Behold, the terrifying creature Castor canadensis: A very brief look at the Canadian beaver in design.

Behold, the terrifying creature Castor canadensis: A very brief look at the Canadian beaver in design.

While flipping through a catalogue for a show at the Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library  (UofT) and I spotted what has to be the single most amusing depiction of a beaver ever created: Lahontan, Louis Armand de Lom d'Arce, baron de. New voyages to North-America: containing an account of the several nations [...]. Vol. 1. London: H. Bomwicke et al., 1703. FC71 L313 1703. P. 106. Copper engraving

Fearsome, isn’t it?  Baron Louis Armand e Lom d’Arce Lahontan’s beaver looks like it crawled out of a myth – head of a man, body of a dog, legs of a rodent and a pinecone tail. Mean looking too. His works were printed in the early 1700s under the title New voyages to North-America. The second engraving from the Lahontan book doesn’t fair much better. The poor beaver/monster hybrid simply looks exhausted in this engraving:

Lahontan, Louis Armand de Lom d'Arce, baron de. Nouveaux voyages de Monsieur le baron de Lahontan dans l'Amérique septentrionale [...]. Vol. 1. La Haye: Isaac Delorme, 1707. FC71 L3 1707. P. 190.
Impressive snarl on that beast, not to mention the awe-inspiring eyebrows. I can’t decide whether the beaver/monster is wearing earrings or if the artist couldn’t decide what type of ears such a creature would have. The lack of webbing on the hind feet convinces me a friend was correct, the artist never saw a real beaver. Or, he was playing to a naïve European audience who would lap up the dangers of hunting the exotic and dangerous animals of North America.

However, those engravings have nothing on an 1685 illustration that reminds me of a game we used to play where you had to draw what someone was describing: 1865 engraving of a beaver from Castorologia or the History and Traditions of the Canadian Beaver by Horace T. Martin (1892)

The eyes are a bit haunting and suggests something out of a bestiary of magical creatures.

One of my favourite designs comes courtesy of Sir Sanford Fleming. Canada’s Post Master General asked Sir Sanford to design Canada’s first stamp, and instead of the default Queen Victoria portrait, he created what is arguably one of Canada’s iconic stamps:

Scan of Canadian 3 pence beaver stamp designed by Sir Sanford Fleming

Compared to the mighty beaver in the Lahontan engravings, Fleming’s 1851 depiction is down right benign, but it does look like a beaver. The optics of the little water fall at the beaver’s feet make the creature look the size of a bear when you look at the tiny stamp. Regardless, this is my favourite stamp. I own 7 copies of the later issues and look at them often.  It’s easily the most identifiable stamp in the Canadian catalogue. (read more about the stamp design  –

And speaking of mythology, a wonderfully quirky book, called Castorologia or the History and Traditions of the Canadian Beaver by Horace T. Martin (1892) offers a glimpse into many early engravings and the use of beavers in Canadian imagery, including this flight of fantasy:

Plate from Castorologia or the History and Traditions of the Canadian Beaver by Horace T. Martin (1892) pg 11
Believe it or not, that beast, bottom right, is a beaver – Canada, home of unicorns and snarling, vicious, pinecone tailed beaver.

Living in Canada, it’s all but impossible to avoid seeing images of beavers. It’s deeply ingrained in our historical psyche and found scattered everywhere in Canadian art, architecture, tea cups, stamps, plates, signage and pretty much anything you can imagine:
Photo from Nathan Phillips Square showing beaver silhouettes
For the record, I have no idea why there were beaver silhouettes posted down at Nathan Phillips Square (downtown Toronto).  But this dashing fellow, found on the Centre Block Parliament Hill makes far more sense. Think of him as a Canadian gargoyle.

Beaver sculpture Centre Block Parliament Hill

Hands down, the single best use of a beaver is in this early proposal for a Dominion of Canada seal sometime in the 1880s:

Proposed shield from Castorologia or the History and Traditions of the Canadian Beaver by Horace T. Martin (1892) pg 201

I adore this engraving. So much so, I’m thinking of putting it on a t-shirt. You can find it in the Castorologia book, pg 201. The “rampant” beavers look like they are picking a fight with their “you looking at me” scowl. How awe inspiring is that image! Beavers with attitude.

And speaking of rampant beavers, here’s another example of beavers in Canadian iconography – the Coat of Arms for the city of Toronto: Toronto city Coat of Arms

This little offering is relatively new,  created in 1998 when Toronto amalgamated. When I first saw it, I thought it was an early incarnation of Toronto’s CofA.  I’ve never seen it anywhere, except on a few random web pages. I remember the old Coat of Arms rather well, but didn’t realise it had been changed until recently. The beaver is larger and far more intimidating than the poor bear on the right. I think in a cage fight, the beaver would win. The over all image is a bit lacklustre and static, lacking the flair and attitude of the beavers in the previous shield.

Not sure if I can take a “rampant beaver” seriously ever again after seeing this make the rounds on social media:
Amusing Canadian emblem with a screaming beaver riding a Canada goose
The artist, Jessica Bortuski captured modern Canada’s wry humour about it’s international image perfectly. Far less serious and earnest than the fierce beavers of earlier days. (Find more of her work here

I’ll close out with one last (and less tongue in cheek) look at beavers as Canadian icons:

Image of reverse side of Canadian nickel
George Kruger Gray (25 December 1880 – 2 May 1943) 1937 engraving of a beaver on a rock.  Nudge a  Canadian and chances are you’ll find a few jingling around in their pockets.


You can download a pdf of Castorologia or the History and Traditions of the Canadian Beaver by Horace T. Martin at



Canadian philately – the amazing 1859 5c beaver stamp

Canadian philately – the amazing 1859 5c beaver stamp

July 1859 – pre-Confederation Canadian 5c beaver stamp

Canadian philately - 5 c beaver beaver stamp, 1859

5 cent 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, the 5c beaver stamp. 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.

Sir Sanford Fleming

Sir Sanford Fleming Archives Canada/C-14128

Sir Sanford Fleming

The #15 beaver stamp re-used the original Sir Sandford design from the first stamp issued, pre-Confederation (pre independence) 23 April 1851 for the Province of Canada. Sir Sandford 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:

Beaver sculpture Centre Block on Canadian Parliament

Looking out over Ottawa & protecting Parliament

That angry, noble looking fellow can be found over the Centre Block entrance on Parliament Hill.

And here:

Canadian nickel - reverse side

The iconic 5c nickel

And finally:

Photo of a Beaver Tail snacks

Beaver tails!

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

Of beaver hats and fur trading posts

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.

Photo of Alfred Jones - engraver, pres American Bank Note Co

Alfred Jones, engraver

In 1851, Sir Sandford 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.

1859 – 1864 series

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:

5c beavers - used 1859

Lovely row of 5c beaver stamps

Bullseye cancel

My favourite is the one on the far right with the bullseye cancel:

Canadian beaver stamp 5c w/ 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.

Where to find information on the 5c beaver stamp

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.

The Five Cent Beaver Stamp of Canada by Geoffrey Whitworth ISBN-10: 0900631120 and ISBN-13: 978-0900631122. ) – speaking of unicorns.  Very hard to come by now. It was published by London : Royal Philatelic Society, 1985, sold for 7 pounds 50 and is incredibly difficult to find. I’m still looking for my own copy. It’s extensive and the definitive study for any collector. If you see it, grab it. You can post a bragging comment below and I’ll be suitably jealous. It’s a slim book, 90 pages but chocked full of invaluable details.

Read more:

  • 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 article is no longer available. Collections Canada has moved the page and I haven’t been able to locate it.
  • 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 The article is no longer available. Collections Canada has moved the page and I haven’t been able to locate it.
  • 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,
  • 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:

North American Beaver