Friday, March 30, 2012

Posting My Thoughts?

I began collecting stamps when I was a child and remember becoming fascinated by the various colors and sizes of these strange perforated shapes. Before me lay the world in pictures which challenged me to learn the names of many obscure historical people and of far-away places with magical names like Azerbaijan or Tanganyika. Sometimes with a magnifying glass I squinted at depictions of monochromed giraffes, turbaned desert people, and important buildings often encircled by odd lettering or numbers. Perhaps best of all, it was a hobby which met positively with my father's authoritarian judgment of what was considered productive activity. For hours, looking like I was sitting amidst a pile of confetti, slowly and methodically, I would attach stamps in my album. When working on them I was safe and hidden in my own private world and able to tune out the almost constant tension which permeated my family's dynamics.  Certain stamps became special friends and I would look at them proudly and, with excitement find them companions that belonged in the same series or on the same page.  

Today my joy in gathering stamps has not abated. My closet is a veritable postal potpourri of stacked albums with withered bindings, brimming boxes of colorful envelopes, books containing first day covers, plate blocks, full sheets, and of course, pages and pages of ornately decorated and numeraled regular issues, airmails and commemoratives. Having such an extensive collection may sound like an impressive accomplishment but whenever I even mention my philatelic power and prowess to my children, they roll their eyes and express some teasing sentiment indicating that collecting stamps is not particularly cool. They usually lament about what to do with such a mess when I am finally cancelled and all that is left of me is my own dated portrait. Of course they appreciate that some of my stamps are valuable but don't know which ones are. They dread the thought of how to dispose of the lot without being cheated. I can hardly blame them for their nonplussed attitude. I don't know the answer either. I can't expect either one of them to become enthralled in a hobby which is as high-speed and modern as a stamp showing a team of oxen pulling a cart. Also inheriting a collection dampens the sense of accomplishment which is an integral part of the gathering and organizing process. It means fiddling with someone's work rather than experiencing the pleasure of putting one's own "stamp" on a lifelong project.

As I grew older and learned the idea that beauty might be discovered by looking closely at little things like leaves or stones or insects, I discovered my collection was in fact a catalogue of magnificent pictures of landscapes, sculptures, engravings, photos and designs suitable for a Lilliputian art musem. When looked at from this perspective it is easy to see that every stamp expresses someone's creative vision, having had to pass the scrutiny of a jury and then being finely reproduced in a determined quantity and quality by a printing method. I have amassed perhaps thirty thousand of these graphic icons that, like tiny hitchhikers riding along on the envelopes which package the thoughts of others, transmit their own story of human history.

It has been a challenge to select examples to share. Each stamp is a jewel in a giant, fleck-filled kaleidoscope, Nonetheless I have plucked out three special ones for your review.

At the top is U.S. stamp  #1, a portrait honoring Benjamin Franklin who was named our first postmaster by the Continental Congress in 1775. This imperforate stamp was issued in July 1847 by the authority of Congress to standardize postage among the states, making it the only legal stamp that could be affixed to a letter. I chose to display this one for its historical significance and as a subtle hint to my children not to give it away!

The second example comes from France and is found in a series honoring French artists. It shows a painting by Marc Chagall who, although born in Russia, lived most of his life in France. It was issued in July 1987 and commemorates the 100th anniversary of the artist's birthday. I chose this to point out how lovely an envelope might look if this stamp were posted on it and how it might set the right tone for the message inside. In addition Chagall is my sister's favorite artist and I thought she might enjoy seeing this representation.

The third item is an engraved and typographed stamp from Canada printed at Christmas 1898. It displays a map of the British Empire using a Mercator projection. It was the first stamp issued by a colony of the British empire that didn't show a cameo of the English royal family. It provides a wealth of geographical, cultural, and historical information and, most importantly, I find it pleasing to my eye.


  1. A very interesting post -- always like it when I learn something new. I find the stamps you've shared to be quite fascinating. I also think it's great that it has provided you with so much pleasure for so long. I hope your kids appreciate what they will inherit! Ah, but who knows about our kids????

  2. This is what I want to know: Out of 30,000 stamps, how in the world did you manage to narrow it down to three? If it were my stamp collection and my blog, this post would never have been written. There's a very good reason for that. After maybe six hours (or more) I would have managed to narrow it down to maybe 100 or so of my absolute favorite stamps. Then I'd spend the next week getting it down to 25, and at that point I'd get totally frustrated and give up on the whole idea.

    Not deliberately, you understand. I'd still have every intention of writing a blog post about my stamp collection, but that's the point where I'd start getting distracted and procrastinating. And if there's one thing I'm good at, it's getting distracted and procrastinating! I've always had a natural aptitude that way.

    Re When working on them I was safe and hidden in my own private world and able to tune out the almost constant tension which permeated my family's dynamics.

    I can so relate to that. I also learned to tune out the unpleasant realities of my life when I was very young, usually through needlework of various kinds and making clothes for my dolls. I think most sensitive children understand almost instinctively how to create their own private worlds. This is sometimes called "escapism," but that isn't always such a terrible thing. As Tolkien pointed out in one of his essays, there is a difference between the flight of the deserter and the escape of the prisoner.