It would be difficult to name two items which have woven themselves into the fabric of everyday lives more than postage stamps and petroleum. Yet neither existed in any recognizable form before the mid-19th century. The first postage stamp did not appear in England until 1840 and the first derrick did not strike oil until 1859.
Today, however, these two commodities are not only common, but have merged in a series of postage stamps depicting the oil industry in all its aspects—especially in the Middle East, which by the 1970's, accounted for 40 percent of the entire free world's petroleum production, and 68 percent of its oil reserves.
Since there are about 150,000 varieties of postage stamps, most philatelists have long dismissed all thoughts of acquiring examples of every stamp that exists. Instead they specialize. They try to obtain every stamp which has one feature, no matter how obvious or obscure, in common with every other one.
Some collectors specialize in stamps from a single country, a particular period of time, or examples which have been printed in the same color. Others concentrate on what their fellow hobbyists call thematic, or topical collections: art, sports, religion, railroads, fish, animals, flowers, to name but a few. Stamps engraved with depictions of birds are so numerous that there are specialists who search out and mount only seabird stamps, or wading and water birds, game birds or birds of prey. It is indicative of both the number and the enthusiasm of thematic collectors that in the United States this breed has formed its own exclusive group, the American Topical Association.
With regard to petroleum, philatelists have been collecting oil stamps since the first oil stamps were issued in 1919 by a country called Azerbaijan, which at the time was enjoying a brief existence as an independent nation before becoming one of the Soviet republics. Between 1919 and 1922 Azerbaijan issued a series of stamps with scenes of the important oil field of Baku, one of which, a 1922 two-ruble stamp, shows oil gushing from a wooden derrick, a type which has gone the way of the Model T except in the Caspian field of the USSR.
In the Middle East, the first stamps with an oil theme became available to post office customers—and collectors—about 30 years ago, and issues have since depicted nearly every step in the production and shipment of petroleum: drilling rigs, onshore and offshore, whose shapes offer designers considerable artistic scope; oil pipelines, processing plants and refineries, storage tanks and tank farms, oil tankers—all pictured with great clarity.
Often a head-and-shoulders portrait of a nation's ruler, wearing the traditional ghutra and agal, becomes part of the design, contributing color and character to the stamp and leaving no doubt about which part of the world it comes from. Often, too, some oil-connected event is sufficient reason for Middle Eastern postal authorities to issue yet another oil stamp. The anniversary of an important discovery, the placing on stream of a significant new facility, the holding of a regional conference on petroleum have all been occasions for the issuance of commemoratives with the unmistakable stamp of oil on them.