In Praise of Stamp Collecting


by Terry Hogan


Whatever happened to stamp collecting?  Two things, I think.  One, young kids lost interest in such mundane things that required work and thought.  This was replaced by electronic games that occupied but didn't tax the cerebral cortex. Second, for some stupid reason, the post office got involved with it and offered to sell all the stamps, unused, in one lump, to the youthful collector.  Now that makes a challenging hobby. In one evening, you're done for an entire year. Instant gratification. 


I remember stamp collecting as a child.  I remember the good.  I remember the bad.  And yes, I remember the ugly. 


The good.  I learned about the world.  I learned where different countries were located.  I learned to read and identify stamps.  I could tell a Chinese stamp from Japanese.  I learned that the German over-stamped stamps reflected the rampant inflation that occurred in the country.  I learned about colonialism, such as Belgium Congo, and French Guyana.  I learned the thrill of the hunt of going through collections of envelopes that friends and relatives saved for me.  I also learned the successes and failures of buying big bags of "unsorted stamps" to sort through.  I learned how to discretely help myself to stacks of ink blotters in banks, to use to dry stamps soaked off of letters (Remember the old ink blotters advertising banks that were available when banks still looked like banks?).   


I also learned a lot of history.  The birth, rise, and decline of countries can be traced by their stamps. Major wars are reflected in stamps.  Major political movements - both good and bad are there for the study.  Whether it was the rise of Hitler, or the birth of the American environmental movement, it can be found in stamps.


Technology, for better or worse, can be found by looking at the stamps of today, compared to the stamps of 50 years ago.  The old stamps were a work of art. You could study them with a magnifying glass and see marvelous detail. They looked nearly three dimensional.  Today's stamps are flat and have no warmth.  Flashy, but no substance.  This too, could be a reflection of history in progress. 


The bad.  I learned about "stamps on approval". They would initially send you a bunch of free or nearly free stamps, with the promise that others would come and you could buy or returnÉno obligation.  Yea, right.  I was just a little kid.  Fixed income - about 50 cents a week. I'd send nearly all back, but I'd get billed and billed again and threatened by the stamp company, claiming it didn't receive the stamps back. 


The ugly.  The ugly in stamp collecting was the "stamps on approval'.  After a period of time, the stamp company began threatening legal action against a grade school kid.  Well, to say the least, this was a pretty serious thing for a kid who hadn't made it to junior high yet (at least back then).


When I got older, I broadened my stamp collecting to the collection of stamp books whenever the opportunity arose.  Some were pretty neat.  "The Modern Stamp Book" with cover in red and black, showing the skyline of New York, with a biplane flying by the Empire State Building. 


I was a generalist in stamp collecting. I loved them all. Foreign, U.S., they all had something to offer to me.  I must admit, when I was young I was a bit taken in by those fancy stamps made overseas and sold just for  youthful stamp collectors. They were often odd shaped, for example triangular, and often had exotic subjects - wild animals, sporting events, or even famous Americans featured in foreign stamps. 


When I got older, stamp collecting pretty much fell to the side, but I would still set aside the odd stamp or letter.  And I never, never, separated from my old stamp book.  It is now a half century old, and I have several others that are older than that.  They have no real financial value. But they do have sentimental value. Many of these stamps are homeless now.  Their countries no longer exist by the name found in my old stamp books.  In Africa, some of these countries have probably changed their names several times.


We had two daughters.  I had hopes.  I bought each of them a new stamp book of their own. I bought each of them packages of unsorted stamps. I bought them stamp hinges. I bought them stamp identification guides.  I waited to help open the door to the thrill of stamp collecting. I could hardly wait. They are both married now and have children of their own.  I'm still waiting for them to discover the fun of stamp collecting, but I'm getting doubtful. They seem awfully short of spare time for such things as stamp collecting. Their spare time seems to be filled by sleeping.


A few nights ago, I was restless.  I dug out my old stamp books and quietly paged through and recalled the countries; the stamps; and the thrill of the hunt.  It was like seeing an old friend from childhood, and the accompanying mixed emotions. There were the stamps that I carefully affixed 50 years ago, still in place.  No better and no worse for the passage of a half a century. I looked at my hands. They no longer looked to be the hands of a nine year old. But I could see the nine year old and I could recall his pleasure of filling in those blanks with stamps from all over the world.


I can't prove that I'm a better person than I would have been if I hadn't collected stamps.  Who could?  It is just one of thousands roads we select during our lives.  Some have profound effects.  Some don't.  And other choices not selected may have brought events, good or bad, that we shall never know about.  But I'm pretty sure I'm no worse for collecting stamps. I probably learned more about the world from stamp collecting than I ever did in "world geography". 


It's too bad that stamp collecting has taken such a licking. Even that isn't current humor any more. But saying that stamp collecting has taken such a peeling doesn't seem to work.


Don't tell anyone.  But even today, if I see foreign stamps on a discarded envelope at work, I will furtively recover the envelope and take it home.


Perhaps stamp collecting is safe and well in retirement centers. If it isn't it should be. I believe it could evoke memories in minds that are becoming harder to stir. I offer that suggestion up, in praise of stamp collecting.



9-08-05 revised