Smithsonian Folklife Festival

Postage From The Edge

Himalayan Kingdom of Bhutan Ranks High in Philatelic Firsts

By Gabe Oppenheim
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 26, 2008

The essence of Bhutan is its absolute isolation. A constitutional monarchy in the clouds, it's tucked between the lush Himalayas like a child in his parents' bed. But Bhutan, where many live a two-day trip from the nearest road, has led the world in a basic form of cultural exchange.

The country that didn't get Internet or TV until 1999 and still uses running couriers to deliver mail -- it has only that one east-west road and no rail lines -- has produced a record string of the world's most unusual stamps.

Since 1962: The first 3-D stamp. The first scented stamp. The first textured brushstroke stamp. The first bas-relief stamp. The first on metal. The first on silk. The first on extruded plastic. The first on a playable record. And now, according to its maker, the first stamp on a CD-ROM (though North Korea might have released one earlier).

"They probably have more firsts in the philatelic world than any country," says Frances Todd Stewart, whose company sells Bhutan's CD-ROM stamp and who is helping to represent the country at the 42nd Smithsonian Folklife Festival that began yesterday.

In the wet heat, Stewart fluttered about the Marketplace tent, corraling customers like a car salesman. In the background, an iMac played the CD stamp's video history of Bhutan's five kings. "C'mon over," she said to an elderly lady, grabbing her by the shoulder. "I'm gonna show you!"

Stewart, 51, wore a sleeveless blue shirt, gold linen pants and a green rachu (sash). A crush of stamp collectors pushed toward the counter.

"I'm sorry, but it's bogus," Stewart said of the North Korean CD stamp, which she claimed lacked adhesive and couldn't be attached to envelopes. Meanwhile, Deki Wangmo, a Bhutan Post manager, made another sale. Wangmo, 26, has worked for the Post for three years. This is her first time outside Bhutan, but she noted with a giggle, "It's too busy to enjoy anything!"

The story of a unique Bhutanese philatelic tradition is also one of classic American hucksterism. Stewart's father, Burt Kerr Todd, was a Pittsburgh steel scion who talked his way into Oxford's law program after serving in the Army in World War II.

He had attended only a year of college. The admissions person was honeymooning in Norway. He flew there and cajoled until he was in. At school, he became friends with a Bhutanese princess who claimed to be the first of her countrymen to cross an ocean.

Todd hosted the princess in America in 1950 and was invited to Bhutan a year later. He was in again.

"A pretty well-connected chap" is how Stewart describes her father, whom the royal family made their Western adviser. In 1962, as Bhutan first used the light bulb, King Wangchuck searched for a new source of revenue. Todd had helped Fiji sell rum, Singapore export seaweed and Brunei drill for oil. For Bhutan, he proposed stamps.

He set up the Bhutan Stamp Agency in Nassau, Bahamas, where his elderly parents had moved for medical reasons and where there might have been an economic advantage. The breakthrough came in 1967 and involved NASA (another of the institutions exhibited at this year's Folklife Festival). After four years of development, a Japanese company Todd contracted was able to splice multiple images, taken from different angles, to create the world's first 3-D stamps, which were also among the first with self-adhesive backing. They depicted astronauts and lunar modules.

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