Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Perfume Goes Postal with Smelly Stamps

As a kid I used to collect stamps—an appropriately obsessive hobby for a future scientist. Little did I know that my adult preoccupation with smell would intersect with my juvenile philatomania.

Last week, the Slovak Post issued an Easter stamp scented with narcissus. By my count, it’s the twentieth country to issue a scented postage stamp since 1973. That was the year Bhutan came out with a set of floral stamps printed on rose-scented paper. The idea didn’t take the postal world by storm. Nothing happened until 1999 when Brazil issued a set that drew attention to forest fire prevention: the stamps were printed on recycled paper saturated with the scent of burnt wood. In 2001, Brazil celebrated its coffee industry with a design featuring a sprig of coffee cherries, a bag of roasted beans, and a steaming cup of joe; the ink contained a coffee scent that could be released by rubbing.

The following year, New Caledonia pulled a copy cat and issued its own coffee-scented stamps.

In 2004, Brazil used scented stamps to showcase a sweet-smelling native grass called priprioca (Cyperus articulatus) used in perfumery. New Caledonia countered with an odorized, three-stamp set celebrating its sandalwood production.

The Korean post office has gone for scent in a big way, with six different issues (mostly flowers). In 2000, it produced one of the weirdest designs ever: a heart-shaped stamp featuring a cartoonish pink hand displaying the ASL sign for “love” holding a rose (and smelling of . . . rose).

Scenting methods have evolved since Bhutan perfumed the stamp paper—that smell lasted three to five months at best. The current approach is to mix microencapsulated fragrance into the printing ink; the scent is released only when the stamp is rubbed. Done properly, this process preserves the smell for years. The Russian Federation used an offbeat method in its 2003 “Gifts of Nature” series that featured various fruits: it scented the gum on the back side.

By far the most common postal scent is rose: it’s cheap and easy to make. Floral notes such as lily and jasmine are also popular. Among the more unusual fragrance directions are jasmine tea (Hong Kong, 2001), eucalyptus (Great Britain, 2001), cinnamon (Luxembourg, Christmas 2002), chocolate (Switzerland, 2001), and new-mown grass (Australia, 2000).

I think it’s time the U.S. Postal Service joined the party. How about a Boston Tea Party commemorative? Or one for the Washington, D.C. cherry blossom festival? A mint julep scent to celebrate the Kentucky Derby. Why not a series of classic hot rods with scents of burnt rubber, gasoline and asphalt? A firearm series of historic muskets and revolvers with a gunpowder scent would be cool too.

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