Malaya postage stamp colours and inks - Lin Yangchen
©Lin Yangchen

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The coconut definitive observes a tradition as old as the postage stamp itself: that of issuing the unit denomination in black. Many other definitive issues have followed the example of the Penny Black of 1840 (left), such as the 1934 Hindenburg definitive issued by the Third Reich under Adolf Hitler, on swastika-watermarked paper (right). The Penny Black itself was changed to red soon after it was released, so that more robust black postmarks could be used. Yet the tradition of black stamps persisted.

The black look is given a mutagenic transformation by printing it on green paper in the enthralling 50 cents. It reminds the author of the radioactive γ-emitting radium-226 used on luminescent clock faces in the past. Perhaps this gave the stamp an expensive look without having to use different colours for the key and duty plates. But this made it prone to forgery.

Shades of a given denomination were prone to variation over the long production run of the coconut definitive, especially after the war. Pale shades (e.g. right) are thought to be the consequence of cost-cutting ink dilution. See my case study of ultramarine inks in the coconut definitive.

Brown has been found to be people's least favourite colour, but it naturally exudes a down-to-earth charm not felt in other colours. Brown was a remarkably consistent colour in the coconut definitive throughout its tenure, with only slight fluctuations. This suggests that the ink was very simple in composition, perhaps containing only a single pigment that was easy to mix.

The energy-dispersive X-ray spectrum of a Selangor 4-cent brown indicates the use of iron oxide pigment on a calcium carbonate coating seasoned with a pinch of aluminium silicate (kaolin).

Mauveine was first made by 18-year-old William Henry Perkin in London in 1856. It was the world's first synthetic dye, and one of several derived from a toxic colourless organic compound called aniline that was in turn extracted from coal tar. In 1863, William De La Rue developed his own version, Azulin Purple (Young 2007). These stamps, originally of a similar shade, illustrate the well-known tendency of this class of dye to wash out and permeate through the paper. See BMA $5 for more purple and mauve shades.

Graphics: Lukáš Mižoch/ Wikipedia

The left half of this composite image shows the hallmark “volcanic lava” fluorescence of aniline purples under 365 nm longwave ultraviolet radiation.

De La Rue formulated some of their own inks from natural dyes. They also used synthetic dyes imported from the German chemical industry (Fernbank 2013). War made the latter difficult.


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