According to the Sunnyvale Stamp Society (with which I heartily agree), philately is a sure-fire stress reducer for busy people. While you can enjoy social times by joining a stamp club, attending stamp shows, haggling with dealers and so on, the fun doesn’t stop there. “You can also do stamp collecting alone,” the Sunnyvale club advises. “You can spend as much time or as little time as you want. You can work with your stamps any time, rain or shine! It’s a weatherproof hobby. It’s a passive hobby that can help reduce stress and easily gives a feeling of accomplishment.”
Do you see why FDR, among other philatelists with familiar names, enjoyed stamp-collecting so much? “There are no time constraints with this hobby,” the Sunnyvale club note continues. “You can dedicate as much time as you want. You can take periods of time off from the hobby and when ready, jump right back in. This hobby offers great flexibility.” In other words, when you’re not busy saving the world from the Depression, Hitler, Mussolini and Tojo, you can relax by playing with your stamps!
FDR began collecting as a boy — and never really stopped. Not only did he learn about the globe from stamps, one source notes, “He found solace in his collection during his adulthood when he suffered from polio.” As president, it is said, “he used to feel at peace and relax by looking at his collection for hours.” FDR once declared, “I owe my life to my hobbies — especially stamp collecting.”
A number of countries put out stamps showing FDR working on his collection, using White House propaganda photos. As the world was rocked by economic hard times, then descended into the cauldron of world war, these images affirmed that the Leader of the Free World was coolly in charge, capable of putting global affairs in order, much as he was doing with his stamp albums.
Here’s an odd philatelic detail: In 1947, Monaco issued a stamp with an engraving based on one of the familiar photographs of FDR with his stamps (see photo, top right). But there seems to be a design error: The president’s right hand holds a magnifying glass and is just fine; however, he clasps a stamp in a left hand that contains five fingers — and a thumb! (You’d think this stamp would be valuable, but you can buy it for a quarter.) One further note on this bit of arcana — the photograph the engraver used actually does seem to show “six fingers,” though closer perusal reveals the extra “pinkie” as distorted image of FDR’s shirt cuff. It must be!
FDR’s postmaster, James A. Farley (seen here in a very flattering formal oil portrait), was an old friend and mentor in
politics — who happened to be a stamp collector as well. The president and his crony must have had a ball as they conspired together over stamps, proposing and overseeing the production of U.S. postal issues in the 1930s. Apparently FDR went so far as to sketch some of his ideas. I would not be surprised to learn he had a hand in designing stamps during that era.
Doesn’t it strike you as a bit, well, controversial, though, to allow these two hard-charging philatelist pols to preside over the post office? It’s not so much a case of entrusting the wolves with the hen house; more like putting kids behind the candy counter.
It didn’t take long for FDR and Farley to engage in some sweet philatelic phlim-phlam, which quickly acquired the name, “Farley’s Follies.” Their self-dealing and exploitation of the U.S. post office unhinged a generation of stamp collectors and dealers, though nobody else paid much attention. Here’s a postage stamp-size retelling of the story:
As postmaster, Farley blithely mixed business with pleasure, indulging his philatelic impulses beyond appropriate boundaries. He would buy sheets of stamps right off the presses, before they had been perforated or gummed; sign them; and distribute the unusual and rare philatelic souvenirs to his buddies and his family. Occasionally both Farley and FDR signed the sheets. This occurred 20 times, involving stamps from the national parks series of 1934 (Scott Nos. 740-749), among others.
News of this insider dealing roiled the philatelic community nationwide. Up to 160 of the special sheets were given away. Philatelic critics and political opponents made it a hot political issue. After a dealer
in New York City claimed to have acquired one the sheets, and
was insuring it for $20,000, a chaste
ned Farley stepped in. He ordered all 20 stamps reprinted in unperforated, ungummed sheets (Scott 752-771), offered for sale to anyone at face value. This turned the scandal into a mere embarrassment — “Farley’s Follies” — though to this day it somehow diminishes the dignity, if not the integrity of these particular stamps; which is a shame, since the engravings of Yosemite, Crater Lake, Mesa Verde, Acadia and the rest are lovely.
How to collect these items? None of the stamps are particularly valuable by themselves. (The original national parks set of 10 sells online for well under $10.) Should you try and get a full sheet, unperforated and ungummed, as an unusual but somewhat spurious collector’s item? What about all the other souvenir sheets, vertical and horizontal “gutter pairs,” “arrow” blocks of six and other Farley shenanigans? Cut out from their sheets or other special settings, aren’t the stamps the same? And get a load of this odd note, from the fine print of my Scott catalogue: “In 1940, the P.O. Department offered to and did gum full sheets of Nos. 754 to 771 sent in by owners” — thus creating new philatelic varieties, it would seem.
Eventually Farley would donate his sheets to the Smithsonian. After FDR’s death, the family sold his collection at auction — though some argued many of the stamps rightfully belonged to the nation. You can see a full display of Farley’s Follies at the postal museum in Washington, D.C. A major takeaway for me from this tawdry tale is that it is unwise to put a stamp collector in charge of the post office. It also is unwise to elect a stamp-collecting president unless you make sure he or she knows not to mix politics and philately — that is, avoid polit-ely, please. Or is it po-lately?
How many stamp collectors are there today, famous or not-so-famous? I wouldn’t hazard a guess. Neither will I try to erase the stereotype of the geeky stamp collector, dusty, bespectacled, aging, beetling about his business (like me). I have little confidence left in the tradition of fathers passing along their interest in stamps to sons — as my father somehow did with me. As far as I can tell, my older brother Jonathan and I are the only ones in my extended, intergenerational family circle who give a hoot about stamps. Too bad, because stamps are worth paying attention to.
My purpose in this blog is to beguile you with my stories about stamps and the tales that take off from there. The point is to make the old new again — even as stamps bring history to life as vivid, revealing, sometimes rare and valuable tokens of our shared past.
Apparently there have been collectors for as long as there have been stamps. In 1842, two years after England’s Penny Black became the world’s first postage stamp, the following doggerel by a Colonel Sibthorpe appeared in Punch:
“When was a folly so pestilent hit upon,
As folks running mad to collect every spit upon
Post-office stamp that’s been soil’d and been writ upon?
Oh for Swift! such a subject his spleen to emit upon.”
Ernest Rutherford, the father of nuclear physics, may have been paying philately a compliment — or was he mocking it as an idle pastime? — when he famously wrote, “All science is either physics or stamp collecting.”
Ernest R. Ackerman’s hobby led to a successful career in business and politics. He started collecting the stamps on envelopes sent to his father, a lawyer, from the U.S. Patent Office. He went on to become a stamp dealer, then a successful industrialist. During his business travels, he and King George V, another avid collector, bonded profitably over philately.
.Ackerman was elected to Congress in 1919, and served until his death in 1931.
Other stamp collectors of note, in no particular order:
Bela Lugosi, Egypt’s King Farouk, George Bernard Shaw, Nazi leader Heinrich Himmler as well as General Erwin Rommel, Charlie Chaplin, tennis great Maria Sharapova, Ansel Adams, Ayn Rand, Simon Wiesenthal, Amelia Earhart, rockers Ronnie Wood of the Rolling Stones and the late Freddie Mercury … an eclectic bunch, eh?
Lest you think serious collections are all men, here’s a shot of
Louise Boyd Dale, engaged in her passion back in the 1950s. Warren Buffett’s passion: classic American stamps. France’s Sarkozy was another president who mixed philately and politics. Apparently word got around that he was an enthusiastic stamp collector, and on state visits, his hosts would give him special philatelic items. (Hey! No fair.)
Britain’s Queen Elizabeth was a real enabler of Sarkozy, handing him one philatelic trophy after another. To be sure, she had plenty to give — the queen was heir to a stunning collection begun by her grandfather, and expanded by her father.
George V’s original collection filled 328 60-page red albums; his son George VI’s albums are blue; Elizabeth’s are green. It seems George V got started long before he became king, aided by Prince Alfred, his uncle and Duke of Edinburgh. The king’s philatelic ambitions soared. He once wrote an adviser, “I wish to have the best & not one of the best collections in England.” He certainly tried to achieve his goal. In addition to accumulating special items by dint of his royal access, the king made astute purchases, acquiring such rarities as the Post Office Mauritius and the Great Britain Two Pence Tyrian Plum. (Don’t you just love the name of that color?)
George V was an unassuming, straightforward monarch, quite popular during his reign and well-suited to his times — though it’s hard to see how collecting all those stamps bearing his profile could not have swelled his royal head. He is credited with helping to revive a hobby that had grown a bit moribund. (Where is the next George when we need him?!) A popular story has one of his retainers reporting that “Some damned fool had paid as much as L1,400 (about $3,600) for one stamp,” and the king mildly replying, “Yes, I was that damned fool.” His investment paid off: The rarity in question later sold at auction for $3.9 million.
George V, like FDR, found solace in philately. Nearing the end of his life, wracked by pleurisy and chronic respiratory problems aggravated by a lifetime of heavy smoking, the tired old king reportedly spent hours in the comforting company of his collection
Karl Rove, the GOP presidential
macher and adviser, also occupies a place of note among stamp collectors. Like many others (myself included), Rove enjoyed embellishing his outgoing letters with arrays of vintage stamps he had accumulated — scrupulously ensuring the face value added up to the current first-class mail postal rate, no more and no less. Not only that: Rove liked to use stamps with a special message for his correspondents. Donna Brazile, a liberal Democrat and political rival of Rove’s, received a note on the occasion of his retirement from service to President George W. Bush. She told a reporter later: “When you receive a letter from Karl, you don’t automatically go and read the letter … You look at the stamps.” Indeed, one of the stamps on the envelope was a 15-center from 1979 bearing the slogan,”I have not yet begun to fight,” attributed to John Paul Jones, the Naval commander and revolutionary war hero. Brazile was disarmed. ”I love that man,” she said of Rove, “because he knows how to fight.”
TO BE CONTINUED