Appreciation of Printing : Stamps, an Inherited LoveSeptember 2011 By Erik Cagle
With all of the talk about digital alternatives and printers abandoning their heritage in favor of the moniker "marketing services provider," a salute to the art and craft of printing is long overdue. Look no further than the proud-yet-humble postage stamp for a prime example of timeless printing.
The stamp is an amazing way to view the world, its history, people and culture, places and events, moments in time and the subtleties of life. Jesus Christ has been celebrated on postage stamps. So has Adolph Hitler. Bunnies and butterflies. Malaria and war. Dag Bumstead and Dag Hammarskjold. Benjamin Franklin and Homer Simpson. Politicians, scientists, poets, musicians, astronomers, explorers, doctors, inventors—the list goes on and on. Even chickens have graced stamps.
John Johnson collected stamps as a child, like many boys of his generation. But Johnson, the manager of Palm Beach County's graphics division in Greenacres, FL, didn't become a hard-core collector (and philatelist) until his mother gave him his grandfather's collection—a whopping 64-album assemblage.
"When mom gave me my grandfather's stamp collection, my wife said, 'Oh no, not another hobby!' " recalls Johnson, also an avid train enthusiast who is drawn toward trains on stamps.
"Since I'm in the printing industry and know my way around layout programs, I have designed many album pages with extensive background information explaining the train subjects, all printed on 100 percent cotton fiber paper," adds Johnson, who has done similar pages for topical collections, including Civil War generals, cowboys, movie stars and presidents, among other themes.
"I have enjoyed researching about the locomotives and their builders. The 1994 set of five locomotive stamps (Scott catalog numbers 2843-2847) is a good example. I wrote a long explanation about each locomotive and a biography of the designer/builder of the locomotive. All very interesting stories. The researcher at the Postal Service that chose the five examples of late 19th century locomotive designs picked an excellent group to show the progression and diversity for that period."
Part of the beauty of stamp collecting is that there's a little something for everyone. You can be a topical collector like Johnson, a single-country collector (stamps from Hungary are some of the most colorful, with large pictorials, which some may find gaudy) or a worldwide collector. Trying to pick up one of every stamp ever issued is a futile attempt, but who cares?
A Postal Mirage
An entire article could be dedicated to the "sand dune states" in the Arabian Peninsula, seven emirates (which now form the United Arab Emirates) which issued—during a 10-year period in the 1960s and 1970s—a staggering 20,000 different stamps. Most of these stamps were never intended for postal use; they were canceled to order (CTO, lightly canceled by the postal service but unused) and sold to the collector market. Some cancellations were printed right on the stamps. That some of these sheikdoms were considered postally legitimate at all is laughable to veteran collectors, who point out that your local Wal-Mart has more square footage than some of these Arabian outposts.
"True" philatelists find the greatest appeal in postally-used stamps, which legitimizes them to an extent. Still, mint condition and CTO stamps are generally more attractive from an aesthetics standpoint because they still have their gloss and gum intact. Machine-applied cancellations, and the wear-and-tear of the postal stream, can exact a terrible price on the condition of the postally-used stamp.
Some collectors search for variations in perforation counts and cancellations. Other collectors prefer First Day Covers (FDC) and postal history. Johnson, for example, owns letters that were sent from a German POW camp back home to Tulsa, OK, during World War II. That in itself is a piece of history.
Like John Johnson, Cory Funk had the good fortune of inheriting an impressive stamp collection. When Funk, a national account executive with Japs-Olson in St. Louis Park, MN, was in fifth grade, his Uncle Hans—a World War II veteran who picked up mint sheets of stamps throughout Europe—passed down an impressive collection.
Although Funk's collecting tailed off during his college years, he kept the rare treasures, which included full, mint sheets of stamps from now-defunct countries such as White Russia. His collection includes full sheets of Christmas stamps. He also enjoys collecting the "America the Beautiful" state quarters gift sets, which also include state stamps.
Funk enjoys the historical value offered by stamps and likes that they also commemorate the beauty of nature, which has long been reflected by print. And, as someone who has spend many years in the printing industry, Funk appreciates the care necessary to preserve stamps such as the White Russian issues for posterity.
"It's the interactive nature of taking care of something that is 99 percent water," he says. "It's just paper fiber and ink, and it can be damaged easily, destroyed by heat and humidity."
In the Beginning...
The first "official" government-authorized adhesive stamp is largely credited to the United Kingdom's release of the Penny Black in May of 1840 (some official and unofficial attempts had been made for nearly 200 years prior). The Penny Black is a profile image of Queen Victoria that was produced on a Perkins D cylinder press. A staggering 68.8 million of these stamps were churned out, and many of them have survived through the years (one can acquire a decent copy for just a few hundred dollars).
Why is the postage stamp so amazing? Given its utilitarian roots, the stamp is a veritable painter's canvas, sometimes smaller than 1x1˝, yet can evoke emotions and stir the imagination. And, while the Internet has proven to be a treasure trove of information and an instant source for research, printed stamps have provided young collectors with bare-bones info on obscure/unheralded people, places and events, along with the most noteworthy topics in the history of mankind.
Clara Maass is a fine example. She worked as an army nurse during the Spanish-American War, but gained notoriety when she became a human guinea pig in the study of the transmission of yellow fever in Cuba. She allowed herself to be bitten (twice!) by mosquitoes, which turned out to be the cause of the malaise, and died at the tender age of 25.
A stamp celebrating Maass' sacrifice, released in 1976, reads "She gave her life." Absent the stamp, her altruistic acts would have been known only to educators and hard-core history buffs. Anyone who collects U.S. stamps, on the other hand, has a baseline of knowledge about her—limited though it may be—and any other topics that have been celebrated with a stamp release.
Stamps ruled the collecting roost in the early half of the 20th century, going toe to toe with coin collecting. But the wheels began to fall off in the late 1970s, at the dawn of the video game and computer age. Fans of paper collectibles, ephemera and plain-old hobbyists also found a new target for their affection—sports cards and memorabilia. Children dropped their Liberty U.S. stamp albums and tore through their attics in search of a 1952 Topps Mickey Mantle rookie card.
Still, the hobby has trudged on, enjoying worldwide appeal even despite its U.S. enthusiasts tending to be older and fewer in number. While the hobby has its pricey, high-end rarities, it's largely an inexpensive pursuit. And, despite the dwindling size of the mail stream and the practice of postal metering reducing the use of stamps (not to mention the simply terrible idea of switching over to self-adhesive label stock) the hobby moves forward and embraces technology.
Believe it or not, stamps and technology have a place in the same sentence.
Foreign countries have been using Quick Response (QR) codes or variations of them for nearly four years on their postage stamps in an effort to provide collectors with an added tinge of fun, excitement and technology. According to Linn's Stamp News, the country of Liberia recently released a pane of stamps on the subject of chocolate. Not only are the stamps chocolate brown in color, they also smell of cocoa. The pane includes a QR code that takes readers to a document on how chocolate is made.
Switzerland was the first country to use QR code technology on stamps, according to Linn's. It utilized a BeeTagg code developed by a Swiss technology firm.
And, earlier this year, The Netherlands became the first country to incorporate Augmented Reality (AR) in a stamp. The 12-stamp pane celebrates Dutch architecture, and one stamp, when AR enabled, shows a small car circling the block around a building.
While the postage stamp and its hobby are approaching the 175th anniversary, and the postal stream continues to dwindle as electronic mail erodes much of its volume, the stamp doesn't appear to be in danger of going away anytime soon. It's just another testament to the power of print. PI