Stamps As Part Of Mainstream Culture

Back in 2013 On April 28 the cover photograph of the New York Times Sunday Book Review was the sheet of the 8¢ Willa Cather stamp. The stamp was used to illustrate a review of a new book of her letters.  Such a use of postage stamps by graphic designers is quite unusual today and, as the Sunday Times reaches over two million people, represents a good bit of decent publicity for our hobby.  In the last twenty years, stamps have rarely made it into the mainstream, and we are apt to forget how our hobby once enjoyed great publicity and was esteemed as the hobby of serious and successful people.

Despite the revolutionary effect that stamps had on communications and the pervasiveness of early stamp collecting, there are very few references to philately in the literature of the nineteenth century. Dickens, who wrote over 10,000 pages of novels, has none. Anthony Trollope, who wrote 20,000 pages of novels, also has no collector characters, though he does mention mail and stamps and the post at least a few times. This is only appropriate as throughout most of his career, Trollope, in addition to being an enormously prolific author, held a full time job as an official with the British Post Office (and is reputedly the inventor of the mail drop box). By the early twentieth century, characters, who had philately as one of their distinguishing aspects, were making it into mainstream literature. Forrester and Maugham had important characters who were collectors. The most famous literary character who was a stamp collector was Michael Lanyard—The Lone Wolf—of the stunningly popular detective series of the 1920s and 1930s. The writer Louis Joseph Vance used his main character’s philatelic fondness to emphasis his sophistication and urbanity.
Aided by role models such as President Franklin Roosevelt and King George VI, stamp collectors were portrayed as well educated and successful. Stamps graced the pages of Life magazine several times in the 1950s, highlighted by being the cover story in 1954. Life magazine sold 15.5 million copies weekly in the United States in the 1950s giving it market penetration to nearly 25% of homes. There is nothing today, except the Superbowl, that gets that kind of market share, and Life was happy to emphasize stamps and stamp collecting. The last thirty years, though, haven’t been as kind to our hobby.
There are several reasons that philately doesn’t get the kind of press that it used to. First, through the first three quarters of the twentieth century, stamps were rising in price and in popularity. Though collectors were always seen as a bit “odd” (think George Wilson, Dennis the Menace’s crotchety old neighbor) with stamp prices rising, the hobby was at least shrewd. Stagnant prices have changed that feeling. Second, is the luck factor. Philately was fortunate to have several leading exponents of our hobby in widely respected politicians (Roosevelt), military leaders (Mark Clark and Matthew Ridgway), writers (James Michener), and numerous actors. Can you name anyone of national importance today whom you know is a stamp collector?
But most importantly, stamps were often used as graphic design window dressing in years gone by. In 1970 if you were running an artcle or ad that featured, say, Tahiti, pictures were difficult to come by, and companies that owned images like these charged dearly for them. Graphic designers often used postage stamps to spice up their ads and magazine and newspaper articles. The internet has made millions of images available to graphic designers for free (or very low royalties) and accordingly, it is far less common to see images of stamps in general articles than it was thirty years ago. If there is one thing that the APS could do (for a small amount of money) that could benefit our hobby in the long run, it would be to create and publicize a $5,000 annual award given to the advertisement or magazine article that best uses stamps as part of its graphic design. Don’t kid yourself; companies spend millions on product placement, and having philately associated with interesting articles and glamorous destinations would have a big benefit on our hobby.
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