There is often a colourful story behind a stamp. Sometimes, the images on these tiny pieces of paper tell a tale that could help us to learn more about who we are and where we come from. This new series will explore the stories behind some of the most famous and classic Canada stamps.
What is a classic stamp? Usually, it has to be old, sometimes it has to be rare, but it always has to be timeless in design and appeal. On January 8th, 1929, Canada Post issued a dark blue, 50¢ engraved stamp destined to become a Canada stamp classic-Bluenose, featuring an image of the famous Lunenberg fishing schooner. Subjects for Canada stamps have been, and still are, meticulously chosen as representative of something memorable and purely Canadian. Why was the Bluenose chosen as a subject? What was its appeal? I have been trolling the Internet and various sources to learn more about this famous Canadian schooner; here’s what I have learned…..
Since the times of the earliest Canadian settlers, fishing has been an important Maritime occupation, and no better fishing could be done than off the Grand Banks of Newfoundland. It was a tough life for fishermen though, but they knew their ships and they knew how to weather storm and violent winds like no other. In the early 1900s, these fishermen would watch the annual America’s Cup with keen interest. This race was a chance for two yachts, or recreational sailing ships, to go head to head and see who was the fastest. In 1919, the race was canceled because it was decided that the winds were too strong at 23 knots for the race to be safe. Atlantic fishermen scoffed at the judges’ decision! What was needed was a «real race»-a race between sailors and boats that knew all the perils of the sea second hand and how to survive. In 1920, in response to public interest, the International Fishermen’s Trophy was established-a race to determine the fastest ship in the North Atlantic fishing fleet.
The rules were clear cut-the schooners had to be working fishing vessels and had to have completed at least one fishing season to be eligible for entry. Pleasure craft racing this was not! Interestingly, this rule created an automatic disparity between the schooners coming out of Lunenberg, Nova Scotia and those from Gloucester, Massachusetts. The Lunenberg schooners had to be built big and hardy since they stayed on the Grand Banks for more than a week at a time and then hauled their cargo all the way to South America. The Gloucestershire boats made shorter and more frequent trips and so were smaller-and often faster. The first race was held in Halifax. To the dismay and horror of the crowd gathered on the shore, the Gloucester ship Esperanto defeated the Canadian entry. A challenge arose-we had to win the next year’s race!
So, a schooner was commissioned. W. J. Roué was chosen to design the new vessel that was to be built in Nova Scotia. The money was provided by Halifax businessmen and Captain Angus Walters, who was to be the captain of the new craft, named Bluenose. The Bluenose was finished in 1921, early enough in the year to complete a fishing season before entering her first race. We can only imagine the anticipation mounting on the banks of Halifax Harbour! Finally, in 1921, it was the pride of Nova Scotia, the Bluenose, that brought home the trophy-and she continued undefeated for the rest of her 18 year career. Lunenberg fishermen had triumphed over the New Englanders. No one else could beat their schooner, no matter how hard they tried!
When you read accounts and old newspaper articles from the era, the sailing pride of Nova Scotians and Canadians is palpable. The ship, its captain and its crew became instant celebrities, heroes really. Newspapers could not write enough articles about the Bluenose; everybody wanted to be able to say that they had boarded her. Everyone from evaporated milk companies to fish markets and ginger ale producers lined up to feature the Bluenose in their advertising campaigns! Sadly, the love affair was not to last.
Despite many efforts to save her, eventually the Bluenose came into disuse. After World War II, schooners no longer fished the Grand Banks, it was now a world of steel trawlers. In a last ditch effort to keep her in Canada, the Bluenose went on publicity junkets. Captain Walters sailed her to participate in the Chicago World Fair and even crossed the Atlantic to take part in the Silver Jubilee of King George V of England. But it was to no avail; the beloved schooner was sold to the West Indian Trading Company. She was stripped of her sails and masts and used as a cargo vessel in the Caribbean. Then, in 1946, Bluenose was wrecked off the coast of Haiti carrying a load of bananas. What an ignominious end!
Canada didn’t forget her however. As well as gracing that first classic 1929 postage stamp, Bluenose appeared on three other stamps-Canada stamp #913 commemorating the the International Philatelic Youth Exhibition, Canada stamp #1228 along with Angus Walters and Canada stamp #1738 featuring W. J. Roué, the original architect. As well as on stamps, the image of the Bluenose can be seen on the Canadian dime and on license plates issued for Nova Scotia. In 1955, Captain Walters and Bluenose were inducted into the Canadian Sports Hall of Fame. In 1963, a replica schooner was built called Bluenose II, in an effort to recapture a former glory.
So, the next time you look at Canada stamp #158 of the Unitrade Specialized Catalogue of Canadian Stamps, remember that you’re looking at a piece of history. The Bluenose stands alone as the greatest and fastest fishing schooner of her time, truly, the «Queen of the North Atlantic Fishing Fleet».
- No one really knows where the schooner got her name (the ship is black, not blue). Some say it refers to the colour the noses of the fishermen would turn in the cold winds. Others say it’s because the schooners once carried blue-skinned potatoes……whatever!
- Every schooner that went up against the Bluenose in the International Fishermen’s Trophy was also eventually wrecked. None of the original schooners exist anymore.
- On the #158 Bluenose postage stamp, the schooner is shown front and center in full sail, with a smaller ship in the background to the left. Some say that this is an image of one of her challengers, the American schooner Columbia. However, others say it is a side-view image of the Bluenose taken from another photograph by famed Maritime photographer Wallace MacAskill….in other words there are two Bluenoses on the stamp. What do you think?
Bluenose footage on the Internet
Click here to watch «Historical Minutes» vignettes about the Bluenose’s last race.
Click here to watch National Film Board of Canada vignettes about the Bluenose uploaded onto You Tube by a fan and for a whole lot of postings from other people. A crazy amount of stuff!
Click here to view genuine archives about the Bluenose from the government of Nova Scotia, actual newspaper clippings!