Chris West knows that most people don’t find stamp collecting cool, but that doesn’t faze him. West, the author of A History of America in Thirty-Six Postage Stamps, is an unapologetic stamp nerd, and here, he elaborates on the merits of his chosen hobby. We think his argument is first class, or at least overnight priority.
Collecting isn’t really hip. It’s often done by middle-aged men—seriously uncool. They’re are referred to as being “anal,” a piece of deep psychology from Freud, and told to “Go and get a life.”
It’s time to fight back.
Collecting is actually rather fun. And how many grown-ups care about being cool, anyway? Collecting can expand the mind. As a boy back in the early 1960s, I learned a lot about the world from my collection of stamps. Serious philatelists would not have given my collection house-room, but it took me around the world and showed me how other nations see themselves (or wish to be seen). There was the perpetual chest-beating of the Communist countries, with all those rockets and cosmonauts. There was France, with its castles and vineyards. West Germany was determined to show how cultured it was. Éire showed off its Celtic roots. And there was America, of course, with its covered wagons and Civil War centennials, its great men and great messages: “Liberty for all,” “Of the people, by the people, for the people” (the latter framing Abe Lincoln on the 25 cent Air Mail). Collecting was an adventure.
As I collected more, my horizons expanded, this time historically rather than geographically. Stamps, I realized, are little rectangular time-machines. Back in 1869, the Post Office issued a marvellous set of pictorial stamps. One showed a Pony Express rider hurdling across the Sierra Nevada on his way to Sacramento (the artist got the horse’s legs wrong, but that’s all part of the history: How a horse gallops wasn’t understood until 1878, when photographer Eadweard Muybridge used 24 cameras snapping in rapid succession, then played the results back on a device called a zoopraxiscope). Another stamp from the series shows a beautiful locomotive, the kind that was travelling the newly-opened Transcontinental Railroad. A marvellous set of Parcel Post stamps from 1912 shows the technologies of its time: an express mail train, a biplane, an automobile—but also a rural mail carrier still delivering via a horse and carriage. The special stamp for the New York World’s Fair of 1939 is daringly modern. The war-weary stamps that follow the terrible conflict of 1939-45 are cautious and security-conscious. One of them features a giant chicken waddling towards the sunrise in celebration of the poultry industry of America.
Like all artifacts, stamps have to be “read” to be interpreted and fully understood. They are always political: It is the government that brings them out, and they want to tell us things. Sometimes the politics are obvious, as in the days of the New Deal, when FDR, a keen collector, oversaw the issues himself and insisted stamps be clear, bright, and upbeat. Other times one has to root about a little.
As designed artifacts, stamps also speak to the aesthetics and zeitgeist of their eras, whether intentionally or not. Compare the three definitive (regular) issues from the ‘50s to the ‘80s: the simple, unified designs of the 1954 “Liberty” issue; the funky, diverse “Prominent Americans” series from a decade later; the return to unity and simplicity in 1981 as Ronald Reagan enters the White House.
A stamp collection also serves as a wonderful reminder of the reality of history–after all, not only were these little bits of paper made to reflect their era, but they were actually used in them: Someone posted this letter from the front in the Civil War. What was on his or her mind at the time? What happened to the sender and to the recipient? This is connection, and with it comes empathy and wisdom.
Chris West’s previous titles include a bestselling business guide and a quartet of crime novels. He inherited a love of history from his father and an Edwardian “Lincoln” stamp album from his great-uncle as a child. His love for stamps was revived when he found that same dust-covered album in his attic as an adult, and resulted in A History of Britain in Thirty-Six Postage Stamps, published in 2013. He lives in Cambridgeshire.