The Thailand 2013 World Stamp Exhibition opened at Bangkok’s Siam Paragon this past Friday. In part, it marks the 130th anniversary of the Kingdom of Siam’s first official postage stamps. The 4th August 1883 release of those first five adhesives came some 43 years following the issuance of the world’s first prepaid stamps, Great Britain’s famed Penny Black.
However, there had been mail conveyance within the current boundaries of Thailand for even longer. In fact, the earliest recorded mail from Bangkok was a stampless letter sent by an American missionary to his father back in 1836.
The signing of the Bowring Treaty on 18 April 1855 opened Siam to foreign trade and diplomatic relations were established with Britain. The British Consulate in Bangkok opened on 11 June 1856 and the British Consular Post Office in Bangkok two years later. Missionaries, expatriate merchants and other foreign residents of Bangkok requested permission to include their letters in the diplomatic pouch that traveled back and forth to Singapore every 15 days. The Chief Constable at the Consulate, H. A. Gardner, was named as Postmaster in January 1869.
Initially, there was no date-stamped postmark for Bangkok. The stamps were cancelled in Singapore with either a spider-web octagon, chessboard hand stamp or the ship’s name cachet. The stamps of British India were used at first but when the first Straits Settlements stamps were issued in 1867 those were increasingly used. Hong Kong stamps were also used occasionally as late as 1885. Starting in September 1878, the British Consulate began applying a marking which consisted of the Royal Arms with BRITISH CONSULATE at the top and BANGKOK at the bottom. Both the U.S. Consulate (opened in May 1856, elevated to Legation status in October 1882) and the German Consulate (opened in April 1865) later applied their own security markings to outgoing mail.
Throughout the nineteenth century, a postal system also existed for the Siamese royal mail. In September 1875, the younger brother of King Chulalongkorn (1868-1910), Prince Borom Maha Si Suriyawongse (also transliterated as Bhanurangsri Sawangwongse), assisted by ten other princes, began publishing a daily newspaper for royalty and high officials called “Court”. He also printed adhesive stamps for the purposes of delivering this circular. He called these “stamp Tickets” and they had perforations so that they could be torn from the sheets individually. Known as the “Rising P” or “Bhanurangsi” stamps, these are extremely rare.
In 1881, the Siamese government decided that a local letter post should be established for the public in Bangkok. This was seen as the first step in organizing a nationwide postal service. The king detailed is reasoning in a speech made that year, as reported in the Siam Advertiser:
“This organization will meet with very many difficulties in Siam; the inhabitants of the country will have trouble in comprehending the usefulness and advantages of such a service and their doubts will not disappear until they have seen it in active operation. The Government, upon its side, will derive no benefit from it, because the number of correspondents is very limited in this country. If we establish it at present, it is, then, because we desire to see it keep pace with the service of the telegraph lines and because we think that it will be profitable to our commerce.
“….We have hopes that the success which this work will meet with, will contribute greatly to hasten the moment when our Kingdom can be admitted to the grand consideration of civilized nations. Siam can not, nor does she wish to be, much longer ranked among the barbarian nations.”
To this end, the king appointed Prince Sri Suriyawongse as his Minister of Posts and Telegraphs.
Before the new local post could be established, the Honorary British Postmaster H. A. Gardner issued a complaint and it was realized that a system was needed by which letters could be mailed from Bangkok to foreign destinations while retaining some revenue for the postage. With the concurrence of the Siamese government, a branch of the Singapore Post Office was opened at the British Consulate in 1882. A stock of obsolete Straits Settlements stamps were on hand — the 32 cents overprint on 2 annas yellow dating from 1867. These were given an additional overprint, a large letter B for Bangkok, and appeared in the British Post Office on 1 September 1882. In all, twenty-two Straits Settlements B overprinted-stamps were issued and remained in use until Siam established her own foreign mail service on 1 July 1885 (coinciding with the country’s admittance into the Universal Postal Union). The stamps are listed in some of the major stamp catalogs but the collector needs to be wary when purchasing these as many counterfeits exist.
During this period, Bangkok’s 30mm diameter circular date stamp was also introduced to postmark the stamps on the outgoing mail. Those letters, cards and newspapers bound for Europe were still sent to enter the postal system at Singapore while mail destined for China, Japan or the United States were forwarded through Hong Kong.
Prior to the release of Siam’s own “official” stamps, another set was issued within the palace for the use of the royal family. These pictured King Chulalongkorn, Queen Sukumala and many other members of the Royal Family. One stamp was required for delivery within the city walls and two stamps were required for delivery outside the city limits. Not many of these stamps exist today, and those that do are very expensive.
In preparation for the Bangkok local post, the Ministry of Posts and Telegraphs established its first post office near the mouth of Khlong Ong-Ang, a canal by the Chao Phraya River in Charoen Krung Road. This was convenient to the port as inbound mails from steamboats were kept at the post office for people to come and pick up.
At the time Bangkok’s river and many canals functioned as roads and streets to such an extent that it was nicknamed “the Asiatic Venice”. The local post employed numerous styles of boats, both with oars and sails, to carry the mail. On land, royal letters were carried via sedan chairs by two to four men on foot and the elephant was used to convey letters to more distant destinations within the kingdom.
A few early but unused design essays were lithographed and engraved by Waterlow & Sons Ltd. Once the final design was decided the London-based printers made die proofs and printed trials in colors different to what was eventually released.
Finally a notification was issued, announcing the establishment of the Bangkok local postal service:
“I. –From Saturday the first day of the waxing moon of the 9th month of the year Goat, fifth of the decade, of the year 1245 of the civil era, corresponding to the 4th August 1883 of the Christian era, letters can be transmitted by post within the following limits, viz. : —
“Samsen on the North ;
“Bangkolem on the South ;
“Talad Plu on the West ;
“and Sä Pratum on the East.
“II. –There will be three deliveries daily, at 9 a.m., 11 a.m., and at 4 p.m.
“III. –All letters must be enclosed in a stamped envelope, with the name and address of the addressee written on the same side.
“Letters to be transmitted by post must be deposited in one of the letter-boxes, which have been placed for that purpose at several localities throughout the town, whence they will be collected, at stated intervals, by the postmen, who will convey them to the General Post Office for ultimate delivery to their destination.
. . .
“V. –For the transmission by post every article must have affixed thereto a stamp.
“These stamps may be purchased at the General Post Office on the mouth of the Ong Ang Canal, or at any other place where there is a letter-box.”
At the time of the first stamps’ release, the Siamese monetary system was divided into multiples of four. The standard unit was known as the tical, a word that was also used as a measurement of weight. The term tical was the name which foreigners used for the local word Baht. The word baht actually referred to a weight in relation to a weight of silver, since the monetary system was based on the weight of silver coins. The tical (or baht) was a silver coin weighing 15 grams, hence giving it a rough similarity in value to the Indian rupee. The currency broke down to 1 tical = 4 salungs = 8 fuangs = 16 seeks = 32 seos = 64 atts = 128 solots = about 2 English shillings. Thus, 32 solots = 16 atts = 8 seos = 4 seeks = 2 fuang = 1 salung; 4 salungs = 1 tical. In 1909, satungs were introduced, 100 of which equalled 1 tical. The baht finally replaced the tical as the inscribed deonomination on stamps in 1912.
The first-class postage rate was 2 atts for letters weighing less than one tical (equivalent to a half-ounce); those weighing between one and two ticals cost 3 atts. An additional att was charged for each 1 tical of weight after that.
The first stamps for this new service were designed by William Ridgeway of English and printed on unwatermarked paper in sheets of 80 by Waterlow & Sons Ltd. of London. Five hundred thousand of each value were printed and all are fairly common today (and relatively affordable to most collectors). The engraved design each featured the same profile portrait of King Chulalongkorn but in a different color. There are known color shade variations of all the denominations.
The three lowest values — the 1 solot, the 1 att, and the 1 seo — are uniform in size, 20×25 1/2mm. The king’s profile is in an oval bordered by a colorless line mounted on an ornate rectangular frame. In each of four small circles at the corners is the number 1 in Thai script while the inscription in a small oval between the two upper circles indicates the denomination. The colors are blue for the 1 solot, carmine for the 1 att, and vermilion for the 1 seo stamp.
The 1 seek stamp, yellow, is smaller than the other values at 18x22mm. This time, the portrait is in an oval bordered by two white lines, divided by a colored line. At the bottom conforming to the lower curve of the oval is a white scroll with the Siamese inscription of the value.
The highest value of the series is the 1 salung, orange brown in color. It measures 22 1/2x27mm. The portrait is displayed on a medallion arched at the top and square below, standing out from the frame from which it is separated by a thin colorless line. Above the medallion is an ornate tablet bearing the value in Thai script.
The gauge of the perforation is subject to slight variations due to the shrinkage of the paper, but the general measure is 14 1/2. They are numbered 1 through 5 in the majority of the catalogues used by collectors and are sometimes nicknamed the “Solot” issue. There are three types of the 1 solot blue listed in the Scott catalogue, differing mainly in the background of the oval at the top.
As I mentioned, all five of these stamps are reasonably-valued and one can purchase the complete set, either unused or used for less than US$130 in very fine condition.
The design was also used for Siam’s first prepaid postal card, released at the same time as the stamps. One postal card was sold for 1 1/2 atts.
Interestingly enough, a sixth stamp was designed and scheduled to be released with the others. This was the 1 fuang red and 500,000 were printed. However, it was received from the printer later than the others and was never officially released. The current value is around US$1100. If you can find one.
Much more affordable is the single 5-baht stamp picturing the 1 solot blue, issued today to mark the 130th anniversary of Thai postal service. I plan to buy a few sheets myself when the local Philatelic Museum receives their supply later this month.