I admit it: I feel a bit nerdy confessing I collect stamps.
I’m not sure how it all started, but I think it’s my father’s fault. He used to travel a lot for work, so he had friends all over the planet. And occasionally these friends would send us a letter, like this one:
Within a few years I’d amassed maybe a dozen such first-day covers, and I’d saved several hundred stamps from my father’s correspondence. (I especially looked forward to Christmas each year.)
Before long I was saving my allowance for the local stamp-swaps and mail-order offers. I’m sure I got swindled a few times (I was only eight or nine). But still, it was fun.
Then my collection sat idle for a few years, largely forgotten while I attended college and married and started a career. It wasn’t until last year, in the aftermath of The Great Flood, that I dug it out.
And that’s how I got hooked again.
I had every intention of dismantling my collection and selling off the (very few, not-really-all-that) valuable stamps. But then I started looking at the stamps closely again — this time through new eyes.
There were a lot of things I couldn’t part with, like this envelope my mom’s best friend sent her from the USSR …
… nor this small series from Peru. I still remember the round-bellied old fellow who taught me that, although some stamps may look similar, they’re actually printed by different companies (look closely at the very bottom).
I also noticed for the first time how deeply stamps can reflect a country’s culture and heritage. Peru was quite proud of its “riqueza del guano” (bird poop), it would seem …
… while Spain celebrated its pilgrims’ stops on their way to Santiago de Compostela.
Iceland’s stamps, on the other hand, were a veritable festival of things that gush and explode …
I also love this old stamp from France, showing the bridges of Paris …
… and the series they did on their cathedrals’ stained glass …
… not to mention their “great moments in history” collection.
Seeing these places and events illustrated so artfully brings them alive for me in a way no narrative ever could. That’s especially true of wartime stamps.
… just as the remembrance of the victims is heartbreaking.
And if you look closely, you can almost trace a country’s evolution through its stamps. In a sense, they’re a reflection not only of how a country wants to be seen — but also of how it sees itself.
I’ll leave you to draw your own conclusions about the two Germanies’ Soviet-like and paternalistic post-war incarnations.
Speaking of paternalism … collecting stamps is also a great way to learn about history, because it helps you put faces to the names. (Though, ironically, long-faced Felipe IV on the far right was reputed to have a great sense of humor.)
I also love these cameos of Ludwig III, the last king of Bavaria. For one thing, I really did manage to “collect them all.” For another, the Freistaat Bayern overprints are historically significant because they refer to the Bamberg Constitution, which established the “free state” of Bavaria on September 15, 1919. But you probably knew that already.
And while many stamps celebrate emperors and kings, others tell the story of a city or an entire state. Prague has survived centuries of war and occupation, for instance …
… and these stamps were issued to raise money for the reconstruction of Freiburg …
… but Yugoslavia no longer exists.
Stamps are also superb barometers of popular culture and current events. Consider the space race, for instance. Naturally, the Soviets had something to say on the matter.
Then Laos jumped on the bandwagon …
… and then Liberia sort of suggested they’d put a man on the moon …
… and finally Equatorial Guinea issued a stamp commemorating the “discovery of the three dead cosmonauts.” Go home, Equatorial Guinea. You’re drunk.
But lest you get the wrong impression and think stamps are boring and depressing, let me cover one more topic: the unintentionally hilarious. Like this series from Germany I like to call “Dumb Ways to Die.”
Although plummeting off a ladder and tetanus have a certain appeal, I’m going to have to go with “brick to the head.”
There are also these beautiful British lithographs commemorating “The Great Postal Disasters.” Ah, yes, who could forget “The Norwich Mail in a Thunder Storm.” And remember the time the mail got snowbound in Edinburgh?
But wait … what’s this about an attack on the Exeter mail? I couldn’t tell at first whether it was a dog or a wolf leaping upon the horse, in the lower-right-hand corner.
It turns out it was a LION. Yes, a LION attacked the mail service on October 20, 1816. And the mail was still only 45 minutes late! See? We’d never know this priceless fact, if not for my stamp collection.
The best part is, these are only a fraction of the stories I could tell you. Imagine what we might learn if we looked at all three books …
But rather than risk boring you, I’ll leave you with one final treasure from my collection. Yes, that’s right: Stamps I collected about collecting stamps.
Call me a nerd, but you’ve got to admit that’s pretty cool.