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Introduction

1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 0 Much of the revelation was to come through the stamp collection
Pierce had left, his substitute often for her—thousands of little colored windows into deep vistas of space and time… No suspicion at all that it might have something to tell her…what after all could the mute stamps have told her…

2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 0 Thomas Pynchon, The Crying of Lot 491

3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 0 Scholars, like Thomas Pynchon’s character Oedipa Maas often overlook stamps and the practice of stamp collecting, missing how those “deep vistas of space and time” imprint visions of the past on the cultural memory of those who viewed them.2 Throughout his novella, Pynchon hints of an uncovered complexity and influence of the US postal service not only for communication, but also as a central institution circulating, managing, and shaping visual meanings of nation on stamps.

4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 0 Millions of Americans, some have estimated, collected stamps at one point in their lives between the 1880s and 1940, yet despite its popularity stamp collecting has not been examined closely by scholars. Many historians often overlook all aspects of postal operations and their influence on American culture. Traditionally, the study of stamps has been the domain of collectors and enthusiasts who immerse themselves in learning the details of stamp design and production, and do not uncover the cultural contexts in which those stamps were produced. Stamps are not mere instruments of postal operations, but rather, objects deeply embedded in culture, with complicated stories to tell. Stamps are designed to be symbolic and we should interpret them as such. Pynchon’s text stages both the importance of the postal service as an index to national life and the value of looking more closely at stamp collecting practices. Stamping American Memory bridges this gap between historians, collectors, and enthusiasts.

5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 0 This study follows Pynchon’s trail by demonstrating how American commemorative postage stamps hold meanings beyond their mute images, images that illustrate how Americans and their government commented on the past and the present. To investigate the meaning of the stamps, I look at the institution producing them and the ways in which people chose to collect, save, discuss, and display their stamps. Stamp collecting emerged in the United States as an activity independent of the postal service. This changed once the United States Post Office Department (USPOD) recognized this community of collectors and printed limited-issue commemoratives designed to be saved. Those stamps were rarely redeemed for postal delivery giving commemoratives the potential to increase the gross income earned by an agency constantly struggling to balance its budget. By selecting scenes and figures from the American past for printing on commemorative stamps, the USPOD emerged in the early twentieth century as one of the most active federal agencies engaged in public history making prior to the New Deal. Stamping American Memory makes that history visible, while also investigating the relationships and intersections among stamp collectors (philatelists), non-collecting citizens, and the postal service. These relationships shape concepts of nationalism, consumption, and memory making in early-twentieth-century America.

6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 0 This study begins after the American Civil War, approximately thirty years after the postal revolution began in Great Britain. In 1840, the British developed a system for pre-paying postage based on the weight of a letter rather than on the distance it traveled. The stamp served as a physical representation of paid postage bearing the head of reigning monarch Queen Victoria. This system emerged from the needs of the sprawling British Empire, where a very small letter might travel thousands of miles and across oceans to reach its destination within British territory. European, and North and South American nations followed the new British model and also adopted the pre-paid postage system in the mid-nineteenth century. A few individuals found these colored bits of paper curious and fascinating, and began casually collecting and trading stamps among associates without the acknowledgement or support of government postal services.3

7 Leave a comment on paragraph 7 0 Since governments created stamps to serve the needs of empires, it is not surprising that collecting stamps mimicked imperialistic tendencies, but on a much smaller scale. Stamps often acted as official and visual press releases to the world announcing the establishment of a newly-independent nation, the ascension of a new monarch, or the election of a national leader. All stamps contained identifying signs to indicate the country of origin in words and/or symbols, the denomination in native currency, and a design that included color, typography, and imagery. These variables combined into designs that represented the dominant ideologies of one nation or empire on behalf of it citizens, and are offered for the community of collectors around the world to interpret. For colonies, protectorates, and occupied territories that vision most often was controlled by the ruling authorities who focused imagery on the beauty and exoticism of place to de-emphasize questions of sovereignty. Stamps stand as symbols for nations as distinct political and ideological entities, so collectors easily used national or imperial distinction as a consistent way to classify and arrange stamps.4

8 Leave a comment on paragraph 8 0 Beginning in the late nineteenth century, collectors who amassed and traded stamps organized them by country or colony neatly in albums. Scholars of collecting assert that the act of assembling collections creates something new even when collectors follow conventions for organizing these objects.5 A stamp collector built his or her own small empire when collecting stamps from around the world or when collecting stamps from specific countries. The earliest US commemorative stamps celebrated conquests of empires while promoting American-run World’s Fairs from the 1890s to 1910s. When saving the “stepping stones” of American history, produced by the postal service, a collector read in their album a constructed narrative of American exceptionalism.6 Fittingly, the practice of collecting stamps grew in popularity in the US as America’s role increased economically, politically, and militarily around the world.

9 Leave a comment on paragraph 9 0 The development of stamp collecting from the 1880s through the 1930s not only mirrored the transformation of the US into an international political power, but also mirrored the transition of the US into a consumer society. Russell Belk posited that collecting by non-elites occurs only in consumer societies, when non-essential objects are bought, traded, and consumed in ways similar to other material goods. Stamp collecting became popular at a time when mass-produced items were readily available and Americans increased the amount of money spent on non-essential household items, even if discretionary spending for most remained modest.7 Stamps, in general, were not expensive and individuals obtained free stamps in product packaging, through trading duplicates, or from friends’ and neighbors’ mail. Collecting stamps held broad and varied appeal: for some it was purely aesthetics; others were intrigued by subject matter, the potential value, or the methods of production; while some simply enjoyed the thrill of the hunt. Collecting as a practice was not a new phenomenon to the time period I examine. Collecting for fun, however, became increasingly accessible and acceptable to Americans with some means, as the culture of consumerism was shaped by merchant capitalists, private and federal institutions, and advertising agencies from the 1880s through the 1930s.8

10 Leave a comment on paragraph 10 0 Part of this consumer culture was a new and powerful advertising industry. Advertisements sold consumer goods by referencing the American past and invoking national symbols to associate purchasing a product with patriotism and good citizenship. Simultaneously, the Post Office Department printed and sold its own products that invoked national symbols and referenced the American past. These stamps served dually as pre-paid postage and as a consumer collectible. Commercial advertising strategies framed consumption as an essential component of American identity and citizenship. Purchasing consumer goods, as constructed by advertisers, had the power to unite Americans through what Charles McGovern defines as “material nationalism.” To advertisers, Americanness was found in things, and the language of those things promoted social harmony and assimilation, while simultaneously erasing the presence of people of color or ethnic minorities.9

11 Leave a comment on paragraph 11 0 Similarly, the USPOD sought to unite Americans by selling a selective and triumphalist vision of the American past that erased contributions by people of color and obscured the legal foundations of oppression and inequality. This vision embodied the contradictions of civic and racial nationalisms as defined by Gary Gerstle.10 While promoting the principle that all Americans enjoyed economic opportunity and political equality, commemoratives obscured complicated narratives that masked the legal and economic barriers preventing the achievement of full citizenship rights for anyone categorized as non-white. History presented on stamps functioned to tell its citizens, this is your story, be proud, even when it did not reflect the diverse and brutal realities of American history. Through its commemoratives, the USPOD emerged as a powerful institution that legitimized particular narratives about the national past, explaining why different groups lobbied so strenuously for their images and events to appear on commemorative stamps.

12 Leave a comment on paragraph 12 0 Carrying federal authority, commemorative stamps functioned as a type of souvenir to the American past, and, when saved, it became a miniature memorial. Susan Stewart sees a souvenir as an object that offers an incomplete vision of an event or place that it represents thus requiring a new narrative that displaces the authentic experience. 11 Souvenirs are bought by tourists. Marita Sturken proposes that Americans occupy the role of “tourist” when relating to their history. Tourists of history, as defined by Sturken, experience history as a “mediated and reenacted experience,” much like tourists who visit sites where they do not live. As tourists, people approach their visit to the past from a detached and innocent position. Souvenirs, produced to make money from tourists, imprint specific images of sites on the memory of person keeping the trinket. Sturken also argues that in the role of a detached tourist, an American citizen “participates uncritically” in a culture that simplifies complex realities of history.12 By nature of their size and the imagery represented on these miniature memorials, stamps taught collectors and citizens to be tourists of the history represented on stamps printed in the early twentieth century.

13 Leave a comment on paragraph 13 0 Purchasing a commemorative stamp, unlike buying a souvenir, did not represent a real visit to the past, but provided a gateway for millions of collectors and citizens to create and share a cultural memory of that event. Small in size, stamps’ availability made them more accessible than memory sites, such as museums, archives, and monuments. These sites have the power, according to Pierre Nora, to be nation-building tools. Much like structural memorials built in public spaces, one vision of the past dominates the stamp’s imagery that often screens out other perspectives.13

14 Leave a comment on paragraph 14 0 As scholars of memory and memorialization have shown, the institutionalization of memory in a society serves the needs of a nation or community at a given time. Often, the messages projected through museum and monument designs are contentious. John Bodnar sees these struggles as the result of clash between an official and vernacular culture. The voices of official culture want to present the past in patriotic ways to emphasize ideals and achievements rather than in ways that engage complex realities. In contrast, the voices of vernacular culture represent the varied interests of diverse groups reflecting personal experiences emerging from smaller communities.14

15 Leave a comment on paragraph 15 0 Stamps provided official narratives generated by the USPOD, and by the 1920s commemoratives were the products of negotiations among collectors, non-collectors, and postal officials. Conflicts arose when the postal service chose to print commemorative stamps resulting from vernacular petitioning to honor a local anniversary or hero. Once selected for printing, local stories were elevated to national ones memorialized on a stamp. These stamps carried unmatched official legitimacy lent by their designation as a government issue. The same designation stripped away any complexity of that original narrative. Once circulated and saved, the images became “entangled” between history and memory, and embedded as cultural memory of all those who viewed the stamp. 15

16 Leave a comment on paragraph 16 0 Stamping American Memory is a cultural history that builds on the scholarship of postal history, nationalism, consumption, collecting, material culture, and memory and memoralization. I begin with Building Philatelic Communities by tracing how stamp collecting emerged as a hobby in the United States in the late nineteenth century during the age of imperialism and era of American progressivism. Collecting objects other than fine arts grew in popularity and philatelists began distinguishing themselves from casual collectors by forming exclusive clubs that mimicked professional associations, defined standards of practice, and published journals.

17 Leave a comment on paragraph 17 0 Postal officials began to notice these collectors, and I explore that relationship in Federal Participation in Philately. Merchant-capitalist, department store founder and owner, and Postmaster General John Wanamaker recognized that collectors were consumers and he pushed the Department to print its first commemorative stamp series celebrating the World’s Columbian Exposition in 1892. That success prompted the Department to print other World’s Fairs stamps, participate in public exhibitions, and open the Philatelic Agency to serve collectors. During this process, the USPOD began to see collectors as consumers with money to spend, even if it was only two-cents at a time. The Department expanded its already close relationship with Americans by encouraging them to purchase and save commemoratives as patriotic souvenirs, and the USPOD became an active participant in collecting culture and public history making.

18 Leave a comment on paragraph 18 0 Learning to Read Stamps looks at how non-collecting citizens learned that stamps contained symbols and that stamps could be used for other purposes beyond mailing a letter. This accessibility and visual appeal of stamps invited different groups to use stamps as pedagogical tools for teaching about nation, imperialism, capitalism, and gender. Aware of the power infused into stamps, citizens, collectors, and postal officials engaged in negotiations over stamp subjects, which I discuss in Shaping National Identity with Commemoratives in the 1920s and 1930s. Postal officials designed commemoratives to showcase the uniqueness of the American past and to represent all Americans. The faces on stamps, however, were overwhelmingly male and racially white and scenes celebrated Western European immigration, conquests of native peoples, technological conquest of lands, and military heroism.

19 Leave a comment on paragraph 19 0 Representing Unity and Equality with New Deal Commemoratives closely examines how President Franklin Delano Roosevelt used the commemorative stamp program to build popular support for his federal initiatives and to project national unity during the Great Depression. Seeking evidence of his verbal commitments to uplift the conditions of all Americans during his presidency, petitioners sought FDR’s approval for commemoratives that celebrated achievements of women and African Americans, which also acknowledged the remaining legal barriers to achieving full political equality. Roosevelt understood that the visual language of stamps carried great political power and that those messages would be distributed widely to millions of Americans.

20 Leave a comment on paragraph 20 0 While reading Stamping American Memory, I want readers to see that stamp collecting was not just an insignificant hobby practiced by a few obsessed individuals. Rather, that stamp collecting provides a way to examine how millions of individuals and the federal government participated in a conversation about national life in early-twentieth-century America. As a collectible, stamps transformed into miniature memorials through the act of being saved. This study draws upon sources known to historians and to philatelists, separately, that haven’t been adequately brought together in one piece of scholarly work. My goal is to bring together philatelists and historians not only through the sources I interrogate, but through this platform by encouraging discussion among readers. I welcome your comments on how to expand and improve on this study.


  1. 21 Leave a comment on paragraph 21 0
  2. Thomas Pynchon, The Crying of Lot 49 (New York: J.B. Lippencott Company, 1965), 31-2. 

  3. 22 Leave a comment on paragraph 22 0 Pynchon, The Crying of Lot 49, 149. 

  4. 23 Leave a comment on paragraph 23 0 Mary H. Lawson, “Philately,” in Arago: People, Postage and the Post (Washington, D.C.: National Postal Museum, 2006), http://www.arago.si.edu/index.asp?con=1&cmd=1&mode=1&tid=2027477

  5. 24 Leave a comment on paragraph 24 0 Jack Child, Miniature Messages: The Semiotics and Politics of Latin American Postage Stamps (Durham: Duke University Press, 2008). 

  6. 25 Leave a comment on paragraph 25 0 Russell W. Belk, Collecting in a Consumer Society (London: Routledge, 1995); Leah Dilworth, ed., Acts of Possession: Collecting in America (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2003); Susan M Pearce, On Collecting: An Investigation into Collecting in the European Tradition (London: Routledge, 1995); Susan Stewart, On Longing: Narratives of the Miniature, the Gigantic, the Souvenir, the Collection (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1984). 

  7. 26 Leave a comment on paragraph 26 0 William J. Reed, “The Sun Never Sets in Philately Land,” Philatelic West 85, no. 2 (February 1927): np. 

  8. 27 Leave a comment on paragraph 27 0 Belk, Collecting in a Consumer Society; Daniel Horowitz, The Morality of Spending: Attitudes Toward the Consumer Society in America, 1875-1940 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1985).  

  9. 28 Leave a comment on paragraph 28 0 William Leach, Land of Desire: Merchants, Power, and the Rise of A New American Culture (New York: Pantheon Books, 1993).  

  10. 29 Leave a comment on paragraph 29 0 Matthias Judt, Charles McGovern, and Susan Strasser, eds., Getting and Spending: European and American Consumer Societies in the Twentieth Century, Publications of the German Historical Institute (Washington, D.C: German Historical Institute, 1998); Charles McGovern, Sold American: Consumption and Citizenship, 1890-1945 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2006).Gary Gerstle, American Crucible: Race and Nation in the Twentieth Century (Princeton University Press, 2002). See also: Lizabeth Cohen, Making the New Deal, Industrial Workers in Chicago, 1919-1939 (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1990).  

  11. 30 Leave a comment on paragraph 30 0 Gerstle, American Crucible

  12. 31 Leave a comment on paragraph 31 0 Stewart, On Longing: Narratives of the Miniature, the Gigantic, the Souvenir, the Collection, 132-151. 

  13. 32 Leave a comment on paragraph 32 0 Marita Sturken, Tourists of History: Memory, Kitsch, and Consumerism from Oklahoma City to Ground Zero (Durham: Duke University Press, 2007). 

  14. 33 Leave a comment on paragraph 33 0 Maurice Halbwachs, On Collective Memory, trans. Lewis A. Coser (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992); Pierre Nora, “Between Memory and History: Les Lieux de Memoire,” Representations 26 (Spring 1989): 7-25. Stewart and Nora’s definition draw upon the concept of a screen memory developed by Sigmund Freud. A screen memory stands in for an original unpleasant personal memory from the past in order to protect an individual as they live in the present. Sigmund Freud, The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, trans. James Strachey (London: Hogarth Press, 1948). 

  15. 34 Leave a comment on paragraph 34 0 John E Bodnar, Remaking America: Public Memory, Commemoration, and Patriotism in the Twentieth Century (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1992); Kirk Savage, Standing Soldiers, Kneeling Slaves: Race, War, and Monument in Nineteenth-Century America (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1997); Susan A. Crane, ed., Museums and Memory (Palo Alto: Stanford University Press, 2000); James E. Young, The Texture of Memory: Holocaust Memorials and Meaning (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1993); Kristin Ann Hass, Carried to the Wall: American Memory and the Vietnam Veterans Memorial (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998); Commemorations: The Politics of National Identity (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1994); Michael Kammen, Mystic Chords of Memory: The Transformation of Tradition in American Culture (New York: Knopf, 1991). 

  16. 35 Leave a comment on paragraph 35 0 Marita Sturken, Tangled Memories: The Vietnam War, the AIDS Epidemic, and the Politics of Remembering (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997); Halbwachs, On Collective Memory. I favor Sturken’s concept of “cultural memory” here rather than Halbwach’s “collective memory.” Certainly, Americans could be categorized as one social group and stamps contributed to the memories of that group. Stamps, however, live beyond the countries where they are printed and have lives within homes and stamp albums of individuals. The interpretation of stamps also lie “entangled” between history and memory, because they are produced by governments in an official capacity yet they are used by collectors and non-collectors in different ways to suit their interests and needs. 

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Source: http://stampingamericanmemory.org/2014version/introduction/