Stamp collecting, or philately, is not the serious hobby it once was. It seems destined for obsolescence as young people more and more turn their attention to electronic gizmos, fewer stamps turn up in the family mailbox, and international communications are more often conducted through email, Skype, and other platforms.
Sometimes it seems philately is promoted by world postal authorities more as a means of selling product which will never be used for its intended purpose (mailing a letter or package), but will, after producing a certain amount of revenue for the post office, instead sit undisturbed in stamp albums on people’s shelves.
Nevertheless, as a lifelong collector, now more nostalgic than active, I want to offer a salute to this pastime that once provided me hours of fascination.
My father had been a lifelong stamp collector. I never asked him just how he started, but he had already built a collection by the time he entered U.S. Army service in 1944. Stationed in Germany, he had access to former Nazi headquarters andgovernment offices in the district he covered. Among the many items available to be snagged by an American soldier with a sharp eye, he picked up hundreds of sheets of now useless mint German stamps impressed with the portrait of Adolf Hitler, and shipped them home.
He introduced me to the habit of stamp collecting, and I say “habit” because it became more than a hobby. I checked the origin of the word “philately” in the Oxford English Dictionary, and stumbled on the related word “philatelomaniac,” which describes a little more closely what my father’s obsession was like at times, and which he passed on, almost genetically, to me.
I cannot say my life revolved completely around stamps as a child and for perhaps half a century, but the stamp on any envelope always drew my attention. I saved them all, including representative samples of even the most common ones in daily use, and spent months – maybe whole years of my life, added all together – hovering over sinks, soaking stamps off their envelopes, and over broad tables with my albums all spread out ready to receive new additions, which I adhered with tiny rectangles of gummed onionskin hinges.
Starting with the Third Reich stamps sent home as war booty, I soon became aware that these little pieces of paper came from different countries, from different parts of the world, from different cultures and traditions, and celebrated or honored every kind of social system. As a kid I could identify just about any country on a world map (now not quite so much, especially with all the new countries and their frequent name changes), and give some information about it – national capital, prominent statesmen, something about their chief industries, exports, and history.
I wrote to foreign companies and pen-pals abroad asking for stamps for my collection. I was quite the teenage global correspondent! Through stamps I became aware, better than most of my peers, that multiple possibilities for organizing natural and human resources existed.
In those years, the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s, when I collected most avidly, some of the most colorful stamps, with their fluttering red flags and working people doing unusual jobs on land, sea and space, with odd Cyrillic and Asiatic typography, came from far-off places like Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Bulgaria, Mongolia and CCCP, the Russian-language initials for the USSR. These tiny bits of paper all sharing a kind of philatelic egalitarianism, each one deserved a permanent resting home in my albums. I did not judge capitalist stamps as superior in any way, from the standpoint of collectability, to those from socialist or other systems. Even Adolf occupied his place in my books. My fascination with philately led directly to a keen interest in the greater world, and to my later career as a historian and journalist.
Not just a bourgeois pastime
When I first picked up the People’s Daily World in the 1960s I noticed a regular stamp column that featured new postal releases and a bit about the history behind them. Yes, philately crossed all ideological borders. As my political consciousness grew, I felt reassured that my habit was not merely a solipsistic bourgeois pastime, but one also enjoyed by people with deep social commitment.
In time I shared my name and address on the pen-pal pages of the World Federation of Youth and Students magazine that came out of Prague, and soon, with my new pen-pals in dozens of places around the world, I exchanged letters with colorful stamps, and occasionally, if we had enough of a common language for it, interesting commentary on studies, career aspirations, travels, family, and more. One young fellow answered my posting from Greifswald, German Democratic Republic, where he was a university student, and I am still in touch with him to this day.
About U.S. stamps I have observed that by and large our commemoratives tend to celebrate the progressive strands of our history. We tend not to advertise to the world our repressive legislation, our foreign military bases and occupations, our suppression of voting rights, our lousy labor policies, restrictions on reproductive freedom, our passion for mass incarceration, our high murder rate, and so on. Most countries engage in the same kind of idealism and self-promotion with their stamps.
The kind of collecting my father did, and which I practiced, led to the amassing of a large, but not valuable holding. We collected anything that came our way, and solicited friends and associates to save their stamps for us. On vacation we’d purchase the currently available stamps in foreign post offices. We never invested serious money or expertise in building what would be more of a treasure, like a complete set of British colonials, or every issue from a certain country, or rare and fine older stamps. Our collections were more generalized, anarchic, incomplete, and in today’s market, with very few young philatelists hungry to fill up their albums as I did, effectively valuable only as a teaching tool.
I used to go to stamp shows and find dealers actually selling off sheets of 3-, 4-, 5- and 6-cent commemoratives stamps for 20 percent under face value! I bought them up in bulk and pasted five, six or a dozen of them on my mail to make up the current first-class letter rate. Friends could spot my letters at a glance. But how could these dealers sell stamps for less than their value?
Collecting whole sheets of U.S. stamps was promoted by the philatelic industry as a way of socking away – gradually, one new commemorative at a time – a valuable inheritance for your wife and kids. One day, collectors were told, these stamps would be worth a fortune. Well, over time few people wanted them anymore. Anyone who did already had them. The market was glutted. The poor widow had to dump her precious family legacy at maybe half its face value or even less, which allowed the dealer to sell it to me at 20 percent off and still clear a profit.
A friend recently gave me his extensive childhood collection of mint stamps from Israel. I called a dealer to see what they were worth and I’d share the profit with my friend. Nada. Zilch. Zero. Zip. “What do I do with them?” I asked the dealer. “Give ’em to veterans and disabled groups, they can make lampshades and greeting cards out of them.”
So there you have it, comrades. Happy National Stamp Collecting Month!