by Ken Perkins
I was reading a review of an art exhibit in a recent issue of Art News when the writer took a gratuitous swipe at stamp collecting: “(Hanne) Darboven’s…fastidiousness and fetishism bear a strong resemblance to those of a hobbyist stamp collector, which she once was.” Stamp collecting being dissed by the world of avant-garde art as “fastidiousness and fetishism”? As the old saying goes, ‘People who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones’.
But stamp collecting has long suffered from a lack of respect. Just 2 years after adhesive postage stamps had been invented, Punch, the weekly London humor magazine which was itself barely a year old, stated: “A new mania has bitten the industriously idle ladies of England. To enable a large wager to be gained, they have been indefatigable in their endeavors to collect old penny stamps; in fact, they betray more anxiety to treasure up Queen’s Heads than Harry the Eighth did to get rid of them.”
And as the new hobby took hold in Britain, one Charles Lever, obviously no fan of European royalty, wrote of stamp collecting in Blackwood’s Magazine in 1864: “Is it the intention to establish a cheap portrait-gallery of living princes and rulers?…What curiosity can any reasonable being have to possess the commonplace effigies of the most commonplace-looking people in Europe?” Even the King of England wasn’t immune; here’s British diplomat Sir Harold Nicolson writing about King George V: “For seventeen years he did nothing at all but kill animals and stick in stamps.”
Even our own President Franklin D. Roosevelt, renown as a fellow collector, didn’t please everybody with his choice of hobby. His wife Eleanor, asked if she had any hobbies of her own, reportedly replied “One collector in a family is enough…If you had ever lived with one you would realize that.”
We stamp collectors are attacked from all sides. Even Nobel laureate Ernest Rutherford, President of the Royal Society, managed to use our hobby to label most of science as second class when he famously said ‘Physics is the only real science. The rest are just stamp collecting.‘ And then there’s the wonderful headline from the June 18, 2014 edition of the Washington Post reporting the sale of the unique British Guiana 1 Cent: “Rare stamp sold for $9.5 million. Last owner was crazed killer.”
So what’s to be done? Maybe we should look for a new target for peoples’ humor. Pokemón Go looked like a good one, but the crowds of young people wandering in front of the Beach Chalet, ignoring the glorious ocean view in favor of their tiny screens, seem to be dissipating already. Politicians are too easy a target, particularly in this election year, and Congress probably already rates even lower than stamp collecting.
Maybe we should just keep on collecting and trying to let young people know all the things stamps can teach us: history, geography, science, music, etc. After all, when somebody asks about Aleppo, many a stamp collector could give a cogent answer.