• Canada's map stamp commemorating the Coppermine River discovery. (Photo: CanGeo Archives)

If you think miniscule maps printed on tiny squares of paper not much bigger than your thumbnail don’t sound useful, think again.

That’s essentially the thrust of a piece from the December 1971 issue of the Canadian Geographical Journal, titled "Stamps are a geographic gold mine."

The story, by James Montagnes, delves into the history of what he calls “philatelic geography,” examining everything from the long-running territorial dispute between Britain and Argentina over the Falkland Islands to a 1968 map stamp of the Surinam River “showing the first Jewish settlements in the Americas.”

It’s a niche topic, to be sure, but one can’t help but be fascinated by some of the historical nuggets Montagnes covers. For instance, who knew that in 1969 tiny Norfolk Island (part of Australia), issued a 10-cent stamp commemorating the 200th anniversary of the Transit of Venus by Captain James Cook? Or that in 1900 Nicaragua issued a stamp that featured an active volcano — a fact that, as Montagnes notes, was said to be partly responsible for the Panama Canal being built in Panama and not Nicaragua.