Bonus: The end of stamp collecting, refuted

Mark Twain called rumors of his death in 1897 “an exaggeration.” Other predictions of the demise of one thing or another also have been exaggerated: that radio would mean the death of conversation; that TV would eclipse radio; that the Internet would sound the knell for newspapers, reading, writing, thinking, whatever. It hasn’t happened yet. (Granted, newspapers aren’t what they used to be; and Mark Twain did eventually die, in 1910.)

What about the decline of stamp-collecting? Rumors that philately is on its last legs (last hinges?) have been circulating for years. There are just too many distractions in modern living, it is said — the Internet, TV, video games, extreme sports, social

This quaint image depicts the intergenerational ritual of philately. Today’s father probably is immersed in Facebook, or cable sports, while Junior is burrowing ever deeper into games and social media — none of which have anything to do with stamps. To which I say: so what?

media, what-have-you; the older generation of stamp collectors is dying off;  the younger cohort is just too busy to keep up with their parent’s hobby; as for the kids, who knows what they’re into these days —  certainly not stamps … or newspapers; life is just too fast-paced for that dry, sedentary, pokey hobby; besides, there are just too many stamps coming out these days, there’s no way to keep up; plus, hardly anybody still uses stamps — they don’t even exchange letters, for goodness’ sake!  How can you collect something you don’t even know exists?

I’m here to tell you different. At least, that’s my mission — whether it’s a fool’s errand, a Quixotic quest, a blind alley or some other metaphor for a doomed itinerary. That’s what the FMF Stamp Project blog is about: I’m on a mission to save stamp-collecting — single-handedly if necessary!

Actually, I suspect stamp collecting will survive, with or without help from  the FMF Stamp Project. If philately is such a dying hobby, how come I get stamp auction pitches via email where the bidding is fierce? LIke, 22 bids for one item! I joined the fun the other day, staking a claim to two lots. One of them I managed to win but on the other, I was finally outbid and lost the lot.

The latest tolling of the bell for philately comes from Eugene L. Meyer, in an op-ed column for The New York Times a few weeks ago entitled, “Stamped Out.”  ( Described as a journalist and author, Meyer obviously is not a stamp collector — or at least, is no longer a stamp collector. I detected neither smoke nor spark of the phire that burns in all true philatelists.

He describes his years as an active hobbyist in his youth, when stamp-collecting was still a mainstream pastime. He earned a merit badge for philately in the Boy Scouts. He collected foreign stamps off envelopes saved by a friend of his father’s. He collected first-day covers and plate blocks of new U.S. issues, and checked out “dealers who would advertise in the back pages of comic books” and send  packages of cheap stamps “to get you hooked.”

Meyer recalls the days when just about every high school had a stamp club. It made me remember when department stores had counters, with colorful and exotic displays under glass for old and young stamp enthusiasts to pore over.

Today the stamp clubs are mostly gone, as are the stamp counters — and department stores, come to think of it. The legions of young stamp collectors grew up, their collections all but forgotten. “Stamp collecting could be addictive, and for many in my generation it was,” Meyer writes. “But there comes a time to let go of childish things, and the stamps, plate blocks and first-day covers I collected in the 1950s had sat in the box in the basement for too many years, unlooked at, unattended to …”

While I bridle at the suggestion stamp collecting is a “childish thing,” I understand what Meyer is getting at. I, too, found little time for the hobby during my active years of career, marriage, parenting, navigating through it all. But I never lost my enthusiasm — adult enthusiasm — for stamps.

Am I an outlier? Meyer’s limited research suggests — maybe. His sources told him that the average stamp collector today is between 65 and 70 (I am 69, so if I’m not an outlier, I’m an over-the-hiller); and that membership in the American Philatelic Society has declined by 50 percent over the past 20 years, from 56,532 to 28,953. (I admit I dropped out.)

When Meyer went to sell his collection, one of the dwindling number of active stamp dealers told him there is no market for his common stamps; the dealer wouldn’t even make an offer. Instead, he suggested Meyer donate his collection to a volunteer group that sorts and sends stamps to veterans hospitals and homes. Which he did.

At least that counters the assertion that stamp collecting is “childish.”

In a rapidly changing world, is there still a place for stamp collecting? Of course. There are challenges, to be sure. Stamps may be coming out faster than anyone can collect them — as many as 17,000 a year, worldwide. Meanwhile, paradoxically, a new generation barely knows what a stamp is any more. What’s wrong with this model?

Stamp collecting, like the world, is changing. Great stamp rarities continue to command record prices at auction. Stories about

George Bernard Shaw, among other luminaries, was an avid stamp collector.

stamps may not often find their way into mainstream news reports — except for occasional gloom-and-doom predictions like those in Meyer’s column. But stamp  stories are just as revealing,  entertaining, historically relevant as ever. The stamps are authentic artifacts, many of them exquisite works of art and design. And the older ones are getting rarer every day.

In his piece, Eugene Meyer invokes the spirit of Franklin Roosevelt, citing his lifelong passion for philately as an emblem of the hobby in its heyday. FDR, who could rest his useless legs fullsizeoutput_1b9ewhile he soared into the imaginative realms of his magnificent stamp collection, once said, “I owe my life to my hobbies — especially stamp collecting.”

If philately really is dying, I wish it would hurry up, so when prices collapse I can pick up some real bargains. However, I suspect that while stamp collecting will never recapture the dominant position it once occupied among hobbies. there will continue to be enough enthusiasts in this generation, and the next, to keep alive the fascination with those colorful specks of paper that tell so much.


BONUS: Is a stamp illegal if it starts a war?

fullsizeoutput_1ac81. When this Bolivian postage stamp map (right) was first issued, in 1928, it caused an uproar in neighboring Paraguay. The two nations had been having a long dispute over the semi-arid, sparsely populated Chaco region. Paraguay and Bolivia, both land-locked, were among the poorest nations in South America. This postage stamp for the first time boldly named the territory that would  extend Bolivia’s southeast border, “Chaco Boliviano.”


fullsizeoutput_1aceA year earlier, Paraguay had  established its philatelic claim to the Chaco, a region that constituted about 40 percent of its northern land mass. A Paraguayan stamp in 1927 (right) displayed a corresponding map with the label Chaco Paraguayo (you can just make it out underneath the “Paraguay” banner.) The very next year, Bolivia would “occupy” the Chaco, philatelically speaking. The battle was on! Bolivia kept laying it on, reissuing its design in 1931, the year before the fighting began. Its last map stamp with the Chaco Boliviano inscription was issued in 1935, the year the two sides agreed to a cease fire.

fullsizeoutput_1ac9Postal officials in Paraguay countered the Bolivian affront with more stamps, this one at right a bit larger than the offending ones, with a map that clearly labeled the disputed territory as Chaco Paraguayo. To drive home the point, the stamp carried a legend at the bottom: Ha sido, es y sera (“Has been, is and will be”). As if that weren’t clear enough, the message continued on a pair of shields: El Chaco Boreal / Del Paraguay. (boreal means “northern”)

It may be a philatelist’s exaggeration to claim that these stamps provoked the vicious war between Bolivia and Paraguay over the Chaco. Provocative philately surely was a contributing factor. The 1932-35 conflict became the longest territorial war in South American history. It was costly and bloody — and largely ignored by the rest of the world. Bolivian fatalities were estimated as high as 65,000 — 2 percent of the population; Paraguay’s dead numbered some 36,000, 3 percent of its population.

fullsizeoutput_1acaIn the bitter fighting, Paraguay eventually took control of much of the territory, and a ceasefire was reached in 1935. But it was not  until 1938 that a truce was negotiated and signed. The agreement awarded Paraguay about two-thirds of the Chaco. That nation followed up with a series of self-congratulatory stamps celebrating the accord. One stamp (see right) really rubbed it in: A map pointedly emphasized Paraguay’s territorial dominance, and was accompanied by a suitably smarmy quotation, “Una paz honoroso vale mas que todos los triunfos militaries” (“An honorable peace is worth more than all the military triumphs”).

Safe to say Bolivia, which ended up with the short end of the Chaco, did not issue any celebratory stamps. In this case, the victor got to write the history.

The Universal Postal Union directs that nations should avoid giving political offense in its postage stamps. Whether or not these stamps from Bolivia and Paraguay were actually responsible for provoking a war, they clearly crossed the line drawn by the UPU.

ADDENDUM — A HAPPY ENDING? A final agreement on borders was not reached until 2009. Since then, oil and natural gas reserves have been discovered in both the Paraguayan and Bolivian sections of the Chaco.

What follows is a small gallery of more politically incorrect stamps (according to the UPU’s rules)




2. These wartime stamps from Nazi Germany crossed the line into offensive territory — though the engravings themselves are distressingly artistic and well executed. The top example shows a grenade-thrower in action, with an empty Allied helmet in the foreground — presumably from a vanquished foe. The fullsizeoutput_1ad2lower stamp depicts a dreaded U-Boat slicing its way through the sea under a corona of sunbeams, while a ship burns in the background — presumably its enemy prey. British? American?








3. I bet you never saw these crude stamps during the Vietnam War. Maybe ever? They were issued by North Vietnam, and doubled as propaganda labels — strictly against UPU rules. It was illegal to import them into the United States. Look at the communist soldiers in the image, above right (is that a woman?), shooting down a fullsizeoutput_1adahelicopter clearly labeled, “U.S. Army.” In the stamp below it, a U.S. B-52 explodes, hit by ship-to-air artillery, while another flaming jet in the background plummets to the Earth.










This North Vietnamese stamp (right) kind of jarred me, in that it shows a group of American anti-war protesters demonstrating with signs reading, “End the war in Vietnam,” and “Vietnam for the Vietnamese.” Above the fray hovers the ghostly visage of a clean-cut, American-looking guy whose name on the stamp is given as “Noman Morixon.” Who is he? He is Norman Morrison, an American Quaker, anti-war protester and married father of three. In November, 1965, the 31-year-old went to Washington, picked a spot outside the Pentagon office of U.S. Defense Secretary Robert McNamara, doused himself with kerosene and set himself on fire, burning to death. While his sacrifice may not have had much impact in his native land, the North Vietnamese certainly noticed. “Mo Ri Xon” became a folk hero. A Vietnamese poet memorialized his ultimate act of conscience.  Years later, when a Vietnamese ambassador came to Washington, he made a point of visiting the site of Morrison’s principled self-immolation.








Here’s one more offensive and therefore illegal image on North Vietnamese stamps: a U.S. prisoner of war, presumably contemplating his sins. There oughta be a law against this stamp. In fact, there is.








4. You don’t have to read North Korean    to figure out what these lurid stamps are about. To the left,  a fist smashes a missile labeled “USA.” To the right, a hand clasping a gun hovers over a scene of red missiles targeting … what is that, the U.S. Capitol?!



North Korea’s pique toward the United States goes way back.  Here is a stamp celebrating the burning of the USS General Sherman, an ironclad ship that visited the Korean peninsula in 1866, apparently for purposes of trade, but without local authorization.
All aboard perished when the ship was torched.
The USS Pueblo incident in 1968 also was celebrated, illegally, in North Korean postal history.
This stamp at right presents a  phalanx of hand-held weaponry,  confronting a diminutive group of U.S. seaman from the Pueblo.  The ship was boarded and captured when it strayed too close to the North Korean mainland.










The humiliation of the Americans continued in these propaganda stamps. The one directly above seems to conflate the downing of the EC121 U.S. spy plane in 1969 and the capture of the Pueblo.

5. The two-month “war” between Argentina and Great Britain over the Falkland Islands in 1982 was not nearly as bloody as the Chaco war between Paraguay and Bolivia; but the stamp war over the Malvinas/Falkland Islands seems never-ending.



The Argentine stamp at right, overprinted Las Malvinas son Argentinas and issued in April, 1982, for the first time made the formal territorial claim in print on a postage stamp. It appeared right after Argentine forces stormed the Falklands in early April, overwhelming British colonial authorities. The stamps were available for use in Argentina — and the Malvinas/Falkland Islands — until the surrender to British troops in June. The death toll from the skirmishes: 649 Argentine soldiers, 255 British troops, and three Falkland Island civilians.


(For some of the account that follows I am indebted to my fellow blogger Dave of Global Philately, who has posted a splendid philatelic-led narrative of the Falkland Islands war.)







Britain’s claim to the Falklands extends  into the 19th century. The islands’ first postage stamp (right) depicted a mature Queen Victoria.












Britain affirmed its claim on a stamp from Canada in 1898 (right) celebrating the British empire. Particularly in
the blow-up image (below), you can see the Falklands off the southeastern tip of South America, colored red to signal Version 2its place in the imperial constellation.





















It wasn’t until 1936 that Argentina came back with its own postage stamp claiming the same territory in its colored map. But the philatelic impact of that claim went back further. Argentine authorities refused to recognize Falkland Island stamps, charging postage due for covers mailed to Argentina from the islands.








In 1933 the British had issued a beautiful set of two-color engraved stamps to mark the centennial of its  colonial claim — an assertion that irked their Argentine counterparts, and may have contributed to the decision in Buenos Aires to issue its own map stamp (see above) three years later.










At some point Argentine postal authorities prepared  this stamp design, which wrenched the islands firmly away from the British. The stamps were never issued.















However, the rather undistinguished  stamp at right was issued in 1960, purportedly to commemorate the national census. Cute, the way it adds a couple of “chips” off its coast to the Argentine hegemon — not just the Falklands, but also South Georgia, another British-claimed island group, and a slice of Antarctica.




Then, in 1964, came three more stamps (see envelope, below) extending Argentina’s claim even further. Notice on the 4-peso stamp how Argentine flags are planted on the Falklands, South Georgia, the South Shetlands and South Orkneys, as well as Argentine Antarctica!


At right is a cover from my collection from April 1982, a gift from my brother, who was working for Rotary International at the time. It is plastered with Malvinas son Argentinas overprints, and was mailed from the Argentine mainland to Rotary HQ in Evanston, Ill. I don’t believe it’s worth much, though it certainly has historical interest. The stamps must have been withdrawn after the British took back control of the Falklands in June. Otherwise, London surely would have raised holy heck with the Universal Postal Union.



The one-year anniversary of the Falklands/Malvinas war, in 1983, produced a curious pair of stamp issues. The Falklands issue was a four-stamp set in a souvenir sheet, marking the “liberation” — in June. Note the jaunty expression on the face of the soldier in the stamp at right.





In Argentina, a stamp also came out marking the anniversary — that is, the date Argentina asserted its  claim by occupying the islands — in April.







In case you thought the matter may have been settled since then — this three-stamp set from Argentina in 2012 once again portrays the disputed islands. The legend printed on the envelope translates roughly as: “The question of the sovereignty of the Malvinas shall go on forever.”

In a 2013 referendum, 99.8 percent of voters representing the Falkland Islands’ roughly 4,000 residents opted to remain a British territory. Argentina dismissed the referendum results.