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Monday, January 11, 2010

Phila-Trivia: Hyperinflation and Stamps

It may irritating to discover that the prices of many goods at the supermarket have doubled over the last few years, but it doesn't compare to the desperation experienced during periods of hyperinflation, when currency could be rendered virtually worthless in a matter of days or weeks.

The most famous incident of hyperinflation during the stamp-issuing era was in Germany in the early 1920s. A memorable image of this period is a photograph of a man pushing a wheelbarrow full of paper money through the streets to buy a loaf of bread. Regular German postal stamps issued just prior to 1922 ranged from a couple of pfennig to no more than 20 mark. In 1922, values went up a bit, with one series ranging from 100 to 500 mark, but it was 1923 when things really started to go south (or rather north). The pfennig gave way to the mark, which soon gave way to the tausend mark. The inability to keep up with inflation by printing new, higher denominated stamp series required that older issues be hastily surcharged with denominations in the thousands to millions.

German 1923 10 milliarden (10 billion) Mark stamp

German postal hyperinflation reached a crescendo with two stamps (Scott #299 and #305) both denominated at 50 milliarde (50 billion) mark. These were, of course, the highest denominated stamps in their respective series, used for mailing packages and the like (at least until inflation overtook their value). However, the lowest denominations in those series were still an impressive 500,000 and 10 million, respectively.

Even worse than the Weimar Republic's hyperinflation was what Hungary experienced in 1946, when the highest denominated stamp (#774) was a dove and letter design with a printed value of 500,000 billio-pengő -- that's 500 quadrillion pengő! (A few years earlier, a comparable, high-end stamp would have cost only 80 fillér, which was less than 1 pengő.) The cheapest stamp in that series was 1 trillion pengő -- convenient for sending a postcard to Aunty Yllona! (Note that the Hungarian billio is in the traditional long scale, so it is equal to a modern trillion. They also printed three stamps, #757-759, in milliards, or modern billions, before inflation made even that unit impractical.)

Hyperinflation is especially interesting to philatelists, because due to the rapid devaluations of the period, some stamps were only in use for a very short time, and are now worth far more used than unused. Of course, fraudulent cancellations abound.

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