Australia’s 13 most interesting stamps – sorted

Postage stamps are underrated pop culture artefacts, and Australia has had some doozies – including a surfing Santa and a redback that failed to make it onto envelopes

Stamp collecting is quietly enjoying a moment. Lockdowns inspired lapsed collectors to dust off their albums. Gen Xers, inheriting boomer collections, have sometimes resisted their natural instincts to sell them on eBay. For a younger crowd, stamps really pop on Instagram; there are philatelic influencers, bloggers, YouTubers, even TikTokers now.

Postage stamps are underrated as pop culture artefacts. They might be issued by governments, but they must appeal to the people. They’re temporary and disposable, yet they capture forever the looks and the priorities of their time; they broadcast a nation’s self-image.

So I’m here to bring you the greatest Australian stamps ever. They’re not all agreed classics. Some popular themes are entirely absent, and I’m only listing post-federation stamps. (I’ll tell you all about some colonial-era gems when you invite me to your party.) These are simply our objectively greatest stamps according to my 100% correct and infallible opinion.

13. 1913 Kangaroo and Map

Kangaroo map stamp
Australia’s first postage stamp: a kangaroo the size of the country. Photograph: Australia Post/Punk Philatelist

Let’s start at the very beginning. Our first postage stamp was stunningly modern in its day, and widely mocked. Maps were almost unheard of on stamps; the hero kangaroo was “a grotesque and ridiculous symbol,” cried the Argus. Most scandalously, WHERE WAS THE MONARCH? Of course, he was 10,000 miles away, unlike this kangaroo. Defiantly Australian in a time of king and empire, this humble stamp represents nothing less than the first shot in the revolution.

But wait – what’s this? Some evidence suggests that the continent’s white colour may have been deliberately chosen in line with government policy. Yes, it’s literally a White Australia. Sorry, republican kangaroo, but somewhat appropriately, I can’t let you in because of your background. You’re off the list! This is not a great start.

Most collectors of “’Roos” don’t know its dirty secret, which has been brushed under the carpet and buried in the archives of Hansard. How bloody Australian is that?

12. 1914 King George V Sideface

King George V stamps

The list REALLY starts here, when King George V finally gets his mug on our stamps. Politics aside, the design beautifully exemplifies ye olde art of engraving, with intricate linework bringing depth and shading. Issued in rich colours and many values, KGVs are prettiest in a gang, as pictured here. They evoke Warhol’s screenprinted Marilyn, only beardier. Treasure hunters fetishise the mind-boggling number of tiny variations in KGVs or ’Roos. If they find the right detail, they could retire tomorrow, which would be a more exciting prospect if most of them hadn’t already retired 20 years ago.

This is the last royal appearance on the list, because Australian stamps are patently a ridiculous platform upon which to honour European aristocrats.

11. 1938 Koala

1938 Koala.

Koalas are glory-seeking little publicity hogs whose diva-like demands for the spotlight see them regularly appear on our stamps. But none have ever topped Mr Koala 1938. Look at his teddy-bear cuddliness and his suspiciously heavy smile. Plus, it’s a green stamp, which everybody knows is the best colour.

10. 1950 Gwoya Tjungurrayi, or ‘One Pound Jimmy’

1950 One Pound Jimmy.

The “noble savage” subtext to this stamp is not great – but there’s a subversive twist. Until the 1997 Australian Legends stamp series, the only identifiable living people who could be on our stamps were royals. Yet this stamp from 1950 indisputably depicts Walpiri-Anmatyerre man Gwoya Tjungurrayi, a survivor of the 1928 Coniston massacre. Known during his life as One Pound Jimmy, you may recognise him these days as The Bloke From The Two-Dollar Coin. We can arguably therefore celebrate Tjungurrayi as the first-ever identifiable living Australian to appear on a postage stamp. Suck on that, 1997 Australian legend Don Bradman! In a nice postscript, a 1988 stamp featured art by Tim Leura Tjapaltjarri, one of Tjungurrayi’s sons.

These days, Australia Post chucks any living person on a stamp if there’s a buck in it.

9. 2021 Nature’s Mimics: Leafy Seadragon

2021 Nature’s Mimics - Leafy Seadragon stamp

This stamp comes from a stunning wildlife-camouflage issue that’s so recent, you could buy it today and chuck it on your mail. Because you can, you know? You’re totally allowed to demand stamps, and cover that parcel with vibrant images to delight others. Or, fine, accept the dreary barcode label. Post office staff can hate the inconvenience of getting out the stamps for your mail, but just think of it as your revenge for being carded by the postie when you’re at home.

8. 1996 Precious Gems: Diamond

1996 Precious Gems - Diamond stamp.

Some stamps come with gimmicks: scents, weird shapes, bits that look 3D. The diamond on this stamp is an optical variable device – call it a “hologram”, everyone else does. It works magnificently (trust me), reflecting and refracting every colour of the rainbow. It cost no more than its face value, and it looked fantastic on an envelope. The surrounding design is a bit 90s-meh, but you don’t care, because you’re wiggling the diamond in the sun and going “Whooaaah!”

7. 1971 Centenary of the Sydney Stock Exchange

1971 Sydney Stock Exchange Centenary stamp

Set off by its shiny silver border, this eye-catching little number showcases the colourful conceptual designs that newer printing techniques allowed. They’re lucky that the centenary of the Sydney Stock Exchange didn’t occur a few years later, or the lines would be plummeting.

Incidentally, decimal stamps are generally plentiful and can often be bought at less than face value, and that’s why your old collection stashed in your mum’s garage is not “probably worth a fortune now”.

6. 1985 Marine Life: Pineapple Fish

1985 Marine Life - Pineapple Fish stamp


5. 2017 Street Art: Rutledge Lane

2017 Street Art - Rutledge Lane stamp

Australia Post can surprise stamp-collecting culture vultures with bold thematic choices. In 2017, street art joined the pantheon of artistic styles honoured on these tiny canvases. Forever Curious by Rone and Phibs is probably the only Australian artwork chosen to appear on a stamp that was painted over by the time the stamp came out. A beautiful image, and a great subject for a stamp issue. Kudos, Aussie Post! Now please find and deliver the parcel that was mailed to me from across town two years ago.

4. 1977 Christmas: Surfing Santa

1977 Christmas - Surfing Santa stamp

In 1976, Australia’s first non-religious Christmas stamp was sensibly cautious: tree, bauble, diva koala. But a year later, the joyous Surfing Santa copped a huge backlash from folks who thought this was disrespectful. Can’t they see that he has gone to the trouble of holding some holly while maintaining his shaka? Hugely fun and irreverently Australian, this stamp received its own tribute stamp in 2007. No one complained.

3. 2006 Dangerous Australians: Redback Spider

2006 Dangerous Australians - Red-back Spider stamp

The theme was Dangerous Australians, and Bessie here was in the frame with octopuses, snakes and other murderers. But this design was pulled after someone realised that a stamp-sized redback was also a lifesize redback, and people opening their letterboxes might have heart attacks. Nonetheless, this unperforated version was released in a limited-edition sheetlet to milk revenue from stamp collectors (which is basically 90% of a stamp’s job these days).

2. 2020 Navigating History

2020 Navigating History stamp

The 1970 bicentenary of James Cook’s arrival was predictably marked by white men raising flags and “discovering” things. Well, the 250th anniversary brought us this miniature sheet, comprising five extra-long stamps. Co-designed by Aboriginal Australian Jenna Lee and first-generation Australian Niqui Branchu, it replaces “discovery” with “encounter”. Each stamp’s theme – Botany, for example – is told from within the narratives of both Aboriginal culture and the Endeavour voyage. Each stamp’s value is split between its two halves, giving the stories equal worth. And I love the non-traditional colours. It was a mature and intelligent treatment of a sensitive topic; they knocked the brief out of the park. These stamps should have been handed out over the counter to start conversations, but sadly, the issue was kept very low-key. It was hard to find in post offices, and marketed mainly to collectors as a novelty. Word on the street is that it was considered potentially too confronting for the flag-planting Cook fans. (Yeah, you heard right, I deal on the street. Stamps, that is. You chasin’?)

1. 2012 Living Australian: Lunch on the Harbour

2012 Living Australian - Lunch on the Harbour stamp

Here it is: the greatest Australian stamp ever. The Living Australian series featured photos submitted by the public. A brave choice by Australia Post, Damian Madden’s Lunch on the Harbour represents an evisceration of a nation built on theft, where greed, graft and manipulation by the powerful ultimately wear down ordinary people just trying to feed their families.

Nah, it’s probably just a photo of a seagull. But stamps serve as ambassadors to the world, and given that our earliest messages involved probable racism and a faraway king, it’s reassuring that we now broadcast such images of approachability and self-confidence. “This is Australia,” says this stamp. “Go on, give us a chip.” Bludging at the beach: what could be more Australian than that?

  • Gerard McCulloch is a TV writer for the Weekly and Hard Quiz. He’s also a stamp collector who blogs at the Punk Philatelist

Gerard McCulloch

The GuardianTramp

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