What’s a stamp?
That’s a question we’re likely to hear from young people in the not-so-distant future. Despite the fact that U.S. Postal Service has labeled its stamps “forever,” their future seems as tentative as ... well, handwritten letters.
Not long ago (at least it doesn’t seem long ago to me), stamps not only were necessary to send letters but also were a source of fascination for kids. We not only knew what a stamp was, we also collected them from all over the world and put them in albums for safe keeping.
A recent article in Time magazine charts the sad decline of stamp collecting. While a few wealthy people still collect stamps – the really rare ones – most children no longer take up the hobby, and stamp collecting now is a dying art.
Even worse news: Most of those stamps we collected as kids that were supposed to soar in value over the years and make us rich aren’t worth much more than their face value today.
Maybe we should just be grateful for the fun we had collecting stamps when we were young. While it sounds incredibly nerdy by today’s standards, we could spend hours sorting our stamps by the country of origin, putting them in special albums and scouting attics for potentially valuable stamps on old letters.
That was the dream, that we would find an impossibly rare stamp on one of grandma’s old love letters and make our fortune. But by an large, we simply spent our time rummaging around in piles of weird and colorful stamps from around the world.
It seems amazing now to think that stamp collecting was a major enterprise about 50 years ago. Magazines and comic books had ads selling packages of assorted international stamps through the mail.
You’d send off a quarter or 50 cents, and never know exactly what you’d be getting. But it usually would be an envelope packed with stamps bearing foreign names and often striking images.
Many department stores back then had a special counter for stamp collectors. You could buy stamps, of course, but also special tongs to handle your valuable stamps without damaging them, magnifying glasses to examine your stamps, adhesive hinges to attach your stamps to albums, and the albums themselves.
We won’t ever make any money from our stamps but the entrepreneurs sure did.
It seems corny now, but those stamps really were something of a window to the world. We had stamps from nations all over the African continent, including several that no longer exist. They often featured pictures of gazelles or zebras or other wild beasts, much more colorful than profiles of chinless royalty from Belgium or Luxembourg.
Many of the German stamps featured pictures of Adolf Hitler or Nazi soldiers. Russians preferred pictures of combines or healthy women with sheaves of wheat.
Monaco used to be famous for its stamps. Collectors would eagerly snap up the first issues of any new stamps from the home of Princess Grace. Residents now must be relieved that they also cultivated casinos and auto racing in addition to colorful stamps.
The 3-cent American stamps on most letters were dull, a profile of George Washington or Abe Lincoln. But the special commemorative stamps usually were considerably livelier, with pictures of famous events like the Oklahoma land rush or familiar places like Yellowstone Park with Old Faithful spouting in the foreground.
The variety was astounding. And as we shuffled our multi-colored stamps around, we had the satisfaction of knowing that we were following in the footsteps of one of the world’s most distinguished philatelists, Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
I don’t want to leave the impression that I was toiling over my stamp collection into my late teens. Girls, sports and rock music soon became much higher priorities.
But I have always had fond memories of stamp collecting and, until now, had hopes that the old collection might make me rich. My brother, who managed to actually put more stamps into albums while I seemed to be constantly sorting them, has possession of the stamps now.
If he sells them, maybe we could use the money to buy lunch. If not, we could always use the stamps to mail letters.
I wonder if the Post Office accepts letters with stamps from Mozambique.
James Werrell, Herald opinion page editor, can be reached at 329-4081 or, by email, at email@example.com.