In this age of electronic communication, snail mail falls by the wayside—along with the sometimes outrageous, colorful, and iconic stamps that mark the letters as postage paid. Postage stamps embody history, geography, science, culture, and charity. From royal personages to pop icons, stamps celebrate people, places, myths, legends, arts, transportation, and the natural world. As William Butler Yeats said: “Designs in connection with postage stamps and coinage may be described, I think, as the silent ambassadors on national taste.”

Here are some quirky facts about stamps:

Britain was the first country to issue stamps (the “Black Penny,” dates from 1840).

The Kingdom of Bhutan created stamps that also function as phonographic records, playing their traditional music and national anthem.

Gibraltar includes particles of its famous rock in a powder on its Rock of Gibraltar stamp.

Morocco has produced stamps with grains of sand from the Sahara.

Portugal has made stamps from cork.

Singapore released the first beaded stamp in 2008.

stamps iris brooks jon davisSome stamps have a taste or aroma associated with them: the coffee-scented stamp of Brazil, sandalwood stamps from India, and pork-embedded stamps from China. There are also tasty, chocolate-flavored stamps from Switzerland, which can be enjoyably licked.

Australia–the first country to issue Christmas stamps in 1957–also created the controversial Christmas stamp with Santa Claus riding a surfboard in 1977.

Stamps were sewn or pinned onto envelopes before the lick-and-stick or self-adhesive varieties were created.

In 1964, Sierra Leone was the first country to produce self-adhesive stamps.

A stamp with a map of disputed wilderness territory between Bolivia and Paraguay provoked a war, which ended with the issuing of new, counter stamps.

Italy created the first airmail stamp in 1877; it is now called the “Buffalo.”

A global forever stamp was introduced in the United States in January 2013.

At one time stamp placement on letters and postcards sent throughout Europe was associated with a language or cupid’s code depending on the position of the stamp: top right, upside down meaning, “don’t write to me anymore,” or top right, across asking, “do you love me?”

Iris Brooks is a cultural explorer who has been fortunate to travel to, photograph, write about, and play music on all of the continents. Working with her partner Jon H Davis at Northern Lights Studio in Nyack, New York, they share a love of experiential travel by telling stories through articles, photos, and films, such as their documentary Languages Lost and Found: Speaking & Whistling the Mamma Tongue (distributed by Filmakers Library and Alexander St. Press). Learn more about Brooks and Davis at the NORTHERN LIGHTS STUDIO website.