Ken Whittle

When I was an annoying teenager helping out at the Apfelbaum stamp store in the 1960s, every Saturday brought in the fascinating Ken Whittle. Ken was the kind of philatelist that you saw a lot of then. Ken was the archetype of the “solitudinous collector” (or SC). SCs  are people for who philately is very important and who are putting together important collections which they rarely talk about.  Mr. Whittle was extremely well educated and worked as an engineer for Dupont in Wilmington (doing something with fractions of petroleum), was unmarried and lived, full time, at a small residential hotel in Wilmington. When I knew him in 60’s, he was always neat as a pin, with a well groomed little mustache. He came in, took off his hat and coat, and to my “Good Morning, Mr Whittle” would always (and I mean always) respond “Greetings and salutations, young man”.

Initially I thought that Mr Whittle collected Civil War material. I say “I thought” because every Saturday when he came in he looked at every new cover that had been put into stock that week, from everywhere in the world. And when he was done looking at the new material, he re-looked at the old, in case he had missed something. And he was as likely to buy a Mozambique Company cover as he was to buy a Blockade Run Civil War piece. He said he never knew what would strike his fancy but when he went to sell his collection we realized that his efforts had a more serious purpose. He was putting together a collection relating to slavery-its origins, operations and effects on peoples (black and white) and governments world wide. Obviously our Civil War was a focus. But so was the massive effect slavery had on Brazilian society, the effect that slavery had on developing the farm exports of the pre Independence northern US colonies (they were exporting to the slave sugar islands) and far more. In working with Mr Whittle on preparing his collection for sale his underlying theory was clear. Mr Whittle saw slavery (and all its implications) as one of the greatest economic and social activities of the seventeenth through the mid nineteenth century, comparable in fact to the industrial revolution.(He thought that the slave world was ended by that great technological boom-the Industrial Revolution. But then he was, as he said, an engineer and no doubt felt people like him had more impact on world history than perhaps they really did have). And it all could be studied from a philatelic point of view.

“Solitudinous collectors (SCs)” are a big part of our hobby, usually operating off the radar screen. They collect with intent and purpose but rarely make much noise. Mr. Whittle took me into his world because I seemed so eager and, as he was an old bachelor, no doubt I aroused his paternal feelings. The difference between then and now is that then SCs had to make forays into the world for philatelic supply. We saw them at our offices and at stamp shows. Whenever anyone’s buying patterns seemed a bit odd, when they bought mainly one country or era but occasionally bought seemingly very disparate items, a bit of interested inquisitiveness could usually get the collector to begin telling his philatelic story. And how interesting they were! Today, SCs click on web sites and on Ebay and one rarely meets them and gets to hear about their fascinating journey through our hobby. The internet has in many ways been a boon for our hobby. This, though, isn’t one of them.

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