Since 1919, more than 130 nations have released over 2,000 stamps detailing the complexities and the contributions of the oil industry. Some of the finest scenes are depicted on stamps from Arab countries, and trace the Middle East's growth as an oil-producing region.
The far-flung operations of the petroleum industry, and the diversity of its operations, make it an ideal and extraordinary subject for the philatelist who wants to specialize. Petrophilately offers greater challenges, greater depth and more byways and branches than most other philatelic specialties, and every day's newspaper brings the importance and currency of the industry to the attention of people around the world.
A portfolio of Arab countries' stamps portrays almost the entire process of bringing oil from the ground to its various end users: Seismic exploration, a national map dotted with derrick symbols, an offshore drilling rig, the pipelines, refineries and their components, and a tanker from Saudi Arabia are just a few of the designs.
Some of the most beautiful and detailed oil-industry stamps have been printed for Dubai - one of the United Arab Emirates - and Kuwait. In 1969, Dubai released a set of five stamps showing the installation of the world's first underwater oil-storage tank - a bottle-shaped structure used to store oil from offshore wells until it can be pumped aboard a tanker.
The history of oil on stamps is a reflection in miniature of how the modern industrial system operates, and how it creates both new products and new demands for products as it grows. Cities spring up where there were none before, at first sustained by the nearby oil and gas fields but gradually developing independent, varied economies; petrochemical industries, secondary industries and shipping systems multiply the value of the raw product, which is used throughout the world. Ida M. Tarbell, daughter of a petroleum producer and muckraking author of the 1904 History of the Standard Oil Company, said, "The true value of an industry - especially oil - is not measured in dollars. It is measured by [its] services to the masses of men."
Financiers, nonetheless, can be included in a petrophilatelic collection. The legendary Calouste Gulbenkian is honored on a Portuguese stamp from 1965. His fabulous fortune derived from his role in forming the Iraq Petroleum Company, and it went to endow an equally fabulous museum in Lisbon (See Aramco World, September-October 1974).
Stamps from oil-producing countries also have purely practical advantages for astute collectors. They have been issued in relatively small quantities to indigenous populations that - until now - were not very interested in collecting them. Collectors in the rest of the world have also tended to neglect those countries. There are, as yet, few great rarities, so assembling a rich collection, and keeping it current as new issues appear, doesn't require a great expenditure of money. Yet increasingly, the oil industry is being recognized in such lands as Saudi Arabia as a part of the country's history; the rolls of local collectors are growing, supplies are tightening, and the value of scarcer items can only increase.
Some outstanding collections of oil stamps already exist, many made by present or former workers in the industry. A quarterly journal, published in Houston, reports new - and newly-discovered - issues to readers in 36 countries. It is even possible that the oil stamps collected today may bring more than just the pleasures of collecting in the future: As interest grows and the value of rare collectibles increases as a hedge against inflation, today's petrophilatelic collection may become a treasure for one's grandchildren.
Raymond Schuessler is a Florida collector of stamps from the Middle East.