La Belle France

Version 2I had intended to get on with the south-central-east Africa postal history overview, but suddenly I have been distracted by … la belle France. I promise to get back straightaway to the Africa overview. Indeed, I have a delectable presentation on Zanzibar all ready to go. Might as well start with the “Z”s, right? 

The Syracuse Stamp Club is really to blame for this digression. It was there that I “won” at auction a tasty selection of old French stamps. (I won’t tell you how little I paid for them — their catalogue value surely was a few dollars at least.) On examining them later at home, I realized I had acquired many values that were missing from sets in my limited collection. I started out by picking one set of definitives, from the 1930s, featuring a female allegorical figure representing Peace. I combined the new stamps from the fullsizeoutput_357aauction with those already in my stock book. (see right and below) The result was a pleasing display of many values in myriad hues, all bearing the classic design of “la France feminine” — fullsizeoutput_357dPeace bearing an olive branch. Good luck with that in the 1930s … 

This fun little exercise gave me an idea. I noticed how all my early French stamps were bunched up in the front of my display in the stock book that mainly  featured the gorgeous engraved landscapes, paintings and other multi-color stamp designs that make France so seductive to collectors. Some mint French stamps I swear are good enough to eat. Take a bite! Like an exotic leaf, a delicate fruit, or a sweetly etched wafer …

But these early French stamps aren’t beautiful, are they? What is it about them? They are just small rectangles, all featuring the same some allegorical figure. They seem to go on and on. Bo-r-r-ing …  

Stop right there! That’s one of the pleasures of stamp collecting, after all — to assemble these related items in order, then display them in their various colors and ascending values, as a harmonious whole — that is, if you are lucky enough to have the set complete. These French stamps often came in long sets, which offer the advantage of a pleasing display, but also the challenge of trying for completeness. I’ve never tried that hard with the early French stamps, because it’s not really my main collecting interest.  

However, now I am seized with a passing desire to assemble these sets from various places in my collection, and display them to advantage. I have a little stock book that is currently empty, so I’ll use it. Accordingly, I fill its pages with a special display of these early “French feminine” sets — not particularly valuable, but nevertheless historic, and colorful, elegant, inspirational … 

I hope you enjoy looking at these sets, which I present toward the end of this essay. Let them soothe your eyes with their harmonious colors. Enjoy the orderly rows of stamps, all sharing the same design, marching across the page as they rise in numerical value. Consider how many of these stamps were used for letters mailed more than a century ago. Share the quiet pleasure of the stamp collector, taking in this colorful pageant. 

fullsizeoutput_357fThere is at least one other area I would like to explore sometime, involving French stamps. It’s about those wonderful landscape engravings that France has been issuing since the 1930s. The artists and engravers Version 2behind these small masterpieces of line, color and composition deserve attention, and no doubt there are stories to tell …  (For example, I believe in every one of these landscape designs you will find the name of the artist/engraver in teeny-tiny letters along one side. In this example, it’s M. Cottet. See it in the enlargement at right?)

I gathered much of my French collection while I lived in Germany in my teen years. In the summer, my parents took us on driving tours of France, including Paris and environs, but mostly elsewhere. They charted circuitous routes through cities and towns and into the countryside —  Joinville, Troyes, Avignon, Chateau-Neuf,  Arbois, Mont St. Michel, Cahors, les Eyzees…   Grenoble, Montpellier, Cognac, Vannes, Chartres, Reims … Cherbourg, Val de Saire, Angouleme, Libourne, La Rochelle …

One village and town was as pretty as the last, and I spent happy times sketching houses on winding streets, church spires and village angles and arbors of one sort or another. Now that I think of it, I may have been communing with the  stamp artists whose beautiful landscape engravings of these same villages were on stamps I was fullsizeoutput_3584buying at the local post office. Indeed, I remember visiting Notre Dame du Haut, the church designed by Le Corbusier in Ronchamp, and buying the stamp, with the splendid engraving of the church,  that had been issued months before. (right) 

Q. Can you spot the artist’s name in the design abovet? Hint: It’s J. Combet. 

NOTE: Believe it or not, there is much more detail available on all of this in the Fiske annals. One rich source is JMF’s travel notebooks, in the archive at the University of Iowa. Another is FMF’s diary, which continued into the 1960s, and which I am beginning to review for more details about these wonderful, meandering jaunts  through France in the summers of 1960, 1962 and 1965 …

fullsizeoutput_358eDIARY EXCERPT:   August 15, 1962   … Got to border at 2 p.m. without big incident. Looked for place to eat, but couldn’t get out of cities! Finally at 3:05 had picnic at Joinville. Are now in Troyes after big dinner. Bed 9:45. FRANCE IS WONDERFUL! …   August 16, 1962 … Stopped at Cheateau-Neuf for stuff for lunch. Got going at 12:15. Stopped near Clery for lunch (picnic). Was fun. Stopped at fullsizeoutput_3590Blois and saw chateau. Got to Tours at 4. Walked around and saw cathedral til 6. Then went to the Blairs’ house for supper. Was great fun, cause there were so many there. Bed 12. … 


We stayed at picturesque inns, shopped for bread and cheese, then had picnics in the countryside, stopping by a stream, a shady spot or just a field, avoiding the cow paddies to spread a checkered cloth on the ground. 


Could it really be that JMF (above) is actually checking for cow paddies while JRF looks on? fullsizeoutput_556

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JMF served lunch — maybe pickles, always vienna sausage, cheese, bread, meats or other extras, limonade (or wine?), cookies … there was lounging on the tall grass, wading in the stream, a languorous ball game, perhaps a little accordion or guitar…  

fullsizeoutput_3595All three times we visited France,  we made it to Ile d’Oleron, an island off the coast of Aquitaine that you could reach only by ferry in those days. Oleron was very French, but in a way Fellini would have enjoyed. We stayed for a week or more at a
, dining in a small central courtyard with a cast of characters out of a Tintin cartoon book. Every lunch and dinner included bottles of red and white local Clapotis wine in the middle of our table. My parents saved a copy of the Priere D’Oleron, which runs as follo

Mon Dieu!  /  Donnez-moi la santé pour longtemps …  /  De l’amour de temps en temps …  /  Du boulot pas trop souvent …  /  Mais du CLAPOTIS … tout le temps

fullsizeoutput_3596Oleron had it all — wild waves for body surfing at Vertbois (la cote sauvage), shopping in St. Denis, St. Pierre  and Domino, and the quaint harbor of La Cotiniere, with fishing boats, the waffle maker (moule a gauffre!) and music and clowning around and oh! The aromas of sea and sugar and fried dough! 

fullsizeoutput_35a1DIARY EXCERPTS:  

August 28, 1962 …then we hurried to Vertbois for an hour, then to la Cotiniere, where I painted a quick picture and ate a crepe, all in time to be back for supper. ….

August 22, 1960 … In the morning went down to the beach. It was at low tide. Then we saw the water zoom up over us. After lunch went swimming, and there were huge breakers. At night we all went to a circus!! What fun!!!   August 23, 1960 … After lunch had a bad headache and went to sleep. Then others went to the lighthouse while mother read to me. Then my headache went away and went to beach. Got cotton-candy, and made an indestructible fort. Came home and had ARTICHOKES for supper!!!  August 25, 1960 … In the morning went down to the beach and started an indestructible fort. Then came home and had lunch, and came back to the beach and finished my fort, then built protective wall and all that stuff. Then I watched the fort. Johnny made a pyramid that stayed, but mine was gone.  August 26, 1960 … In the morning went to the beach, played in the sand, and then made a dam. Came home for lunch, then went around the island, then we went to Vertbois. It was damn fun with all the breakers. Came home, had dinner, and went to beach in dark. On second trip stopped at the “cassino” and had a high old time with the games.  August 27, 1960 … In the morning went to the beach. I made a Cathedral, but somebody jumped on it. Went for swim, then helped Jonny with a dam (PARDON ME, LADIES). Had lunch, then went and played at the amusement house. On the way home got some cotton candy. Then went to Domino. At night went to amusement house. …

After Europe, I lived two years in francophone Congo, so I’m fairly well acclimated to the French language and outlook. As a teenaged philatelist visiting  Paris in the fullsizeoutput_3f121960s, I managed to discover  and revisit the open-air stalls along the Seine, les bouquinistes, who featured stamps along with books, posters, maps and other artworks and esoterica. The stamps were displayed on big boards under plastic sheeting gripped by clothespins in case of rain. The gypsies, brokers and sellers seemed ready to make a deal. There was a whiff in the air that anything could happen. Is that accordion music wafting through the elms? C’est magnifique! I don’t think  I could afford to buy much, but I still had lots of fun looking.

My parents had strong connections to France. JMF wrote her masters thesis on Sasha Guitry, and lived in France after college, where she taught at a girls school just before WWII.  When we returned to France in the 1960s, we had dinner with a M. Dupuy, who apparently had a crush on JMF back in the day. He went on to become a successful commercant of some kind — possibly a wine merchant — with a fine house and great family we had fun with on our visit. In the afternoon the teenage children took us to the piscine where we splashed about with cosmopolitan hilarity. Dinner was a grand affair, three hours long, with at least a half-dozen courses and accompanying wines, including one at the end our host said was 100 years old. I took a sip. Sweet. 

My father’s great-grandmother, Anne MacMaster Codman, died in France and is buried in Pere LaChaise cemetery, in Paris. (LaFayette sent a condolence letter.)  Pa first visited France in the 1930s, when he stayed with his cousin Ogden Codman, the decorator and builder and notorious queen, outside Paris.  My father wrote a book-length manuscript about French language and culture, which I’m sure would have been well-received, had it been published. Seems another fellow came along with a similar ms. a little ahead of Pa …   Anyway, let’s not get sidetracked by unpublished manuscripts …

What does any of this have to do with stamps? Let me get back to the subject of la belle France and its feminine symbol. Did this start with the women who marched on Versailles in 1789? Who was la Marsellaise? Who was Marianne? France always has depicted strong women on its stamps as aspirational emblems of the nation. As Goethe would say, das endlich Weibliche zieht uns hinan.  (Notice how I use a learned quotation to get out of having to look up any of the answers to those questions. If you want answers, look them up yourselves!)

Here, then, are the sets depicting la Marseillaise, la Semeuse (the sower), la Liberte … The illustrated sets that follow are ones that I assembled from three sources: My original, limited collection; then, stamps added from the Syracuse Stamp Club auction lot; and finally, additions from my father’s collection, which I seem to have inherited. (lucky me!)

NOTE: Please carry on through the gallery that follows. At the end, there is more to the story!


fullsizeoutput_35a4fullsizeoutput_35a5This set, which started in 1900, depicts various feminine allegories — for liberty, equality, fraternity the rights of man, more liberty, and peace. I have included a number of color varieties, which are noticeable. Note also the subtle bi-color designs on the higher-value, wider rectangles. A couple of them are a bit rare.  

fullsizeoutput_35a6La semeuse, the sower, is the female allegory in this early design. The set started coming out in 1903, with new values released up to 1938. This classic design coexisted with another long set — of roughly the same design — which you will find fullsizeoutput_35a7on the next page. Why the two sets with the same design? Je ne sais pas, monsieurs-dames! I only ask that you agree with me that this allegory is an altogether pleasing figure. It is modeled after a medallion designed by Oscar Roty for the Department of Agriculture in the 1880s. The image appeared on French coins until 2001. An old Stampex pamphlet provides this “La Boheme”-worthy footnote: “The maiden who posed for the original of ‘The Sower’ on this stamp died in abject poverty in later years — a story with a tear drop at the end.”

fullsizeoutput_35a8Tfullsizeoutput_35afhis set (left) is an exception to the rule of the feminine — a depiction of Mercury on a definitive series. This one came out in 1938. After the Nazis invaded and occupied France in 1940, the collaborationist Vichy regime put out new stamps with a subtle change in the name — from “Republique Francaise” to “Postes Francaises.” (see enlargement below)

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Suddenly Mercury
begins to look like Satan with a pitchfork, don’t  you think? 








fullsizeoutput_35b2This set, depicting Iris, the Greek goddess of the rainbow and messenger of the gods, was issued in 1939. My catalogue says the stamps were in circulation until 1944, which means they were used during the German occupation. Hmm.

fullsizeoutput_35b3These stamps, with the bust of a helmeted Marianne (or is it Joan of Arc?), were issued in London during World War II by direction of the Free French government. Apparently they were never used for postage. There seem to be wild fluctuations in value for these stamps — I suspect mine are at the low end, but some varieties are priced in the hundreds. 

fullsizeoutput_35b4Hfullsizeoutput_35b5ere is the familiar postwar definitive set (1945-7), once again depicting Marianne. This beauty has a wholly Gallic expression — confident, alert, focused, slightly pouty lips, prominent nose, wary eyes on the future. Notice, too, the low-value designs (enlarged below) that incorporate the Ceres profile from the first French stamp of 1849 — about which more, shortly.






Without dwelling on them, I offer more examples of La Belle France on stamps over recent decades (see above and below)



Efullsizeoutput_358bxcept now, qu’est que c’est? What is this? Is it really Marianne, the emblem of France? She looks like a cross between Bardot and Barbarella, a Victoria’s Secret model with tresses casually arranged and sculpted eyebrows under her chic Phrygian cap. Is she really going to lead the next revolution?






fullsizeoutput_358cI mentioned Ceres a little earlier — another feminine allegory, the goddess of Earth and fertility. I invite you now to  the very beginning of French stamps. The first one had a profile of Ceres, and came out in 1849, a very awkward moment in French history. The Second Republic was in the second year of its short existence, having ousted Louis Philippe, France’s last king, after the confusing revolution of 1848. (I majored in French and German intellectual history at Harvard, and I still can’t explain it to you.) By 1852, the Second Republic had morphed into the French Empire under Napoleon III, who would soldier on until 1870 and the birth of the Third Republic, which endured until 1940. 

Version 2Version 3This explains why the first French stamps, in 1849,  depicted Ceres, an allegory, rather than a king, and why the design changed to a profile of the “president” Louis Napoleon in 1852, and after that   “emperor” Napoleon III (the same guy). After 1870, there was no more empire, so the Ceres design was used  again. These stamps, seen at the bottom of the page below, are the so-called “Bordeaux issue,” named for the Republicans’ provisional capital as they laid siege to Paris and prepared to overthrow the tottering empire.  

My father’s French collection was in his Scott album, printed in 1928. The first and second pages featured mint and used stamps from early France — including one from the first pair in 1849! As a reference point,  Victor Hugo’s novel “Les Miserables,” was published in 1860. (By the way, the fullsizeoutput_3599“uprising” referenced in that novel was a pretty minor skirmish in 1832.) 1860 was one year before the U.S. Civil War, the same year Abraham Lincoln was elected to his first term.


fullsizeoutput_359bThis next design, launched in 1876 and lasting until the turn of the century, depicts two more allegories — in this case, one male, one female. On  the left in the design is Peace, and to the right of the value tablet is Commerce. Pictured above is the set in fullsizeoutput_359emy father’s collection, with enlargements to the right. Some of these stamps are quite valuable: The 5f mint stamp from the 1870s catalogues at $400!  Wife Chris agrees with the suggestion to sell it.





Above is the set I collected on my own, with recent additions from the Stamp Club auction. I was going to add the ones from my father, but decided to leave his precious stamps be for the time being.  I like the way they look in the Scott album, which itself is nearly 100 years old. I expect I could sell some of the more valuable stamps on eBay, though I don’t really need extra cash …Maybe I’ll just keep enjoying them a while longer.         TO BE CONTINUED

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