American Culture

Stamping

So on Friday I wandered over to the London Festival of Stamps. This is this big show, held every ten years. I normally go to two shows a year, just to pick up the odd stamp or two, but this is a much larger show, with lots more dealers, and many more exhibits. And after my usual musings about bringing the average age down of any gathering I’m generally in these days, it was quite a lot of fun. The community of stamp collectors appears to be diminishing, it’s true, but it’s fighting to keep things going as best it can.

Like at Stampex, there are all sorts of activities for kids to get them interested. But I imagine it’s hard in the internet age to develop an interest in stamp collecting. This was weird enough when I was young, sitting with my grandfather and looking over this British Commonwealth issue, or that US plate block. And there were certainly enough grandfathers there. But this is the problem—it’s almost all men, and they’re mostly old. There are some young men wandering around, but generally this is not a young bunch. Of course, it was a Friday afternoon, and I had blown off work, and the odds are that the people there were retirees anyway. The people with real jobs would have shown up on the weekend.

But if the Saturday attendance here is like that at Stampex, it will still be mostly men, and mostly middle-aged or older. There will be the occasional teenager, and the occasional woman, and some mothers with some kids in tow. But this is still a male-dominated activity. Why is that? Is it the case that there are patterns to collecting? Not as obvious as something like women collect vases and men collect stamps. This might be true, of course. If there are collectors of antique globes, and there almost certainly are, as I think about it—people will collect anything, after all—they are almost certainly men.

I once asked a tableful of people—men and women—about this—are there differences between men and women in how they collect? And what they collect? And the agreement was pronounced among both men and women—there certainly are. Women collect, but they’re generally satisfied with one or two fine things of some category—paintings, sculpture, whatever. Men, on the other hand, the feeling went, are much more compulsive in their collecting. And stamps, like lots of other things, can generate compulsion easily—because there’s always that one or two you don’t have, and even if you have a complete collection of, say, Andorra, you can still probably get better ones in some cases.

Well, this made sense as dinnertable conversation, but I’m not convinced. Or I’m only partially convinced. There are lots of men who don’t collect anything, after all, so it’s not like it’s something that comes with the gender. And I imagine that men collect lots of things where they don’t feel the need to go nuts. I’ve got one or two nice pipes—other men have dozens. So what? But stamps seem to be different from, say, pipes. Lots of people collect stamps, and they collect them enthusiastically and, yes, nearly compulsively. Why? Who knows? But I understand it. I really do want to fill out some of my country collections. I really want every stamp relating to Antarctica that I can find. And I’ve given up trying to figure out why.

But I know why I collect stamps, as opposed to vases or pipes or antique woodworking tools (I do have a couple of those, but that’s it). They’re brilliant little works of art. Many are plain and boring, but many are extraordinary combinations of design, image, color and information—they need to be small, so economy is everything. But they can pack a boatload of information. They’re also little bits of history. You can track the history of pretty much anything on stamps—stamps have celebrated just about everything. They’re inexpensive—or most of them are, anyway. Anyone can be a collector—it’s pretty egalitarian, except at the upper ranges of very scarce stamps—that’s millionaire territory. But most collectors are like me—we like certain things, or countries (I like the Scandinavian countries myself, and the UK—but not the Commonwealth, since there’s just too much of that), or certain themes.

Which is why the exhibits are so much fun, and Mrs. W, bless her, enjoys them as much as I do. Yes, the people who do them are probably OCD. But they’re still great fun—labors of love. So we get the usual historical stuff like “The Postal History of East Anatolia.” There are lots of those, and they’re interesting, in their way. But the real treats are the thematics. Maps—lord, there are lots of stamps with maps on them. Whales. Boy, there are lots of whales too. A History of Agriculture told through stamps. Brilliant. A history of Grain. Archery, starting with stamps about goose feathers And not just stamps, but letters too. Letters and envelops for the blind, in Braille—which, of course, had to manually addressed anyway so the postal system could actually deliver them. Letters of Polish prisoners in Switzerland during WWII. How did they come to be there? How did this subject even catch someone’s interest in the first place? Did someone find a bunch of letters in his attic, and have his interest piqued, and this interest just grew into a mania for collecting? And these sorts of thematic exhibits, beautifully mounted on paper and lovingly hung on exhibit boards, make me realize how little I actually know about much of anything. And how glad I am that someone is taking the interest, and the time, for all these little but wonderful topics.

So I hope this continues, and grows. It will continue, of course. I did my bit my joining the Polar Postal History Society, which, as you might imagine, is a bunch of men who get together regularly to talk about the history of some polar stamp celebrating some polar accomplishment. And twice a year I will now get the Polar Post, which will be full of stuff really only of interest to a couple of hundred of us.

Whether we can grow this enterprise, which, like baseball, has for decades bound fathers and sons, and grandfathers and grandsons, remains to be seen. But we’ll have a strange sort of fun trying.

The above stamps were issued on May 6 for the London Festival of Stamps by the Royal Mail to celebrate King George V, who assembled one of the largest stamp collections ever. He could afford it.

Categories: American Culture, World

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3 replies »

  1. I did it as a kid and it was a wonderful way to learn history. Along with the 1954 Encyclopedia “Rule” Britannia and my 50’s era light-up globe with “French West Africa”, “French Indochine” and the “Dutch Indies”, stamp collecting gave me a stellar education in obsolete geography. Around 1970 there was a huge dump of WWII-era Japanese Manchuria “Manchukuo” stamps.

    Dad found my books in the house, and I’ve got them stashed. I’ll check them out sometime.

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  2. I know. I knew where Mozambique was (which is still with us, of course, but at that point was still a Portuguese colony). And Nyasaland. Danzig. That was pretty neat.

    But it’s not obsolete, in a way. In many of these areas, they’re still working through what was wrought back when they were still colonies, or part of some larger structure, or some ancient empire in its last days.

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