In 1856, the Grand Duchy of Finland was very much an agrarian society. Only some 6% of the population lived in towns and cities which at that time was a very low figure when compared with Sweden or England.
It is estimated that only some 10% of the male adult population was able to read and write. Illiteracy among women was almost total (except of course for the higher echelons of society). Thus it is in no way surprising that this nation of 1.7 million people was served by just 40 post offices in 1856.
The busiest post offices were the ones in Helsinki, Åbo and Viborg. The huge fortress of Sveaborg also had a post office with most of its mail going to Russia as the fortress had a large contingent of Russian soldiers. This was only natural as Finland was a Russian Grand Duchy enjoying a high degree of autonomy in internal affairs.
For centuries Finland had been part of Sweden but following the 1809 war it became a Russian Grand Duchy. In the 19th century, nationalist sentiments were very strong in Finland and independence was finally achieved in 1917.
Rather surprisingly Finland was one of the very first countries to use prepaid postal stationeries. They were first issued in 1845. These are known as the Porto Stempel issue which of course is a Swedish term. The currency used was the Russian kopek. The stamp image depicted the Finnish coat of arms with the Finnish lion brandishing a sword.
In 1850 a new type of postal stationeries were introduced. The stamp image was now oval with the Finnish coat of arms in the middle above two crossed posthorns. The denominations of 5,10 and 20 kopeks appeared to tlie left in Swedish/Finnish and to the right in Russian.
In February 1856, the Russian Imperial authorities gave permission for Finland to issue its very first postage stamps. Perhaps they wanted to see how this would work out as adhesive postage stamps had not yet been introduced in Russia.
It was decided to use the 1850 postal stationery designs. These had been engraved by C.M. Mellgren. As they already existed on postal stationeries the postal authorities were very anxious to prevent that cut outs were used as postage. Thus a small pearl (Fig. 3a) was engraved at the opening of each posthorn as a secret mark. Information about this security measure was sent in a circular to all the postmasters. What they didn’t state in the circular was that there was an additional secret mark which was discovered by collectors years later.
The stamps were printed by hand and one at a time at the Finance Office of the Imperial Senate in Helsinki. First a row of nine to eleven stamps was printed on the small lever press. Then the sheet was turned and another row of stamps was printed. There were 20 stamps in each sheet and each sheet had nine or ten tstebgche pairs. It is reported that the stamps were at first delivered to post offices in small boxes containing 100 stamps each.
The stamps went on sale on March 3, 1856. The five-kopek (Fig.1 above) was printed in blue and the ten-kopek (Fig. 2 below) in red. In many ways these were experimental stamps as the postal authorities wanted to find out how they would be received by the public.
The stamps were imperforate and scissors and knives were used to cut out the stamps from the sheets. They were not gummed at first. The printing ink was prepared by the staff at the printing office of the Finance Office. The shades were not always the same and specialists distinguish between five different shades for the blue stamp and no less than eight different ones for the red stamp.
In 1858, the 5-kopek stamp was reissued with large pearls (Fig. 3b). I guess the idea was to make it easier for postal employees to check that it was a bona fide postage stamp and not a cut out from a postal stationery.
The Finnish oval stamps were in use from 1856 until 1860 when they were replaced by a new type of perforated stamps. A total of 135,500 5-kopek stamps and 442,439 10-kopek stamps were sold during this period. It is very hard to say how many stamps remain in collector hands today but specialists believe some 1000-2000 5-kopek stamps have survived. 2500-6000 copies of the 10-kopek stamp might still be around today. Needless to say these classic 1856-1858 issues are missing from most collections of Finnish stamps.
Above: figures 3a and 3b.
Tête-bêche pairs or larger units are extremely scarce as are covers. The stamps can either be found cancelled by a pen stroke or a town cancel. Sometimes stamps are found with a combination of both. Helsingfors, Wiborg and Åbo are the most common cancels. Stamps cancelled at any of the other post offices in Finland are a lot scarcer.
Collectors prefer these oval stamps with large margins. Narrow margined copies or copies where parts of the oval line are missing are considered defective. But I guess many collectors of more moderate means will have to be satisfied with inferior quality.
Collectors also tend to prefer square stamps although they might have been sold round by the post office.
A nice used 5-kopek stamp is likely to realize at least A$2000 at auction. The 10-kopek is of course a lot more common but will still fetch about A$800. A beautiful tête-bêche pair of the five-kopek stamp is known to have sold at auction for 127,000 euros.
Finland’s premier stamp issue has always been scarce. To meet collector demand there has been a number of reprints including some using the original printing die. To add to the confusion there have also been a number of forgeries. The only advice I can give is to buy these scarce stamps with a certificate from an expert on classic Finland.
The Finnish oval stamps of 1856 don’t look very impressive but in the eyes of a true philatelist they probably rank among the most beautiful items on earth. Anyway, the anniversary will be celebrated in style throughout the year in Finland.