Sorting through some boxes in the basement the other day, I came across my old stamp collection from when I was a youngster. As I flipped through the pages and opened up bags and folders of envelopes, I was reminded of how much those little bits of paper taught me:
1/ There’s a great big world out there, full of places I had never heard of. Gabon. Sharjah. Surinam.
2/ Countries aren’t permanent. They can change. Bits of the world get taken over by other countries and disappear as countries. Sometimes they reemerge eventually. Monarchies that proudly displayed the king on their stamps experience revolutions and suddenly their postage shows images of presidents. Egypt. King Farouk. Nasser.
3/ A plebiscite is a thing where two countries both want the same piece of land, so they allow the people who live there to vote on which country they want to be part of. Schleswig-Holstein. 1920.
4/ The people in other countries don’t necessarily call their countries by the same names we do. Magyar. Deutschland. Norge.
5/ Other countries don’t use dollars. There are riyals, pounds, dinars, rupees, quetzals, pesos, and many other currencies.
6/ Other countries don’t necessarily write with the same alphabet as us. Greece. Ethiopia. Russia.
7/ Even in wartime—or maybe especially then—people send. Letters. Postcards.
8/ Mass-produced items are not necessarily all the same. You could have thousands of identical stamps and one that has a unique characteristic. A spot where the dye didn’t apply properly. The queen’s head upside down. The perforator failed to perforate.
9/ Hyperinflation is a thing where the value of money goes lower and lower, so people have to use more and more money to buy something. Bread. Milk. Stamps. One million marks. Lira.
10/ “Archival” storage is something that you use for things that you want to keep for a long, long time. Photos. Letters. Stamps.
I don’t remember how I first became interested in stamps; I think maybe an older relative gave me a small album with a few stamps. Stamp collecting was a common hobby, although I didn’t know any other children who collected.
My parents kept up ties to relatives in West Germany, DDR, and Denmark, so those were the countries I collected first. Of course, we also received mail from within Canada—in those days, pretty well everything that went through the mail had a stamp rather than the boring postal machine stickers and preprinted postage that eventually became common on commercial mail. There were occasionally stamps from Great Britain and the United States, often nabbed by my father from office mail. In my later childhood, he started to travel for his work as a supervising engineer, and I added Kuwait and Yemen to my collection.
Looking at stamps opened the way to discussions with my parents: my father spoke about seeing his father bringing home his weekly pay piled in a wheelbarrow during the time of German hyperinflation. My mother was drawn into talking about how the plebiscite held in Schleswig-Holstein affected her family, who lived right along the German-Danish border. We discussed the history of Danzig and how it existed as an autonomous state for a few years between the wars.
When I visited my uncle in Germany at the age of 12, I was overawed by his drawers full of albums with perfectly filed stamps. He had done a lot of traveling and always collected stamps from the places he toured. His gift of a packet of “doubles” inspired me to want to make my collection better. More comprehensive. Better organized. Better preserved.
I learned the proper word for stamp collecting early on. To paraphrase Wikipedia: The word philately is the English version of the French word philatélie, coined by Georges Herpin in 1864. He took the Greek root word phil(o), meaning “an attraction or affinity for something,” and ateleia, meaning “exempt from duties and taxes” to form philatelie” (with the introduction of postage stamps, receiving a letter was now free of charge, whereas before it was normal for postal charges to be paid by the letter’s recipient). I wonder, however, how many adults—let alone children—recognize the word today. Letters and postcards are becoming rare, and with them, those colorful, inspirational stamps. One of the big appeals of stamps was that they were everyday and exotic at the same time: the 10-pfennig stamp was ubiquitous in Germany, but a curiosity in Canada.
It’s sad that stamps are dying out as a common, practical, item. When you got a letter, you could tell just by looking at the stamp and postmark which country it came from. You knew that the paper you held in your hand actually traveled all the way from some distant place. We have replaced “snail mail” with emails, which all look the same, whether they come from Terrace or Timbuktu.
What has philately got to do with travel, the subject of this blog? Well, to this day, when I think of certain countries, the stamps that I pored over are the first things that spring to mind. When I think of Poland, I see the triangular stamps featuring beautiful horses that I loved so much. When Bhutan is mentioned, I remember the leopard stamp that I proudly pasted in my album.
I don’t know whether my passion for travel stems partly from the pleasure I found in collecting stamps from around the world, or whether I was born a wanderer and that drew me to the acquisition of stamps. Either way, those unassuming squares of gummed paper were travelers, just like me. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that I stashed my postal treasures in something called the Traveler Stamp Album.
Does anyone you know collect stamps? Were you/are you a philatelist yourself? I’d be particularly interested to hear if you know a young person who collects stamps.