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What's the boy got to smile about?

Health stamps, with a charity supplement to support Children’s Health Camps, were issued in New Zealand from 1929 until 2016.


Of these 88 issues the Smiling Boy is the best known, but he had a difficult and interesting history.


The first Health Stamp, in 1929, was a vignette of a nurse prepared by L C Mitchell with the caption  'Help stamp out tuberculosis' - it is a matter of conjecture whether the pun was intentional.

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The 2020 version (second left) was prepared with some ingenuity for The Kiwi, the Journal of the New Zealand Society of Great Britain. 


The Nurse design set a precedent, frequently followed for Health Stamps, by attracting much criticism, but it is clear from internal correspondence that it had always been intended to issue a new design for each year.


Mitchell produced a drawing of a happy smiling boy radiating health and contentment and, In May 1930, the High Commissioner called for tenders to produce a die and plate. Tenders were received from the Royal Mint and Perkins Bacon & Co Ltd.  On 2 June it was announced that Perkins Bacon had been selected and had been asked to prepare a final die and plate by 31 August. 

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An undated but early die proof by Perkins Bacon on glazed white paper with a heavy appearance and unfinished spurs above the cross

A further undated die proof with the spurs removed and a lighter finish

Die proof on thick glazed white paper dated in pencil 13/8/30 with clearer and firmer effect but showing a dark line opposite the boy’s right ear

Die proof on glazed white paper dated in pencil 19/8/30  A late proof but the “1d” under “postage” has become weak

This third dated die proof is likely to be a very late, possibly the final, version:

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Firmly cut die proof on white glazed paper mounted in a Perkins Bacon presentation folder (right) inscribed in ink “Proof submitted with letter of 20/8/30”

Perkins Bacon were instructed to prepare a plate but, as the stamp was due to be issued in December, it became clear that they would be unable to do so in time. This was not surprising as it would have to go by sea from London.  It was decided on 18 September to withdraw the instructions and a revised version of the Nurse, with a new caption, was used for the 1930 issue.

The Boy had nothing to smile about at this stage and wondered whether he would ever see the light of day, but all was not lost and it was decided that the design should be issued the following year, but not with Perkins Bacon.


Attention turned instead to a proof for the 1930 stamp, prepared from a steel plate, previously submitted by the Royal Mint.  This was considered to be of exceptionally high merit and on 30 October they were instructed to prepare a plate of 120 stamps from that proof with the date altered to 1931.

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Photographic proof from the Royal Mint die (left). The enlargement emphasizes the differences from the Perkins Bacon dies. In particular, the shading of the sky to the right of the Boy’s head

The die and plate were shipped from London on the SS Ruahine and reached Wellington on 28 January.  The Boy felt quite at home until it was found that the impressions on the plate prepared by the Royal Mint were spaced too closely vertically and could not be perforated satisfactorily by the comb head.

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Plate proof on cream wove paper stated to be of stamps 2 and 4 of rows 2 and 3 from the original plate received from the Royal Mint

To correct this, three horizontal cuts were made through the plate between rows 3-4, 6-7 and 9-10.  Metal spacers were inserted to increase these gutter widths from 2.5mm to 3mm. This enabled the stamps to be perforated but the printed stamps were seldom well centred.  The Boy could now see himself in print.

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Die and plate by  Royal Mint, London. Surface printed by Government Printing Office on Cowan chalky paper, watermark NZ and Star sideways. Comb perf 14.5 x 14. The narrow horizontal gutter width show this one has not been widened.

But his problems were not yet finished.  As a result of the worldwide financial depression the universal letter rate was increased on 26 January 1931 from 1d per ounce to 2d and the inland commercial rate from 1/2d to 1d. 


The Government Printing Office on 3 July sought a way of issuing a 2d denomination of the Boy.  The Custodian of Stamps suggested halving the plate and re-engraving the postage rate on one half, leaving two plates of 60 stamps.  W R Bock,   the well established engraver, stamp designer and lithographer in Wellington, was willing to do the engraving and the Government Printer saw no difficulty.

In the event this was not pursued and Mr Bock was instructed to prepare a new die and a plate of 120 stamps at the 2d rate.  He prepared a die and cut both values.  His new figures are smaller than the Royal Mint die and the letter “D” are larger.  The full stops are solid without an enclosing circle and the die is generally coarser.


There are recorded flaws in the stamps, the most frequent being to the top right of the 1 of 1d, due to the ineffective cleaning of the plate prior to use.

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The first plate was defective and the stamps were surface printed from a second plate by Government Printing Office

The two stamps were issued on 31 October 1931, and the Boy could really smile at last:

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Cover cancelled at Highfield on 31 October, the day of issue.

and for fun a cover self-addressed by a local postmistress cancelled a day early for the Boy but the correct first day for the airmail stamps on the same cover.  Can we ever believe a first day cancellation?

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Cover cancelled at Rangiotu, a farming community in central North Island, on 30 September for the Smiling Boys and 10 November for the 1931 Air stamps

The Boy was a bit worried at first as these were unprecedented times, because of the financial difficulties arising from the general depression, and his sales were very poor.  Only a disappointing £778 was available for the Health Camps, but his future was assured and he has been remembered on occasions like:

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First Day covers for the 1949 Health Stamp, designed and produced by Keith Collinson of Palmerston North and printed by Dudley Rabone & Co

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Card for the NZ Stamp Week 1979

He also looks occasionally at dealers’ catalogues and is pleased to see that he is still a highly valued boy.  There had been problems and times had been difficult (does that remind you of anything?) but his motto was always: 



More to see and read:
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