Stamp collecting is a much maligned hobby these days. I'm sure you've recently heard someone ask: "Why do grown men and women waste their spare time playing with little pieces of paper when they can be out golfing, gossiping, shopping, or committing adultery?" It's a serious question, and a serious answer starts with the recognition that philatelists' motives differ.
Some collectors collect for fun, driven by an innocent interest in the technical processes of printing or in the miniature aesthetics of stamps. Others collect for profit, which, when you risk your life savings doing it, is called "investment."
But then there is the pathological aspect of stamp collecting, which probably is responsible for giving philately a bad name. Let's face it. Some people can't resist the urge to collect things, and obsessions are ugly. These poor souls are the sort who, if they are missing a single stamp from the nine-piece Trans-Mississippi Exposition Issue of 1898, wax catatonic and start clacking their teeth like a dog on speed. Help is on the way for such people, however. Some stamp widows, as they are called, are forming Philatelies Anonymous to reclaim their possessed spouses.
A few people collect for educational and scholarly purposes. In philatelic magazines, among maddeningly irrelevant articles on "Varieties of Cancellations of the Belgian Train Stamps of 1902–04" and other glass-bead-game esoterica, one occasionally finds an essay that shows how stamps reflect history. The French, for example, early in their administration of the Mandate for Syria, foreshadowed their divide-and-rule stratagem when they produced separate stamps for Syria proper, Lebanon, Latakia, Cilicia, Alexandretta, and even for Rouad, a small island off the Syrian coast. The charity stamps (so called because they sold for more than their postal value, and the difference was a contribution to some charity) of Nazi Germany, as another example, mirror the mindset of the Third Reich's propagandists. There is enough "Eine Volk, Eine Reich, Eine Fürhrer" stuff to gag on.
Other examples represent wishful thinking more than history. The stamps of revolutionary Iran depict Islamic forces capturing Jerusalem, but others symbolize Shi'a Islam's capturing Mecca. Little wonder the Saudi government gets squeamish about admitting large numbers of Iranian pilgrims.
For all this, the analytical gaze of the American stamp collector rarely focuses on the United States. But by comparing the folks who have appeared on U.S. definitive stamps since 1847, we get an impressionistic history of "the hero" in American society (for those not in the know, "definitive" stamps are issued for everyday use in a range of values, while "commemorative" stamps are printed in small quantities—usually only in the amount needed for a first-class envelope—and then go out of production). Such a history not only reveals changed attitudes toward basic public values but serves as well as a political barometer for our own times. Back in the olden days—before the Vietnam War—U.S. definitive postage stamps featured a veritable Who's Who of national heroes. It was a select, universally recognized, and generally great bunch of guys. Today, U.S. definitive stamps are better described as a Who's That of national obscurity.
American Heroes: In the Beginning
When the federal government first made stamps in 1847, there were only two: a 5-cent stamp bearing a likeness of Benjamin Franklin and a 10-cent stamp of George Washington. In those days, 5 cents sent a letter a long way. Ten cents sent it even farther.
The set was expanded to eight stamps between 1851 and 1861: Benjamin Franklin was demoted to a 1-cent stamp and also promoted to the 30-cent. George Washington kept his 10-cent stamp and also appeared on the 3-cent, 12-cent, 24-cent, and 90-cent stamps. Thomas Jefferson replaced Ben on the 5-center. This left no doubt about whose legacies ruled the national roost.
The series grew even larger during and after the Civil War. Andrew Jackson appeared on the first 2-cent stamp, and Abraham Lincoln on a 15-cent. Of course, both of these guys had to die first—a requirement since the beginning for getting on a U.S. stamp (Donald Trump, eat your heart out!). Both Jackson and Lincoln, as well as Jefferson, were dropped in the 1869 set.
The set introduced in the 1870s resurrected all stamp alumni, and added a few new faces. Of the several men honored in this set for the first time, some are pretty obscure and one is flat-out embarrassing: Edwin Stanton (7-cent), Henry Clay (12-cent), Daniel Webster (15-cent), General Winfield Scott (24-cent), Alexander Hamilton (30-cent), and Admiral Oliver Hazard Perry (90-cent).
Scott was a hero of the War of 1812 and Perry won the Battle of Lake Erie in 1813. But Edwin Stanton has slipped clean out of the pantheon of American heroes like a melting popsicle out of a toddler's hand. A lawyer and secretary of war under Lincoln and then Johnson, he was responsible for much of the occupation and "reconstruction" legislation affecting the South. He and Johnson soon became mortal enemies, however, and Johnson fired him. Not only did Stanton refuse to leave, he encouraged high-ranking army officers to be insubordinate to the commander in chief. At the time, Johnson faced impeachment and Stanton became a hero.
Stanton died in 1869, just in time to make the 7-center. He has never reappeared on a stamp, however, which just goes to show you what puerile lying and fomenting a constitutional crisis will get you (so don't expect to see Richard Nixon on a stamp).
Otherwise, we have in this series politicians, great orators, men of letters (Clay and Webster), one of the Founding Fathers and the first treasury secretary (Hamilton), and a military man (Perry). Politics, money, and force—that's what got you on a stamp in those days, and, frankly, that's what got the United States manifestly across North America to its destiny as a great power. Amen to that.
On the stamps of the 1890s, Franklin, Washington, Jackson, and Lincoln remain, as do Webster, Clay, and Perry. But Hamilton drops out (as do Stanton and Scott), and Jefferson returns on the 30-cent stamp. New to the list are Gens. Ulysses Grant (5-cent) and William Tecumseh Sherman (8-cent). Also new is the recently assassinated President James Garfield (6-cent). (Anybody who gets killed while president is sure to end up on a stamp.)
The addition of Grant and Sherman demonstrates the patriotic fervor raised by the Civil War and affirms its centrality in American history of that time. The fact that Grant was an alcoholic, an anti-Semite, a womanizer, and a mass murderer of Native Americans was, frankly, not a big deal. The fact that Sherman burned down half of Georgia for no particularly good reason was also conveniently forgotten. But one wonders how many 8-cent Shermans were sold at post offices in Atlanta.
Why Jefferson returns at the expense of Hamilton, one can only speculate. There was a deep recession in 1870–71, and lots of people, especially in the West, blamed it on the monetary policies of the federal government. Later, as these stamps were being made, the Free Silver movement arose. This movement was made up of people who believed that it was better to find money in the ground—since they were finding it out west and pin-striped easterners were not—than to have it printed in Washington. Very logical. So either Hamilton suffered from the public's dislike of federal money managers, or perhaps the descendants of Hamilton's arch rival (and killer), Aaron Burr, had seized control of the post office.
In 1894, two high-value stamps were added to the series: James Madison—the fourth president of the United States and the drafter of the U.S. Constitution—on the $2.00 stamp, and John Marshall—the first chief justice of the Supreme Court—on the $5.00. Both men clearly were suitable subjects for stamps. Besides, in 1890, with the frontier closing, it was safe to honor men who stood for law, since we were about finished swiping the western part of the country from the Spanish, the Mexicans, and the Indians.
Sherman Swapped for Martha
Next comes the exquisite series of 1902–03. Out went General Sherman, who was replaced by Martha Washington; shades of the women's movement that, by 1919, had secured the vote. Out, too, went Admiral Perry, and in came Admiral David Glasgow Farragut of Civil War fame. Both men had double rs in their last names, so the switch was barely noticed.
The next definitive series, which lasted from 1908 to 1922, was a throwback to 1847. Only Washington and Franklin appear; the same two portraits are used on all the stamps, which differ only in denomination and color. But this was an era of regimentation, when President Wilson nationalized the railroads and everything else he could get his idealistic hands on, and when the acolytes of John Dewey were busy "rationalizing" American government and life. Isn't it just like a neophyte technocrat to want to "structure" things? It was truly an act of divine mercy that Randolph Bourne didn't live to see it.
The 1922 set was, like earlier sets, a mixture of faces and symbols. The ½-cent featured Nathan Hale, whose main accomplishment was to get hanged by the British for spying. His appearance was ironic—a few years later, in 1929, President Hoover and Secretary of State Henry Stimson abolished the United States' "Black Chamber" spy agency because, in Stimson's words, "gentlemen did not read other people's mail."
Franklin and Washington were on the 1- and 2-cent stamps, respectively. On the 1½-cent, we have the late Warren G. Harding. The Harding stamp, in black, was introduced as a presidential memorial issue in 1923, but ladies liked it so much that it became a regular issue, in brown, in 1925.
Lincoln was on the 3-cent, Martha W. on the 4, and for the first time the late Theodore Roosevelt graced the 5-cent stamp. Garfield remained on the 6, McKinley appeared on the 7. Now, Garfield and McKinley had both been assassinated, and Teddy Roosevelt almost was, having taken a slug during the Bull Moose campaign of 1912. One licked these stamps carefully.
Rutherford B. Hayes appeared on the 11-cent. No one knows why, except that he had recently died. Grover Cleveland made it to the 12-cent stamp, presumably for the same reason. A generic American Indian was on the 14-cent; most of them were dead, too. And, it turned out, so was an era in stamp history.
Technocrats Run Amok
Things changed in 1936. The designs of the popular presidential series were far more rigidly structured than the designs of earlier, 19th-century definitive sets. To get all deceased presidents into the set, and to have the denomination of each stamp match the order in which they served (at least from 1 to 22), the post office produced stamps for which there was no rationale at all in the postal rate structure. Here was a great example of the technocratic mind run completely amok, as form displaced substance. But what made better sense than a set of stamps dedicated to presidents during an era in which President Franklin Delano Roosevelt usurped more power to the executive branch than any man in history?
In 1954 we got the definitive set of the baby-boom generation. It was also a mixture of people and patriotic symbols. On the ½-cent stamp, Franklin retained his place in fiery orange, doubtless because he was the founder of the first volunteer fire department. Washington remained on the 1-cent stamp, and on the 1½ was Mount Vernon, the Washington homestead, symbolizing The Suburbs. On the 2-cent, in American revolutionary red, was Jefferson. On the 2½ was the Bunker Hill memorial and flag in somber gray. The 3-cent was a deep blue Statue of Liberty.
On the 4-cent was the royal purple Lincoln. In 1958, when the rate for a first-class letter rose to 4 cents, Lincoln inherited pride of place. This was perfect, for the civil rights struggle was about to begin in earnest.
There was a 4½-cent stamp of the Hermitage, Andrew Jackson's famous home. The 5-cent, 6-cent, and 7-cent, respectively, showed Presidents James Monroe, Theodore Roosevelt, and Woodrow Wilson. This was due to the Cold War, namely, to show our cocky Latin American neighbors who was boss. After all, Jackson attacked the Spanish at Pensacola, Monroe issued the Monroe Doctrine, Roosevelt charged up San Juan Hill and bragged about having "took" Panama, and Wilson shelled Vera Cruz and occupied Haiti. With these fellows all in a row, no Latin lunatic was going to mess with us. And if that wasn't enough, the 9-cent stamp made clear that we had not forgotten the Alamo.
While this series was in use, the United States displaced Arbenz in Guatemala (1954), dumped Batista in Cuba (1958), planned and botched the Bay of Pigs operation (1961), assassinated Trujillo in the Dominican Republic (1961), and hatched numerous plots against Francis Duvalier in Haiti. If this isn't proof of a causal relationship between politics and stamps, I don't know what is.
But this series carried mixed political messages, a harbinger of divisions in American society to come. The 10-cent stamp showed Independence Hall, the 11-cent the Statue of Liberty again,the 12-cent Benjamin Harrison, the 15-cent John Jay,and the 20-cent a scene of Monticello. Benjamin Harrison was pictured because of his beard; a sop to the beatnik movement. John Jay was an author of the Federalist Papers and a diplomat, but he also negotiated the treaty that established the U.S.-Canadian border, the longest unfortified frontier in modern history. This was clearly a sop to the developing arms control lobby; sure enough, the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency was soon formed.
On the 25-cent stamp was Paul Revere, a silversmith, patriot, and world-class loudmouth. As he sped through the streets of Boston warning of the British assault, he was also a notorious runner of red lights—one if by land, two if by sea—but never got ticketed.
On the 40-cent stamp, Justice Marshall returns, a clear sign of the increasingly imperial judiciary that changed the face of America in the 1960s. On the 50-cent stamp is a glaring picture of an aged Susan B. Anthony that foretells the coming of Betty Friedan and Geraldine Ferraro. The $1.00 stamp featured Patrick Henry, whose "Give me liberty or give me death" stuff sounded a lot like John Kennedy's "We will go anywhere, do anything, pay any price." And on the $5.00, Alexander Hamilton returned to remind our uppity European and Japanese allies that the dollar is made here, in the good ol' U.S. of A., and that if we want to print skazads of them to pay our trade bills, then we'll damn well do it.
The Ugly '60s
But next came a series begun in 1965 when we Americanized the war in Vietnam. Its main claim to fame was that, unlike the other definitive series, there was no general common design. Every stamp was different. This foretold the end of the bipartisan consensus on foreign policy and, in time, on just about everything else. It was a rather ugly series on balance. So were the 1960s, on balance.
Jefferson was on the 1-cent. Albert Gallatin was on the 1¼. No one had ever heard of him, but then, who needed a 1¼-cent stamp? Frank Lloyd Wright was on the 2-cent, and the historian Francis Parkman was on the 3-cent. FDR appeared on the 6. When the rate for first-class mail became 6 cents, in 1968, still under a Democratic administration, FDR was there to bask in the glory. Once a usurper, always a usurper. But this was not enough to throw the 1968 election to the Democrats.
Albert Einstein was on the 8-cent, Andrew Jackson was on the 10, and Henry Ford was on the 12. The only reason for Jackson, it seems, was to put a space between Einstein and Ford, the former a Jew and the latter a notorious anti-Semite who spread tracts of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion.
John Kennedy appeared on the unlucky 13-cent stamp, which was only right, since he helped get us stuck in the Big Muddy in Vietnam. Oliver Wendell Holmes was on the 15, and that made sense, too. Holmes was a contemporary of Dewey and a believer in logical positivism and the technocratic rationalism of Dewey's philosophy. What Wilson's guys did in World War I was nothing compared to what the computerized "whiz kids" led by Robert Strange McNamara were doing to the Great Society, the United States Army, and the people of Southeast Asia. George Marshall was put on the 20-cent stamp out of a nostalgic longing for a high-ranking military man with some brains, because there certainly weren't any like him around at the time.
Next came Frederick Douglass on the 25-cent stamp, the first black ever to appear on a U.S. definitive stamp. Issued in 1967, this told black people that it was better to be like Frederick Douglass than like Stokely Carmichael or Malcolm X.
Next, on the 30-cent, was John Dewey himself. Dum, d'dum dum, dum!
Thomas Paine graced the 40-cent stamp, and Lucy Stone the 50. Both of these people, in their time, were raging leftists. This belied radical antiwar movement influence in the country. Eugene O'Neill appeared on the $1.00. This symbolized guerrilla theater and the politicization of the arts.
Paul Dudley Who?
Last of all, we come to the current definitive series started in 1980. These are almost as ugly, almost as individualized in design as the previous series, but not as ugly or as anomic. This points to the country's halting recovery of pride and self-esteem during the Reagan presidency.
There have been two 1-cent stamps in this series. First came Dorothy Dix, whose real name was Elizabeth Meriwether Gilmer. Gilmer was a path-breaking Dear Abby-type journalist who took a pseudonym because respectable women in those days—she lived from 1870 to 1951—did not work as journalists. Obviously, not much has changed. Right, Dear Abby?
Next we have Margaret Mitchell, author of Gone With the Wind. With a mediocre actor as a successful president, what could have been more natural than to feature a mediocre author whose work was used to make perhaps the greatest film of all time?
There have been two 2-cent stamps: first Igor Stravinsky, then Mary Lyon. Stravinsky was a great composer; Lyon a Quaker female activist of the last century and a nice gal, according to her husband, but always too busy to cook his dinner.
There have been two 3-cent stamps. On the first, Henry Clay returns after a long absence. But no one remembered him, so he was replaced with Dr. Paul Dudley White. Dr. White must have been a heck of a guy to get on a stamp.
There have been two 4-cent stamps, one of Carl Schurz and one of Father Flanagan. Schurz was an amazing fellow, a refugee from Germany after the wrong side won the tumultuous wars of 1848–49, a politician, orator, union general, ambassador, senator from Missouri, and secretary of the Interior. He was a liberal Republican (a species now extinct). He mistrusted the Democrats but was disgusted with Ulysses Grant, which led him to support Horace Greeley for president. This was silly; no one with whiskers like Greeley's could ever be president. Later, Schurz laid the groundwork for a professional civil service based on merit and opposed jingoism, imperialism, war with Spain, and the annexation of the Philippines. He wrote editorials for Harpers Weekly, and then he died.
Father Flanagan founded Boys Town. I like Schurz better than Flanagan because Schurz never sent me sob-story letters asking for money.
There have been two 5-cent stamps, one of Pearl Buck, the prolific writer, teacher, sinologist, Pulitzer and Nobel Prize winner, and one of Hugo Black, the late Supreme Court justice. Walter Lippmann appears on the 6-cent, Abraham Baldwin on the 7, Henry Knox on the 8, and Sylvanus Thayer on the 9. There have been two 10-cent stamps: Richard Russell and Red Cloud. The 11-cent stamp features Alden Partridge. Thrilling, isn't it?
There's a 13-cent stamp with Crazy Horse, a 14 of both Sinclair Lewis and Julia Ward Howe, a 15 of Buffalo Bill Cody. There have been two 17-cent stamps: Rachel Carson and Belva Ann Lockwood. George Mason gets the 18, Sequoyah the 19. We've had Ralph Bunche, Thomas Gallaudet, and Harry Truman on 20-cent stamps. There's a 21-cent stamp with Chester Carlson, a 22-cent of John James Audubon, a 23-cent of Mary Cassatt, and a 25-cent stamp of Jack London, a founder of the Intercollegiate Student Association, a socialist forerunner of Students for a Democratic Society, but he was a great writer so we forgive him his youthful folly.
There's F.C. Laubach on the 30-cent stamp, Dr. Charles Drew on the 35, an R. Millikan on the 37, Grenville Clark on the 39, Lillian Gilbreth on the 40, Dr. Harvey Cushing on the 45, Admiral Chester Nimitz on the 50, John Harvard on the 56, Hap Arnold on the 65, Bernard Revel on the $1.00, William Jennings Bryan on the $2.00, and Bret Harte on the $5.00.
With the exception of Mason, Truman, Nimitz, and Bryan, none of these folks falls into the old-time definition of an American hero. Instead, we've got radical females, doctors, journalists, educators, and administrators, most of whom no one has ever heard of.
Unless you happen to be a stamp collector, or are otherwise bored and mordantly curious, you are not likely to ever find out who they are. If you can name even half of them, you ought to get yourself on a serious quiz show right away. At this rate, the postal service might as well put Henry Tapinski on a stamp. Who is Henry Tapinski? I don't know, and that's precisely the point!
The more pressing question, however, is this: Where are George, Ben, and Tom? For the first time since the original items of 1847, you can't buy a stamp from the post office these days with a genuine Founding Father on it.
So, what kind of stamps should we expect during the Bush administration? Invisible ones, with Harvey the Rabbit or Topper? Nature stamps of turtles or snails? As with lots of others aspects of this as-yet-themeless presidency, nobody knows. In any case, the next time you go to the post office to buy stamps, just remember: Even if you flunked civics in 10th grade, you're about to lick American history.
Homer T. Knudbocker is the pseudonym of an admitted philatelist.