I must have been about 8 years old when Aunt Irma gave me this present. Christmas? Birthday? I have no idea. The present was a stamp collector starter kit – a basic world stamp album and a modest collection of several dozen stamps. It was up to me to determine which country each stamp was from and to place it in the appropriate part of the album. She hit the mark with that gift; oh, how she hit the mark! I was hooked from Day One. I dove in headlong and was soon plowing through my mother’s collection of old letters looking for stamps to steam off, and poring over every book I could find on the subject at our local branch library.
This was, of course, the pre-Internet era, and any resource to further my knowledge of philately was a precious thing. No one else in my immediate family collected stamps so they weren’t of much use in that regard. The Chandler Park branch of the Detroit Public Library had only a handful of books on the subject beyond the novice level, so I was always on the lookout at my local bookstore for any new titles or good magazines on the subject.
I also became a frequent visitor to the nearest post office. When a new stamp would come out, I’d already know about it and would have to obtain my own pristine copy. Though the post office was only about a mile and a half away, it required me to bike through a neighborhood that was clearly a cut below my own, and there were at least two occasions when I had to pedal feverishly to get away from kids in that area who didn’t like the way I looked and made a run at me. I’m sure that neighborhood isn’t nearly as nice today as it was when I was hurrying through. If you’re inclined to do some research yourself, find the area for ZIP* code 48213 and you’ll know where I grew up.
So why do I make the bold claim that this gift from Irma was “one of the pivotal moments in my life”? After all, I might well have come across philately on my own. Sure, maybe. And maybe not. The point is that I think the earlier you’re exposed to this sort of growth portal, the better off you are.
Stamps and the stamp business touch on every facet of society in one way or another. The most obvious place where this happens is in commemorative stamps. For example, knowing that this stamp, marking the 75th anniversary of the driving of the golden spike at Promontory, Utah, was issued in 1944 enabled me to remember that the original event had occurred in 1869. This is also a celebrated error stamp, by the way. If you want to try to figure it out for yourself, don’t read any further for a moment and study the image… OK, time’s up – the error is that the smoke is blowing one way and the flag is blowing the other way. Frankly, it has always seemed possible to me that the wind might have been swirling, but nobody asked my opinion so this is widely considered to be a prime example of an error in composition that nobody caught until it was too late.
I have always had a great affection for reasonably useless trivia, and the stamp world affords myriad opportunities to bone up on this sort of knowledge as well. For example, stamps have taught me that the word “sesquicentennial” means “150th anniversary.” Try to work that word into your next dinner party or therapy session. Here’s another one: This nation may have declared its independence in 1776, but we didn’t issue our first postage stamps until 1847. That first issue consisted of a five-center with Ben Franklin’s face on it and a ten-center with George Washington’s.
I haven’t actively collected stamps in any form since I was in my late teens, but I still have a great affinity for them. I know that economic, technological, and sociological evolution have conspired to gradually diminish and replace postage stamps over the years. They’re not gone by any means, but notice that few pieces of delivered mail now carry actual postage stamps. They have been largely replaced by systems that are far easier to use, far more economical, and far less attractive or interesting. Far be it from me to buck technology; after all, postage was created out of practical need, not aesthetic need, but an unfortunate by-product of these advances may be that we will lose a wonderful way of getting our children to educate themselves. I feel very fortunate that I was allowed to embrace philately when I did, and I can only hope that today’s and tomorrow’s children will have comparable opportunities to explore and learn. I probably did not thank Aunt Irma for the gift at the time, so all I can do is try to pass the favor on!
* Why do I capitalize all the letters in ZIP? Something else I learned as a stamp collector – ZIP is an acronym. It stands for Zone Improvement Plan. Yes, I’m that big of a geek!