaffhausen, where the administration was left in the hands of three mail farmers because of their close association with the Thurn and Taxis mails.

The first decree of the Helvetic Republic relating to postal matters was one of suppressing the old and colorful cantonal uniforms worn by the letter carriers, and, as a symbol of national service, a new uniform was issued in the Republican colors of green, red and yellow.

There had been organize mail delivery in Berne since 1675 when Beat Fischer von Reichenbach was granted permission to operate a private postal service. The building next to the Berne Minster Gothic Chapel was used as a post office from 1675 to 1883. The service was named for him Fischerpost and operated until 1832. Beat Fischer von Reichenbach was knighted by Leopold I, Holy Roman Emperor for establishing postal services between Germany and Spain.

In June 1799, the Seat of Government was transferred to Berne. A thorough reorganization took place at that time, and the postmark changed read Central Post Adminst. (for Central Post Administration).  This was in addition to Berne’s small 20 x 24 mm. mark reading Helvt. Republ. at the top and Central Post Bureau at the bottom, in the center an E (for Eingegangen, received) and a V (for Versandt, sent out). In the Lucerne marking, there was a line below the wording, and in the one used in Berne a small posthorn appeared. The posthorn is synonymous in parts of Europe with the mail, and images of the instrument are still often used as a symbol of the post office. postmen would often improvise or play well-known melodies on the horn to entertain those along their delivery. This even resulted in some reprimands from their superiors to stop playing “vulgar” opera arias that the post office thought undignified. The postal clerks were told to put a hand written manuscript date after the E indicating the date the letter was received; yet there are examples of covers (envelopes) where the dates had not been filled in as ordered.

Genuine copy of the Basel Dove 1st printing. [NIMC, image source: Stamp[
Genuine copy of the Basel Dove 1st printing. [NIMC, image source: Stamp[

Today, Switzerland is officially known by the Latin name Confoederatio Helvetica for historical reasons. Confoederatio means “confederation” and Helvetica is a reference to the Helvetians, a Celtic tribe that lived in Switzerland when the Romans invaded. The English equivalent of the Latin name is “Swiss Confederation.” Hence, Swiss stamps are inscribed with the word HELVETICA, rather than Schweiz, Suisse, Svizzera, or Svizra. With four official languages — German, French, Italian, and Romansch, the Swiss would have had to put all four languages on each stamp, quite a problem to overcome with such limited space..

The Helvetic Republic collapsed within five years, and cantonal sovereignty was restored with the Act of Mediation of 1803. The status of Switzerland as a federation of states was restored, at the time including 19 cantons. Three additional western cantons, Valais, Neuchâtel and Geneva, acceded in 1815. From 1833, there were 25 cantons, increasing to 26 after the secession of the canton of Jura from Bern in 1979.

The first stamps used in Switzerland were those issued by the cantons of Zürich, Geneva, and Basel for their own use. These early Swiss stamps have another distinction. They were also the world’s 3rd (1843), 4th (1843), and 5th (1845) adhesive postage stamp-issuing entities. The cantonal postage stamp issues are tremendously rare today. The first federal issues were released several years later, on April 7, 1850.

Monochrome image of the Zürich 4 and 6 [NIMC, source: Wikipedia]
Monochrome image of the Zürich 4 and 6 [NIMC, image source: Wikipedia]

On March 1, 1843, Zürich issued their first stamps: Zurich 4 and Zurich 6, the second type of stamp in the world after the Great Britain’s Penny Black and Two Penny Blue of May 1840. The issue consisted of two imperforate stamps printed separately, each in five types, in sheets of 100, one with a large numeral 4 and the other with a 6, both inscribed ZÜRICH at the top. The 4-rappen stamp was also inscribed LOCAL-TAXE at the bottom, since it was intended to pay for letters mailed within a city, while the 6-rappen, inscribed CANTONAL-TAXE, was for use with letters going anywhere in the canton. The design was lithographed in black by Orell, Fuessli, and Company, with a pattern of fine red lines underneath, to discourage counterfeiting. Initially the red lines were vertical, but starting in 1846 they were printed horizontally. These stamps were popular from the start, but were not printed in large numbers and are quite scarce today, with values ranging from US $1,500 to $20,000 depending on type. With the exception of one 6-rappen block of 9 (3×3) later split into a block of 6 (3×2) and a strip of three, all sheets were cut horizontally, so that no vertical pairs or larger are known to exist today.

Canton Zurich also issued a stamp in 1850, known to collectors as the Winterthur issue, depicting the Swiss federal cross and a posthorn, which served as a transitional issue until the stamps of the Swiss federal government made their appearance later that same year.

The “Double Geneva” was designed to be usable for both local and cantonal rates. [NIMC, image source: Wikipedia]

Geneva issued its first stamps on September 30, 1843, the “Double Geneva”, which was the world’s first postage stamp printed in the color green. Like the first Zürich issue, it consisted of pairs of stamps, each printed in black on yellow-green paper, depicting the city’s arms, and inscribed Poste de Genève at the top and Port local at the bottom. An additional inscription, reading 10. PORT CANTONAL Cent. ran across the top of each pair. The idea was that the user could cut out a single stamp to pay the intra-commune rate, and a pair to make up the inter-commune rate. Only 6,000 of the doubles were ever printed, and as of 2008, intact used doubles typically go for around US $60,000 at auction. Very rarely, horizontally inverted pairs, and even more rarely, vertical pairs, can be found and are greatly sought after by collectors with values reaching sometimes US $150,000 to US $200,000 at auction.

In 1845, Geneva switched to conventional single 5-centime stamps. In 1849, it printed a 4-centime stamp featuring the federal cross in black and red, and similar 5-centime designs in 1850 and 1851.

In 1843, Basel’s Postmaster General Johannes Bernoulli proposed to the State Council that the six letter boxes should be increased to sixteen. At the same time, he suggested that the canton should follow the examples of Zürich and Geneva by issuing its own stamp. Although the Council gave approval to Bernoulli’s proposal in January 1844, the stamp wasn’t issued for another year and a half.

At the time, the monetary unit for the canton was the batzen. A batzen was equal to 10 rappen. 2½ rappen was worth 3½ centimes of the recently adopted new currency (the Basel rappen should not be confused with the Zürich rappen, which was based on the Heller and Schilling). A local rate of 2½ rappen was introduced for letters weighing up to 1 lot (15½ grams) and carried within the city of Basel, while a cantonal rate of 5 rappen applied to mail posted outside the city limits.

Letterbox in Basel designed by Melchior Berri.

A prominent architect named Melchior Berri designed the stamp for Basel. Berri influenced much of Swiss architecture in the 19th century and designed decorative letterboxes for Basel, including some with the same dove as is on the stamp. Six of which are still in use, notably the one located at the Spalentor (Spalen Gate).

The engraving and printing were done by the firm of Benjamin Krebs, at Frankfurt am Main, Germany, on thick yellowish-white wove paper. The design features the coat of arms of Basel Canton which consists of a crosier (bishop’s processional cross). below which is a red background embossed with a white dove in flight, carrying a letter in its beak. The stamp is inscribed STADT POST BASEL, the denomination 2 ½ Rp. (rappen) appears in the lower corners. The motifs are on a calming pale blue background. A first printing in light green instead of the chosen blue was first believed to be a proof, but now acknowledged as first trial printing.

The Basel Intelligence Sheet of June 30 1845, announced that stamps for the prepayment of postage would be on sale the next day at the post office with the price for each at 2½ rappen. Letters addressed within the town would require one stamp; those addressed to other localities in the canton required two stamps, always for items weighing less than 15½ grams (1 loth). The stamps were sold to the public in sheets of 40 (five rows of eight stamps each) or half sheets of 20.  Not only was this the first tricolor stamp but also the first to combine engraving and embossing and the first stamp to depict a bird.

Unused pair of the Basel Dove, 1843. Held in the collection of the British Library.
Unused pair of the Basel Dove, 1843. Held in the collection of the British Library.
Basel Dove unused block of four from 2001 auction by E Luder-Edelmann & Co. in Rojalis.
Basel Dove unused block of four from 2001 auction by E Luder-Edelmann & Co. in Rojalis.

The printer in Frankfurt did fine work on this stamp. Despite having to go through the press four times, it is rare to find examples with even one color off-register. Other than minor flaws in the background red color, the only significant variety is the double embossing of the dove, which is extremely rare and must have affected very few stamps. There were two printings, the first of 20,880 stamps and the second of 20,600 stamps, for a total of 41,480.

As with the other Cantonal stamps, the Basel Dove failed to catch the imagination of the public and was withdrawn from use in December 1848. After the reconstitution of Switzerland as a federal state in 1848, the authority to operate a postal service passed from the cantons to the Confederation, and the federal postal service was founded in June 1849. The cantons of Zürich and Geneva continued to print their own stamps for a short period (the Transitional Issues) until the first Federal stamps appeared in May 1850. Basel, however, did not follow suit. Remainders were used up during the period December 1848 to April 1850, and there are examples of use late into 1850. The Basel Dove can also be found on covers in combination with the light-blue Rayon I, issued in March 1851.

Cover posted in 1847 bearing a single copy of the Basel Dove. From the Schwarzenbach Auction, 2015
Folded letter posted in 1847 bearing a single copy of the Basel Dove. Sold in an auction held by Schwarzenbach Auktion Zurich from October 16-17, 2015. The minimum bid as listed by Schwarzenbach was 20,000 Swiss francs, which converted to a little less than $20,500 in U.S. dollars about three weeks before the scheduled start of the auction.

Its local mail and rayon stamps were the first definitive stamps valid in all of Switzerland. All used the same basic design, a Swiss cross surmounted by a posthorn, but there were a number of variations. The local-rate stamps had a value of 2½ rappen, with some inscribed ORTS-POST (German) and POSTE LOCALE (French). This was the first of many multi-language issues. For longer-distance mail, the 5-rappen stamp was inscribed RAYON and the 10-rappen, RAYON II. Initially the stamps were issued with a black frame separating the white cross from the red background, but as a technically incorrect rendition of the Swiss arms, these were withdrawn.

The stamps issued by the postal authorities of the cantons of Geneva, Basel-Stadt and Zürich remained concurrently valid until September 30, 1854, when all stamps were supplanted by the “Sitting Helvetia” series of Federal stamps.

The Basel Dove was quite extensively forged in the latter part of the nineteenth century. To see some of these forgeries, take a look at Stamp Forgeries of the World. Today, a genuine Basel Dove has an estimated value of US $18,000.

Switzerland - Michel #2047 (2015) with attached label
Switzerland – Michel #2047 (2015) with attached label

Issued on September 3, 2015, Michel #2407 marked the 125th anniversary of the Federation of Swiss Philatelic Societies (Fédération des Sociétés Philatéliques Suisses in French, FSPhS). The abbreviations for the German (Verband Schwizericher Philatelisten-Vereine, VSPhV) and Italian (Federazione delle Società Filateliche Svizzere, FSFS) versions of the organization’s name also appear on the stamp, below an image of the Basel Dove whose upper right portion is viewed enlarged through a magnifying glass. The 100-centimes stamp was designed by Kaspar Eigensatz of Berne and printed using offset lithography by Cantor Security Printing in sheets of 12, perforated 13¼ x 13½.

Since 1890, the Federation of Swiss Philatelic Societies has been the umbrella organization for philatelic companies active in Switzerland, promoting philately and supporting collectors in the pursuit of their hobby. The first philatelic society in Switzerland was formed in 1841. In 1890, the president of the Berne Philatelic Society, O Gruber, had the idea to form a federation of the nine societies that existed at that time. A letter to these other organizations was sent in September of that year, inviting them to a meeting of delegates in Berne on October 26, 1890.

The first international philatelic exhibition in Switzerland was held in the Great Hall of the Stock Exchange building of Zürich in 1893. Three years later, another international philatelic exhibition was held during the Geneva national exhibition.

The 125th anniversary of the Federation of Swiss Philatelic Societies was celebrated September 11, 2015, in Lucerne. The president and a member of each philatelic society were invited to participate in this celebration, the official part of which was held at the Transport Museum Planetarium. Then all the guests boarded the MS Waldstätten to enjoy a cruise on Lake Lucerne.

Flag of Switzerland
Flag of Switzerland
 A cantonal coat of arms combining the coats of arms of the two half cantons of Basel, was in use from 1833 to 1999 when the
Coat of arms of Basel (1833-1999)

One thought on “National Stamp Collecting Month: The Dove of Basel

  1. I to have quite a few extremely valuable stamps in my collection. But can only find very little about the 10 centimes tublibrief. If you are at all interested in the stamp or providing info please contact me.


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