They Tax Everything, Don't They?

From 1890 until 1932 (when bordellos were outlawed) all brothel workers in Rosario de Santa Fe—at that time the second-largest city in Argentina—were required to have medical examinations twice per week. The bordello was charged for the service. From 1893 on, the fee was paid with a servicio sanitario (medical service) stamp that was pasted into the prostitute's libreta sanitaria (medical booklet) and cancelled in a way that showed the result of the exam. The vast majority of stamps are marked sana (healthy) but there were actually five possible outcomes.

1909 stamp with ENFERMA (sick) cancellationBeginning in 1896, new stamps were printed each year, normally in different colors. From a philatelic standpoint, none was printed in large number: the commoner stamps had printings of 15,000-30,000, and many issues were printed in numbers of 1,000 or less. Nonetheless, most of the stamps printed between 1902 and 1912 entered the philatelic market and were thus preserved. Earlier stamps are scarcer, with the 1893-96 issues difficult to acquire. Stamps printed after 1913 tend to be rare, but a few copies exist dated as late as 1927.

Servicio sanitario stamps offer a rewarding field of study to the specialist. Despite their age, much about the stamps and their use remains unknown, and new discoveries are still being made. A collection of the basic stamps from 1897 through 1913 is not difficult to assemble, but the scarcer material—the 1902 overprints, the emergency issues of 1903 and 1910, the high denomination stamps, and choice cancellations like the 1909 ENFERMA shown above—will prove more elusive.

"Hooker tax" stamps have fascinated collectors since they first entered the market around 1904, but when revenues fell out of favor after the First World War they were largely forgotten. This has created a wonderful opportunity for present-day collectors: after years of neglect and indifference, unrecognized rarities can turn up anywhere. For the thrill of the hunt, sanitarios can hardly be matched.

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