Welcome to Stamp Nook! Today we look at hyperinflation and stamps.
Amateur notaphilists across the Internet have recently been gawking at a Z$100 billion bank note from Zimbabwe. While the economic situation in Zimbabwe is certainly troubling, it is not the worst incident of inflation run amok, and other, more shocking, hyperinflationary scars can be seen in the world of stamp denominations:
The most famous incident of hyperinflation during the stamp-issuing era was in Germany in the early 1920s. Regular German postal stamps issued just prior to 1922 ranged from a couple of pfennig to no more than 20 mark. In 1922, values went up a bit, with one series ranging from 100 to 500 mark, but it was 1923 when things really started to go south (or rather north). The pfennig gave way to the mark, which soon gave way to the tausend mark. The inability to keep up with inflation by printing new, higher denominated stamp series required that older issues be hastily surcharged with denominations in the thousands to millions.
200 mark stamp surcharged 2 million (#269)
and a 200 million mark stamp (#291).
German postal hyperinflation reached a crescendo with two stamps (Scott #299 and #305) both denominated at 50 milliarde (50 billion) mark. These were, of course, the highest denominated stamps in their respective series, used for mailing packages and the like (at least until inflation overtook their value). However, the lowest denominations in those series were still an impressive 500,000 and 10 million, respectively.
Even worse than the Weimar Republic's hyperinflation was what Hungary experienced in 1946, when the highest denominated stamp (#774) was a dove and letter design with a printed value of 500,000 billio-pengő -- that's 500 quadrillion pengő! (A few years earlier, a comparable, high-end stamp would have cost only 80 fillér, which was less than 1 pengő.) The cheapest stamp in that series was 1 trillion pengő -- convenient for sending a postcard to Aunty Yllona!
(Note that the Hungarian billio is in the traditional long scale, so it is equal to a modern trillion. They also printed three stamps, #757-759, in milliards, or modern billions, before inflation made even that unit impractical.)
For comparison to Zimbabwe's current currency situation, the highest denominated bank note issued by the Reichsbank was 100 trillion mark in 1924, while Hungary had the highest denominated bank note ever at 100 quintillion pengő in 1946. That's a lot of pengő!
I have only lightly scratched the surface of this topic. Hyperinflation is especially interesting to philatelists who collect covers, as the drastic changes in postal rates often led to envelops being themselves enveloped in increasingly devalued stamps. For more on hyperinflationary topical collecting, see "Hyperinflation offers an engaging pursuit", by Rick Miller.
Until next time, happy philateling!