July 1859 – pre-Confederation 5 cent Canadian beaver stamp
Cat #15 Scott’s & Unitrade Specialized Canadian and SG #31 (listed under Colony of Canada)
American Bank Note Company - New York – wove papers
Perforations: 11.75, 12 x 11.75, 11.75 x 12, 12
Designed by Sir Sandford Fleming
This has to be one of my all-time favourite Canadian stamps. It’s the one I coveted the most when I began collecting. I’d look at it, through the case in the local hobby store and wonder what it would be like to own it. I grew up with stories of the fur trade in Canada, the Coureurs des bois and the Hudson’s Bay Company, so the history that tiny piece of coloured paper represented was deeply ingrained. I often think it’s a slightly wonky, stoned beaver with Godzilla proportions on that small waterfall but still … it was THE STAMP, as far as my young collector self was concerned.
The #15 beaver stamp re-used the original Sir Sanford design from the first stamp issued, pre-Confederation (pre independence) 23 April 1851 for the Province of Canada. Sir Sanford Fleming (yes, he of railroad and Standard Time fame) designed the original 3 pence beaver, in collaboration with Canada’s first post master general, the Honourable James Morris. The stamp is notable because it was the first official stamp issued, anywhere, with an animal on it. Stamps normally depicted coat of arms, royalty, presidents, not tree gnawing rodents.
The Right Honourable Rodent, known by his formal name Castor canadensis or North American beaver, played a crucial part in the development of Canada and is one of the country’s national symbols. How important? This important:
That angry, noble looking fellow can be found over the Centre Block entrance on Parliament Hill.
Ok, the last one not so much. It’s a sugary, delicious snack made of deep fried dough and lots of .. well .. sugar. If you come to Canada, try you have to try a Beaver Tail, it's the law... trust me
Deep fried snacks aside ... the demand for beaver pelts and cod drove the economic engine of early Canada. Beaver hats were all the fashion in Europe for 250 yrs. Canada was a rich source of the must have fur, pushing exploration and later settlements across the continent. One of the great fur trading companies still exists (although as a department store, rather than trading post) – the HBC, or Hudson’s Bay Company, founded May 2, 1670. At one point, it was the single largest land over in the world – owning rights to about 15% of Canadian territory.
The history of the fur trade and the role beavers played in it, is sewn into the fabric of Canada’s identity. So much so, that in March 24, 1975, the beaver was finally given official recognition as an emblem of Canada, although most of us grew up believing it already was.
In 1851, Sir Sanford picked the beaver for the first stamp of the Province of Canada because of it’s importance. It’s also meshed nicely with the symbolism of a young country busily building itself. It’s believed the engraver was Alfred Jones (1819-1900) (see photo to the right) of the American Bank Note company. He was a renowned engraver and later president of ABN.
The engraving was used on 4 stamps over the next 8-9 years. Using the Scott’s numbering they are:
#1 issued April 23, 1851, imperforate (250,200 printed by Rawdon, Wright, Hatch & Edson)
#4 issued April 17, 1852, imperforate (2,850,300 printed by Rawdon, Wright, Hatch & Edson)
#12 issued January 1859 with 11.75 perfs (449,900 printed by Rawdon, Wright, Hatch & Edson)
And finally July 1859, #15 with a variety of perfs 11.75, 12 x 11.75, 11.75 x 12, 12 (39,792,172 printed by American Bank Note Company)
Quick note: Rawdon, Wright, Hatch & Edson merged with 8 other printing firms in 1858 to form the American Bank Note Company.
Today’s article focuses on the 4th printing. The 1859-1864 series (stamps 14 through to 20) were the first cent issues printed in Canada. In 1857, the Currency Act changed provincial money to the decimal system, hence the change from pence to penny. The new stamps reflected the change.
This stamp is eminently affordable for the novice collector, but still offers interesting challenges to experts. There are many variations in shades, paper types, re-entries and errors. Here are the better known ones:
Colours – vermillion, brick red, deep red and orange red
Paper – very thick, very thin, ribbed
Re-entry – so many, it’s hard to list them. 2 types of major re-entries are well known. According to Unitrade, plate 100 was reused (touched up and re-entered) 10 times which resulted in 11 separate identifiable plate entries, which calculates to a possible 1100 different re-entries to collect.
Errors - as with re-entries, there are many errors to collect:
- Rock in the waterfall
- Log in waterfall
- Leaping fish in the waterfall
- Split beaver
- Low moon
- Comet over the sun
- High moon
- Broken antenna
- Trembling pines
To further complicate things, an imperforate sheet was issued (100 stamps), with no gum (#15a). These are the unicorns of the Canadian stamp world. Very rare and tons of fakes. An authenticated #15a could potentially fetch up to $17,000 if it came up at auction. However, only 2 blocks and two pairs are known to exist. It’s pretty easy to fake a single copy so avoid any offerings unless you get it authenticated.
High price variations aside, this is an early pre-Confederation stamp you could spend years researching while on a budget. A mint, Fine with original gum will cost around $600. Be careful who you buy it from. Regummed stamps are not unusual. If you simply want to own one (or more) you can get them for as little as $3 or $4 for used or $40 mint space filler. They have defects but are attractive and fun to collect. If you are a cancel hound, you will have a wealth of choice for very little investment. To me, used issues present far more of a challenge and much more fun. I’ve bought a handful over the years, picked because of the interesting cancels, like these ones:
My favourite is the one on the far right with the bullseye cancel:
Now here’s the funny thing about this stamp. #15 was printed 31 times producing 39,100,000 stamps. Ponder that for a moment. When Canada became independent in 1867, the entire population of the new found country was just shy of 3.5 million people. Right now, the population of the country is hovering around 35 million. More stamps were issued than the entire population of Canada now.
That means a rich field to pick from, regardless your budget. If you decide to expand your collection into the #15, you might want to invest in a few catalogues or see if your local library has any of these:
Unitrade Specialized Canadian Catalogue – an older copy will do. The prices don’t change much to make it imperative to have the latest catalogue. It has a decent selection of the variations.
Stanley Gibbons Commonwealth & Empire Stamps – excellent catalogue and breaks Canada down nicely for the pre-Confederation stamps. Just look under Colony of Canada for this issue. It’s #31.
Specialized Edition Canadian Philatelic E.F.O.’s - for sheer number of variations listed, this is the go to book. It has excellent full colour blow ups of the errors and variations, helping with identification. However, the catalogue is seriously irritating if you think linearly. You’ll have to hopscotch all around the book because each type of variation has it’s own section. Re-entries are on one part, then you’ll have to flip over to colour variations and again flip around to find plate errors and so on. I’d prefer to see the book lay out the errors stamp by stamp so there’s far less page skipping to be done. Another irritant is the numbering system. They use neither the Scott's nor Stanley Gibbons numbering.
As always, there are many resources online if you want to chase up information. Start with Collections Canada’s archived site on the .05c Beaver Stamp
The Bank of Canada has a pdf on the history of Canada’s switch from pence to pennies titled Currency Reform. It's well written, entertaining and free so don't let the dry as dust name put you off.
A short bio of engraver Alfred Jones can be found courtesy of Collections Canada
And of course Sir Sanford Fleming could fill a book but the Canadian Encyclopedia is a good starting point
The Canadian Encyclopedia has brief history of the fur trade in Canada
Canada’s First People has a super page on both the fur trade and the role the First Nations people played in it
Photo of beaver over Centre Block by By D. Gordon E. Robertson - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=15734547
Portrait of Alfred Jones, engraved by Robert Savage. Courtesy of Gene Hessler
FINAL NOTE: I’m a bit gobsmacked at how many photos of ferets, muskrats, pack rats, otters and prairie dogs on the internet are labeled “Beaver”. Here’s a tip – beavers don’t have fluffy tails. Nor do they float around the water on their backs or amble about in deserts nibbling seeds. In case you are momentarily confused, this is a beaver: