Sociological Philately

A sociologist would look at stamps much differently than a philatelist does. We look at perfs and gum and paper and quality and then, in passing, notice the design. But a sociologist would look only at the design. And he would ask what does the design tell us about the goals and aspirations of the culture that produced it. Stamps are propaganda reflecting how a culture sees itself and how it wishes others to see it. Look at the last 60 years of United States stamp issues. Several main themes predominate. In all eras there are the usual great American issues with prominent scientists, writers and politicians being commemorated but with an increasing nod towards popular culture and entertainment (cartoon characters, star wars and more of that ilk). But even more significant is the overall design style changes that seem to me to underscore a huge transition in the American world view. Compare the six stamps above which I took pretty much at random from a United States collection. The top two were from 1952 and show historic and nationalistic themes and each is designed to look like a miniature painting at an art museum. The two from the 1980’s (in the middle) show representational rather than literal designs and are more conceptual in orientation and show themes that may not resonate with all Americans. The last two are very recent and really look like images from a wide screen TV and even the Supreme Court stamp has framed the justice within the stamp in a black and white TV screen. The change in America over the last 60 years as shown in its postage stamps can be seen as follows: Not a homogeneous nation in 1950 we at least paid lip service to broad uniting national themes and were looking for unified ideals and dreams to pursue. By the 1980s, our nation was fractured into groups that represented competing versions of what this country was all about and those groups were clamoring for the recognition that a commemorative stamp would bestow. And now, we are attempting to use popular culture and imagery to find a common ground in a nation that feels diffused and unconnected.

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