From Nobel Brothers to Rockefeller, a philatelic history of oil barons

How postage stamps unveil a captivating narrative of oil magnates who shaped industries, economies, and legacies across the globe.

Published : Aug 09, 2023 18:39 IST - 5 MINS READ

In 1994, Azerbaijan issued postage stamps commemorating the 115th Anniversary of the founding of the Nobel Brothers Petroleum Company.

In 1994, Azerbaijan issued postage stamps commemorating the 115th Anniversary of the founding of the Nobel Brothers Petroleum Company. | Photo Credit: Sona Maniar

The global reliance on oil, often called “black gold”, has led to the rise of powerful corporations and wealthy individuals who have shaped history in many ways. Interestingly, we can learn about the accomplishments of these oil barons through a fascinating hobby: philately. Postage stamps from around the world feature images of these oil magnates, celebrating their achievements and contributions.

In 1994, Azerbaijan issued postage stamps commemorating the 115th anniversary of the founding of the Nobel Brothers Petroleum Company. One stamp portrays the key shareholders of the company—the three Nobel brothers: Robert, Ludvig, and Alfred—alongside Peter Bilderling. Robert Nobel, the eldest son of Immanuel Nobel, arrived in Baku in 1873 and recognised the potential presented by oil in the region. He and his brother Ludvig established a refinery in Baku, giving birth to Brothers Nobel, or Branobel. Under Ludvig Nobel’s leadership, the oil enterprise experienced substantial growth, swiftly dominating the Russian oil market. Ludvig was even hailed as the “Oil King of Baku”.

Portrait of John D. Rockefeller, co-founder of Standard Oil, on a stamp of Belgium.

Portrait of John D. Rockefeller, co-founder of Standard Oil, on a stamp of Belgium. | Photo Credit: Sona Maniar

For decades, Branobel engaged in fierce competition with Standard Oil, co-founded by the visionary John D. Rockefeller. Possessing a remarkable aptitude for numbers, J. D. Rockefeller transitioned from bookkeeping to commodity trading at an early age. He ventured into the oil business after Edward Drake’s 1859 discovery in Titusville, Pennsylvania. Rockefeller’s subsequent endeavours in the oil industry culminated in the establishment of Standard Oil in 1870.

Employing strategies like integration, consolidation, and railroad rebates, Rockefeller propelled Standard Oil into a colossal entity that inspired a mixture of awe, envy, and repulsion. Evolving into one of the world’s pioneering multinational corporations, Standard Oil’s cut-throat practices and unethical methods eventually prompted the US Supreme Court to order its breakup.

Exxon and Chevron, entities that emerged from this division, continue to thrive as highly profitable oil corporations. Despite criticism of his business tactics, Rockefeller was renowned for his philanthropy, exemplified by the creation of the Rockefeller Foundation, which focussed on public health, medicine, and the arts. His likeness graces a set of seven semi-postal anti-tuberculosis stamps issued by Belgium in 1955.

Calouste Gulbenkian, Armenian oil entrepreneur, famously said, “Oil friendships are very slippery”.

Calouste Gulbenkian, Armenian oil entrepreneur, famously said, “Oil friendships are very slippery”. | Photo Credit: Sona Maniar

While Rockefeller occupied a prominent place in business and society, Calouste Gulbenkian, situated on the other side of the globe, remained more of an enigmatic figure. A second-generation Armenian oil entrepreneur, Gulbenkian developed a fascination for the oil industry at an early age. He pursued engineering studies at King’s College, London, authoring a thesis on the technology of the emerging petroleum sector.

Amid initiating numerous business ventures, he ultimately gained renown as the architect of the Turkish Petroleum Company. Here, he adeptly brokered cooperation among Western competitors for oil exploration in Mesopotamia, earning the moniker “Mr. Five Percent”. Despite his skill in fostering commercial agreements, Gulbenkian displayed a deeply mistrustful and suspicious nature, famously remarking, “Oil friendships are very slippery.”

Beyond his involvement in oil deals, Gulbenkian assembled a vast art collection comprising over 6000 pieces. Many of these artworks now reside in a museum in Lisbon, Portugal. In 1965, Portugal issued two stamps bearing Gulbenkian’s likeness to commemorate the 10th anniversary of his passing.

Andrew Mellon, oilman, banker, industrialist, and politician.

Andrew Mellon, oilman, banker, industrialist, and politician. | Photo Credit: Sona Maniar

Another industrial magnate who left an enduring mark on both the oil industry and the art world was Andrew Mellon. Notably, Mellon excelled not only as an oilman but also as a banker, industrialist, and politician. When his father, Judge Mellon, handed over control of the family bank, Andrew was a mere twenty-six years old. He transformed the bank into a leading financial institution within the country.

While Mellon dabbled in coal, steel, and whiskey interests, he also ventured into the oil sector, contributing to the establishment of the Gulf Oil Corporation. Mellon’s diverse career culminated with his role as the US Ambassador to the UK, following his service as Secretary of the Treasury under three US Presidents. His philanthropic endeavours led to the founding of both Carnegie Mellon University and the National Gallery of Art. In December 1955, the US released a rose-carmine postage stamp in honour of his 100th birth anniversary. Gulf Oil continued to play a significant role in the oil market and became a part of the so-called “Seven Sisters”.

Enrico Mattei, who is called the Oil Emperor of Italy, on the country’s stamp.

Enrico Mattei, who is called the Oil Emperor of Italy, on the country’s stamp. | Photo Credit: Sona Maniar

The term “Seven Sisters” or “Sette Sorelle” was initially coined by Enrico Mattei, who led ENI from 1953 to 1962. He used this term to refer to the Anglo-Saxon major oil companies that dominated the global oil industry, much to his chagrin. Charismatic and intense, Mattei was resolute in securing international crude oil supplies for Italy.

Through sheer ambition and savvy business tactics, he transformed ENI into an influential energy corporation, earning it the moniker “a state within a state”. Mattei himself became Italy’s most powerful figure. Tragically, Mattei’s illustrious life was cut short in 1962 due to a suspected bomb explosion aboard his aircraft. As part of his legacy, the Fondazione Eni Enrico Mattei was established as a non-profit think tank in 1982.

Additionally, on the occasion of his centenary in 2006, Italy issued a postage stamp. More recently, the Italian government unveiled the “Mattei Plan”, named in his honour, aimed at distributing energy resources procured from Africa to other parts of Europe.

While the 20th century witnessed the rise and proliferation of the hydrocarbon-based society, the 21st century is likely to document its decline and possible dissolution. Nevertheless, the enduring influence of the oil barons in shaping economies and lives cannot be denied. As environmentally conscious entrepreneurs mount a substantial challenge against traditional oil magnates, they would benefit from delving into history to learn from these figures. Valuable insights can be gleaned, spanning from pioneering new markets and expanding businesses along the value chain to reshaping the energy landscape.

While Rockefeller’s succinct maxim—”The growth of a large business is merely a survival of the fittest”—captures the essence of effectively managing a sizeable enterprise, a more profound exploration of these luminaries will guide inquisitive entrepreneurs towards indispensable dos and don’ts, as well as the essential skills necessary to thrive in today’s ruthless competition.

Sona Maniar works for an engineering conglomerate. Her hobbies include writing, philately, and sketching.

Sign in to Unlock member-only benefits!
  • Bookmark stories to read later.
  • Comment on stories to start conversations.
  • Subscribe to our newsletters.
  • Get notified about discounts and offers to our products.
Sign in


Comments have to be in English, and in full sentences. They cannot be abusive or personal. Please abide to our community guidelines for posting your comment