History of Science on Stamps

While looking box of material I stumbled back across some microfilm I had ordered from the Biblioteka Jagiellońska in Kraków (If you have any interest in early modern science, this is a great library, which, I am happy to see, has started a digital library). What caught my eye were the stamps on the packages, three of which were artistic depictions of zodiacal signs.

Sagittarius riding a motorcycle on the 2 złoty Polish postage stamp.

Sagittarius riding a motorcycle on the 2 złoty Polish postage stamp.

Each sign seems to be on a different denomination. Capricorn adorns the 5 złoty stamp, Sagittarius the 2 złoty:

Capricorn the bureaucrat sits at a desk on the 5 złoty Polish postage stamp.

Capricorn the bureaucrat sits at a desk on the 5 złoty Polish postage stamp.

Cancer is relegated to the 30 groszy:

A pipe-smoking crab represents Cancer on the 30 groszy Polish postage stamp.

A pipe-smoking crab represents Cancer on the 30 groszy Polish postage stamp.

It would be interesting to know how they chose to assign which zodiacal sign to particular denominations. The full set of stamps are here.

Stamps have often been a mechanism for celebrating a country’s scientific and technological achievements. For a nice exhibition, see “Sci-Philately. A Selective History of Science on Stamps.” Recently, a graphic designer from London put together a set of stamps highlighting British Inventions. We might wonder how he chose these particular inventions.

Petros Afshar’s stamps highlight British inventions.

Petros Afshar’s stamps highlight British inventions.

Stamps, like currency, commemorate and emphasize a country’s achievements. It is no surprise, then, to see Copernicus on a number of Polish stamps or Brahe on Danish stamps or Galileo on Italian stamps.

The signs of the zodiac don’t seem particularly scientific these days. While they have been used to mark calendrical periods and divide the ecliptic, it has been some time since those were the dominate cultural associations between the signs and systems of knowledge. I suspect most people today associate Aries, Taurus, Gemini, Cancer, etc. first and foremost with astrology. And while astrology was once an important science, it no longer enjoys that same status and is often dismissed even as a worthy subject of historical study (see Thony’s summary of a typical debate or my previous thoughts). So why are signs of the zodiac on these recent Polish stamps? What message do those stamps convey? Whose interests do they advance and how?

2 responses to History of Science on Stamps

  1. 10 links for January 2013 — News from Somewhere

    [...] 1890-1914. How To Make a Victorian Villain (or the Tale of Isaac Baker Brown) Part 1 and part 2. History of Science on Stamps. History Meets Biology at the AHA and Highlights from the 2013 Annual Meeting of the American [...]

  2. Astrological Sugar Packets | Darin Hayton

    [...] This is astrology in its most banal form, though I suppose I shouldn’t expect profundity on a sugar packet. I think I can, however, expect visually pleasing. Regrettably, these don’t seem as nice as the Polish stamps. [...]

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