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Wednesday, October 28, 2015

When Denmark had Palm Trees: Stamps of the Danish West Indies

These days, St. Thomas and the US Virgin Islands are a popular holiday destination. Every year, millions of people visit these tropical islands in the Caribbean, seeking sun and fun.

Cruz Bay
What many people are not aware of is that this tropical paradise used to be a Danish colony, originally annexed in 1672 and eventually issuing its own postage stamps with images of the (at the time) current Danish monarchs. It has been almost 100 years since Denmark sold the islands to the US in 1917, for the sum of US $25 million, but quite a few "very Danish" things can still be found there, as reminders of the islands' history.

As a kid growing up in Denmark, we briefly touched on the "Danish West Indies" in history classes, but I don't remember much of what we learned.

However, my interest was somewhat increased as a result of collecting stamps because there were pages for this strange tropical place in my first Danish stamp album. Those pages remained largely empty for many years since I-- as a child-- really had no significant access to stamps from places that no longer had postal service.

That said, I developed my fascination in an unexpected place. From time time, I would go with my parents to visit my Aunt Ulla in the city of Copenhagen (we lived in a suburb outside of town)-- she lived in a house that had been my grandparents' and had been in the family since 1903.

As a young stamp collector, what fascinated me was all the boxes and bags of old letters and family correspondence stuffed into cabinets and drawers in less used rooms of the house. My aunt was always quite happy for me to help her "sort things" and always willing to let me keep a few stamps as a reward for my efforts.

1912 Danish West Indies Christmas Seal
To my youthful eyes, what made these explorations feel like a "treasure hunt" was the sheer age of all these envelopes and post cards-- most of them dating to about 1905 to 1940. And they came from many interesting places around the world-- in "the old days," my family was evidently very well traveled.

Along the way, I came across a great aunt and uncle's letters home from a trip around the world. Among other things, they had seen the (then) under construction Panama Canal, and they had spent Christmas in 1912 in the Danish West Indies. The stamp on the letter was actually less interesting to me than the colorful Christmas seal with the map... which sent me off to look up the islands in my Aunt's big atlas.

Looking out at our frozen Danish winters, the idea of spending Christmas on the beach with palm trees was something far outside the realm of reality!

However, that particular visit to my Aunt's house did secure me my first stamp from the Danish West Indies.

The Danish West Indies had its own (Danish) postal service and stamps from 1856 till the islands were formally conveyed to the United States on March 31st, 1917.

Going purely "by the main numbers" a total of about 60 stamps were issued during that time. However, because of the era and relatively "primitive" printing methods of the time, a wealth of varieties exist, and DWI (as many stamp collectors call the nation) has become a very popular area with specialist stamp collectors.

The islands even had their own version of the popular Danish "Bicolours" stamp issue, which offers a sub-specialty of its own. Many of the early stamps issued were basically variations of commonly used stamps in Denmark, except denominated in "cents" rather than "øre."

A DWI "Bicolour" stamp used at St. Thomas
Part of what makes the Danish West Indies a very popular collecting area even in 2015-- in spite of being what philately calls a "dead country"-- is the fact that not a lot of stamps were issued, and yet the appeal is fairly extensive. How so?

Aside from being a collecting area in its own right, stamps of the Danish West Indies are often included if a collector is trying to build a comprehensive collection of Danish stamps. If you are working with the Danish AFA stamp catalogues, DWI is considered a subsection of Denmark. As such, there are spaces for DWI stamps in many Danish stamp albums.

At the same time, since the Danish West Indies became the US Virgin Islands-- a dependency of the US-- DWI stamps are also included for those building a comprehensive collection of USA stamps. If you pick up a copy of the US-published Scott Specialized catalogue, you'll find pages listing and valuing DWI stamps. And there are a LOT of stamp collectors in the US, which means a lot of people are looking their albums.

Last-- but certainly not least-- we must also consider the specialists, previously mentioned. Specifically, those who collect the Bicoloured stamps of Denmark often add the DWI versions to their collections because... technically speaking... it's all part of the same stamp series. In fact, the frames of the Danish West Indies Bicolour stamps were printed with the same plates used for the Danish stamps-- only the central ovals are different.

One of the first stamps issued by the Islands
Although I was always interested in the place itself, I never became much of a collector of Danish West Indies stamps. Earlier in my stamp collecting "career" they were generally too expensive for my pocketbook... Later on, I had already specialized in other areas of Scandinavian philately and didn't really feel like picking up yet another area to collect.

This article was inspired by the recent discovery of a group of old Christmas Seals-- "Julemærker"-- from the Danish West Indies, tucked in a glassine envelope in a box of random stamps. Included was the colorful 1912 issue with the map that sent me off to research this strange part of "Denmark with Palm Trees," when I was just a boy. Seeing it again brought back some old memories of a time when life seemed a lot simpler, and more innocent.

I still don't have much of a collection of Danish West Indies stamps, but at least not all the album pages are empty, anymore. However, I do find myself wishing that I still had some of those old family members I would sit in the living room and look through, while "the adults" were having their drinks and conversations in other parts of the house. Unfortunately most of those have been lost to time and numerous moves by other family members.

Thanks for reading and sharing in my little trip down "memory lane!"

If you are interested in the stamps of the Danish West Indies, a limited number are usually available:

Saturday, October 17, 2015

Debut of new "Stamps for Sale" page

As this blog and web site approaches its 10th Anniversary, I have been doing a bit of "house cleaning" around here, checking to make sure that everything posted (links and so on) is actually working.

I do this periodically, because (to me!) there are few things sadder than finding what seems like a really nice web site... only to discover that it feels like "nobody has been home" for several years.

I have never made a secret of the fact that I occasionally sell stamps. I don't do so "for profit," and I don't consider myself a "stamp dealer." Rather, I am a very active collector who trades duplicates online-- and I think that in the "Age of the Internet" I am not alone.

Anyway, as part of yesterday's site update, I decided to add a new feature here... which is a "Stamps for Sale" page. You can get to it either by clicking the link, or by clicking on the "Stamps for Sale!" tab immediately below the site name and description.

I don't actually sell stamps here on this blog site, but the new page has links to-- and descriptions of-- what you might find at each of the sites where I do offer my duplicate stamps to fellow collectors. As of this writing, the links connect you directly to almost 3000 items for sale-- almost all of them "extras" from my own Scandinavian collections.

I hope you'll go take a look!

As part of my "housecleaning" efforts, I also updated and added a number of links to forums and web sites for stamp collectors, trying to remain true to the idea that this is a site primarily about Scandinavian philately.

As always, I appreciate your visits here!