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Roses
The Cultural History of the Rose, seen through Stamps

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USA 1999. 33c rose. USA 1997. 32c Rose.

From Persia they presumably came to the Mediterranean region and to Greece in particular, where various references to them are found in the writings of Homer and other poets, indicating that roses were very popular with the ancient Greeks and had already been crowned "Queen of Flowers".  By this time, the modest wallflower had doubtless been bred into a bloom with about 60 petals -- a flower ideally suited for taking Roman high society by storm. 

Roses have been blooming for thousands of years, since long before people began to take an interest in them.  In those early days rose blooms were very modest, with just five petals, like the wild roses now found in hedgerows.

Rose-breeding probably began in Chinese gardens around 2700 BC. 

However, compared with peonies or chrysanthemums, roses were not held in great esteem, though it was not long before the ancient Persians discovered they could be used to make highly valued rose oil and rose water. 

New Zealand 1997. Joint issue with China, FDC. New Zealand Rose. Rugosa Rose of China.

  • New Zealand 1997.  Joint Issue with China.  

    • Aotearoa - New Zealand Rose, and Rugosa Rose of China.

Switzerland 2002. Roses. Ingrid Bergman. Switzerland 2002. Roses. Belle Vaudoise. Switzerland 2002. Roses. Charmian. Switzerland 2002. Roses. Frühlingsgold.
  • Switzerland 2002.  Special stamps for the Pro Juventute Foundation.  The stamps were issued for the Foundation's 90th birthday.  The set consists of five stamps, but only four are shown here.  The stamps measure 2.8 * 3.3 cm.  From left to right:  

    • Ingrid Bergman,  Belle Vaudoise,  Charmian,  and Frühlingsgold.  

    Being Danish I am particularly proud that the Ingrid Bergman-rose is of Danish breed, by Poulsen, in 1984.  Poulsen's rose fields are located immediately south of Elsinore, and are very impressive in summer.  

Extravagant Roman orgies did little for the image of the rose as the "Queen of Flowers".  The notorious Emperor Nero decorated his debauched festivities with incredible quantities of roses, and Emperor Heliogabal showered his guests with so many petals that some of them even suffocated.  Thus, in Roman times, roses came to be equated with a dissolute life style.  They were extensively planted around Rome, ultimately reducing them to a mass product. 

Norway 2001. Scented Roses. FDC. "Heidekönigin".  "Old Master". Norway 2001. Roses. Heidekönigin.
Norway 2001. Roses. Old Master.
  • Norway 2001.  Scented Roses.  These stamps were the first ones to have a rose-scent.  When you rub your finger over the stamps they leave a lovely fragrance of delicate roses. 

    • "Heidekönigin" (Queen of the Heath).

    • "Old Master". 

Grenada/Grenadines 1981.  Charlemagne painted by Albrecht Dürer c. 1512-1513. Oil on Wood, 188 x 88 cm.  German National Museum in Nuremberg. 

The collapse of Rome and its Empire marked the end of the first Golden Age of the rose which spent the "grey" Middle Ages in the shadows. 

Without Rome's dissipated celebrations the "Queen of Flowers" was condemned to oblivion and only survived the following centuries because its medicinal and cosmetic properties secured it a place in some convent and monastery gardens.  The world's biggest industry of rose oils today take place in Bulgaria in the "Valley of Roses". 

Charlemagne's (742-814) edict from 794 which prescribed the cultivation of fruit, medicinal plants, vegetables and decorative plants in the imperial free cities gave the rose a fresh lease of life -- and its rank as "Queen" naturally placed it at the top of the list.  

  • Grenada/Grenadines 1981.  Charlemagne painted by Albrecht Dürer c. 1512-1513. Oil on Wood, 188 x 88 cm.  German National Museum in Nuremberg. 

Today Bulgaria is one of the most important rose breeding countries of Europe, and midway between the capital Sofia and The Black Sea is the Valley of the Roses (Rozovata dolina).   Being a sun baked and dusty place most of the summer, in May and early June it's magically transformed by the blooms that give it its name.  The rose-growing area produces seventy percent of the world's attar -- extract -- of roses.  Considering that perfumers pay more than 45 million US-dollars a year for this, it's not surprising that roses are known as "Bulgaria's Scented Gold".  Only the red and white roses are used, not the yellow or other hybrids. 

Bulgaria 1970. Roses. Stamp #1 of eight. Bulgaria 1970. Roses. Stamp #2 of eight. Bulgaria 1970. Roses. Stamp #3 of eight. Bulgaria 1970. Roses. Stamp #4 of eight. Bulgaria 1970. Roses. Stamp #5 of eight.
  • Bulgaria 1970.  This lovely set of roses from the Bulgarian Rose Valley consists of 8 stamps.  Only five species, particularly used in the rose industry, are shown here.

However, the true comeback of the rose was delayed until the late Middle Ages when it became a Christian symbol.  The white rose was seen as standing for the innocence and purity of Maria, while red roses symbolized the blood of Christ, and the thorns represented sin. 

Canada 2001. Souvenir sheet of Roses. USA 1998. Victorian Roses. Stamp #1 of two.
USA 1998. Victorian Roses. Stamp #2 of two.
  • Canada 2001.  This beautiful souvenir sheet was issued for PhilaNippon2001.  The special feature of the sheet is the four strange perforations in the selvedge, symbolizing the thorns.  The sheet's background colour changes from whitish golden to dark golden, upwards and down.  The surface value of each stamp is 47 c.  The names of the roses are:

    • Top row:  "Morden Centennial"  &  "Agnes"

    • Bottom row:  "Champlain"  &  "Canadian White Star"

However, the worldly significance of the rose as an envoy of love, beauty and sensuality was never lost and occasionally generated some strange phenomena.  During the reign of Queen Victoria the French and English refined this "earthly" symbolism into a complex language, which is partly reflected on the above set of the Victorian roses from the United States. 

  • USA 1998.  Victorian Roses.  The stamps are self-adhesive, and intended for sending out wedding invitations.

In those days not only the colour and shape of the roses, but also the way they were presented, accepted and worn were loaded with significance.  A yellow rose from an admirer told the object of his affections that everything about her was enchanting.  If she accepted the rose with her right hand, the suitor could breathe a sign of relief, as this meant that she looked favourably on his attentions.  The British yellow rose is shown below on the 33p-stamp, and it is not without reason that the late Princess Diana of Wales was also called "The Rose of Britain" -- also quoted by Elton John in his funeral hymn to her in Westminster Abbey, September 1998.  

Great Britain 1991. Roses. Stamp #1 of five. Great Britain 1991. Roses. Stamp #2 of five. Great Britain 1991. Roses. Stamp #3 of five. Great Britain 1991. Roses. Stamp #4 of five. Great Britain 1991. Roses. Stamp #5 of five.
  • Great Britain 1991. 

    • Rosa Silver Jubilee,  Rosa Mme Alfred Carrière,  Rosa Moyesii,  Rosa Harvest Fayre,  Rosa Mutabilis. 

At the occasion of the World Congress for Rose Breeders, France issued in 1999 a lovely sheet of Ancient Garden Roses.  Rose breeding has particularly been commercialized in the Dordogne-area, in the south-western part of France, not far from Bordeaux. 

France 1999. Souvenir sheet of "Roses Anciennes".
  • France 1999.  Souvenir sheet and close-ups of the "Roses Anciennes".  

France 1999. Roses. Mme Caroline Testout. France 1999. Roses. M;me Alfred Carrière.

 France 1999. Roses. La France.

 

No other flower is so universally known and admired as the rose, and altogether there are approximately 13,000 identifiable varieties of roses in various classes.  Many varieties have been bred with beautiful varieties of colour and delightful fragrance which vary greatly according to variety and climatic conditions. 

A less known aspect of the rose is the compass rose, an instrument that indicates direction, used by mariners, aviators, campers, hunters, and other travelers to enable them to get from one place to another. Two fundamental types of compass are used: the magnetic compass, which probably originated in ancient China; and the gyrocompass, a device developed at the beginning of the 20th century. 

Angola 1969.  Compass Rose issued for the celebration of the 500th birth anniversary of Vasco da Gama. 

The compass rose was originally known as the wind rose, indicating the direction of 32 winds blowing from the eight main points, eight half-points, and sixteen quarter-points of the compass.  

When these 32 points were inter-connected within a circle, they resembled a traditional Chinese rose of 32 petals. Until this day the fundamental navigation equipment is still known as the compass rose, and North is still marked either with an arrow-head, or most often, with the symbol for the French Lily. 

  • Angola 1969.  Compass Rose issued for the celebration of the 500th birth anniversary of Vasco da Gama. 

Equally, the prime meridian of longitude that indicates the line from the North Pole to the South Pole through Greenwich Observatory in England, is known as the Rose Line.  

Although the equator was an obvious choice as the prime parallel, being the largest, no one meridian was uniquely qualified as prime. 

Until a single prime meridian could be agreed upon, each nation was free to choose its own, with the result that many 19th-century maps of the world lacked a standardized grid. 

France had chosen a line going through the St. Sulpice Church in Paris, which was built on the exact location of the ruins of an ancient heathen temple. 

The problem was resolved in 1884, when an international prime meridian, passing through London's Greenwich Observatory, was officially designated. 

  • Great Britain 1984.  Centenary of Greenwich Meridian. 

Great Britain 1984.  Compass Roses. Centenary of Greenwich Meridian. 

Sources and links:


Revised 02 nov 2006 
Copyright © by Ann Mette Heindorff
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