On 7/10/22, the FT headlines read “US says ‘nothing off table’ in response to Opec+ oil cuts”. The recent invasion of Ukraine by Russia has sent oil prices soaring, dragged the global economy to the brink of a recession and brought the spotlight back on the commodity termed as Black Gold. But this article is not an analysis of the current global affairs. Rather it is about history, development, and a unique means of documenting significant milestones. While several books have been written on the history of the oil industry, it is interesting to examine the evolution of this sector through the medium of postage stamps.
Yes, this article is about philately and more specifically about petro-philately. While philately refers to the collection of postage stamps, petro-philately is a niche subset of this activity, which is practised avidly by a bunch of enthusiasts who gather stamps related to the oil and gas industry. The 20th century has been dominated by the oil economy and is largely looked upon as the age of oil. A review of petro-stamps offers a fascinating insight into its progress and growth. As noted in the 1962 article in Aramco World, “Without stirring from their armchairs, philatelists learn much about the history, romance and high adventure of the oil industry, for stamps often commemorate oil's uses and international value as a world energy resource. Theirs is "wildcatting" in a relaxing way.”
Some of the earliest stamps related to the modern petroleum industry were issued by Azerbaijan circa 1920. In 1959, the US issued a stamp commemorating the drilling of the first commercial oil well, Drake Well, in Titusville, Pennsylvania back in 1859. The early stamps show derricks used in the upstream activity. Later stamps show pump jacks as well as offshore oil platforms. As the downstream industry for producing fuels such as petrol and diesel expanded, countries started issuing stamps depicting refineries as well. For example, in 1962, a stamp was printed in India for the inauguration of the Guwahati refinery in Assam. The midstream part of the value chain includes pipelines, terminals and tankers have also been widely featured on the stamps.
Steve Fraser, Vice President of the Petroleum Philatelic Society International (PPSI), has been collecting petro-stamps for the past 30 years and informs us that he particularly enjoys collecting oil and gas stamps because they relate to an industry with which he is familiar. “With 370 stamps being listed in our (PPSI) catalogue”, he says, “Romania has issued the greatest number of oil-related stamps of any country by far.” He adds that many of these are only included because an oil drilling derrick is part of the Romanian coat of arms.
Some of the petro-stamps have been issued by countries that no longer exist, such as United Arab Republic, East Pakistan, USSR, and Czechoslovakia. East Pakistan issued a stamp in 1969 to mark the first refinery in Chittagong. From time to time, stamps are issued to recognize the contributions of individuals. For instance, a stamp printed in Portugal circa 1965 bears the image of Calouste Gulbenkian, an Armenian oil businessman and philanthropist. Gulbenkian had been instrumental in bringing together Western interests to form the Turkish Petroleum Company and in the process, earned himself the sobriquet of Mr Five Percent.
There are even Opec-related stamps, which as Steve points out, have been issued to mark anniversaries, summits and extraordinary conferences.
While the recent Russian invasion of Ukraine has caused the oil price to jump, historically there have been quite a few oil price spikes, for instance, during the Arab Oil Embargo in 1973 and during the Islamic Revolution of 1979. The Arab oil Embargo was in response to the US support of Israel during the Yom Kippur War. These conflicts are also depicted on postage stamps. Ukraine has issued stamps that display its defiance against Russia and a number of countries have published stamps in support of Ukraine (these Ukraine-Russian conflict-related stamps are yet to enter the author’s personal collection).
Samir Wadekar, the interior stylist and decorator, has been collecting stamps for the past 20 years. While he is not a thematic collector, he has around a dozen related to oil and gas. “When it came to petro-stamps”, he says, “I was attracted to its intricacy and detail. A tiny postage stamp which was often smaller than a square inch would feature a large oil refinery or have the most interesting illustration.”In recent times, a growing concern around carbon emissions from fossil fuels has resulted in various stakeholders embracing renewable and sustainable sources of energy to mitigate climate change. These alternative sources have been featured on stamps as well. As a consequence, the oil industry is witnessing an energy transition. It is quite likely that in some distant future these small pieces of paper will turn into precious reminders of the once glorious years of the petroleum industry. After all, stamps not only help deliver mail but also serve as record keepers of history. And as the title of the book by Cheryl Ganz reminds us - “Every Stamp tells a Story”.