Mucha & Czechoslovakia

I collect stamps out of love. I am often inspired by the art and the design and fascinated by the history. I’m drawn to the romance of used stamps, too. This little rectangle of paper paid the passage of a communication from one person to another and unless it’s still on the envelope with letter enclosed, there’s no way of knowing what it was. It might have been a bill, or a love letter. The only thing we know is that it was important enough to put the expense and effort into sending that letter. How many hands did it pass through before it came to me? Some other collector soaked it off the envelope. If there’s a hinge remenant on the back, we know it was on display in an album. There’s a history there we can see evidence of, but never really know.

Sometimes I’ll scan in a stamp to get a better look at it. There are amazing levels of detail, especially in the older stamps, that can’t be seen without using a scanner or a magnifying glass. I scanned in the stamp from Czechoslovakia the other day:

Then I noticed the writing in the corner:

That’s right, Mucha! This led me to discover a bit of history I didn’t know about. After the First World War ended in 1918, Czechoslovakia gained its independence, they had Alphonse Mucha design their new stamps, banknotes and other government documents.

I also realized something else by looking carefully at this stamp. Czechoslovakia credited the artists who designed their stamps from the day the country began. Here’s one from around the same time as the Mucha stamp by Jacob Obrovsky (please click for a larger view. It’s truly exquisite):

Not every country credits their artists. The USPS still doesn’t. Czechoslovakia’s postage stamps were consistently stunning throughout it’s 75 year history. I wonder if its willingness to credit creators is part of that?

Apple Saves the USPS!

Amidst all the hype of Apple’s new iPhone 4s and iOS 5 was a little announcement of huge importance that got very little attention. On October 12, Apple announced the Cards app for the iPhone. For $2.99 postpaid ($4.99 sent outside the US) you can take a photograph from your iPhone and have it printed and mailed as a card.

While ordering custom greeting cards online is nothing new (Hallmark has offered it since 2007) Apple’s Cards has a few distinctions that set it apart from the others:

  • The portions of the cards that aren’t customized are letterpressed, so the quality is higher than anything else out there.
  • It’s $2.99 a card, cheaper than anything similar you’d find in a store, and that price includes postage & mailing.
  • Everything is done right from the phone, so it’s more convenient then, well, pretty much anything, making it as easy to send a card as a text message or an email.
Okay, so maybe “saves the USPS” is a little hyperbolic, but ideas like this will do a lot more to save the USPS than selling its postal soul by putting live celebrities on stamps. From the start advances in computing have been damaging to the USPS. If people are sending email, they’re sending fewer letters. If people get magazines as a PDF or eBook, they’re getting fewer printed magazines through the mail. However, this doesn’t have to be the case. When computers first started entering into mainstream businesses, they came with the promise of a “paperless office.” In actuality, computers increased the amount of paper that offices consumed by creating new ways to put more stuff on paper.
If we want to save the USPS we need to look at ways that technology can be used to increase the amount people use their services. Apple Cards is a solution that’s full of win. It offers something that is cheaper and better quality than what I can get in the stores, customizable to make it much more personal than a regular card and convenient to the point that the only easier option us just to not do anything. It increases the likelihood that I’ll be using the USPS without costing the USPS anything to implement. What other solutions are out there that would have the same effect?

U.S. Postal Service Sinks Further

The band played on as the Titanic sank. What did they play? Did they decide to play the best songs they knew how to play to go out with courage and dignity? Or did they play the most popular songs of the day in hopes that people would like them better, turn their boats around and come rescue them?

The USPS seems to be doing the latter. Where once our postage stamps celebrated or best and brightest and our people, places and events of historical, artistic and scientific significance, recent years have seen increasing numbers of stamps that appear to have been issued just to get people to buy them. The Art of Disney stamps, the Star Wars stamps, the multiple Reagan stamps, for example. Which is not to say that there isn’t some merit in all of these subjects, but there comes a point where due diligence has been done in recognizing an achievement and you cross over into pandering.

At last, the national nightmare is over. Now we can have our own Britney stamps!

Actually, I have mixed emotions about this. I really love collecting US postage stamps, and would love for my own kids to be excited about it one day. The USPS has been losing money and really needs to find ways to increase revenue or it won’t survive. Is this the way to do it, though? Will people actually turn the life boats around and come rescue the USPS because they like the new stamps?

Now, the USPS has ended its ban on portraying living people on stamps. Call me a pessimist, but I don’t see anything good coming of this.

Who will decide who's worthy of being on a stamp?

This is something we’ve looked down on other countries for doing. The ban on honoring people on US stamps until five years after their death seems very wise to me. Our heroes have let us down so many times in recent years that insurance companies now offer scandal insurance, for when a corporate mascot like Tiger Woods gets involved in a sex scandal. Although there’s always been a certain amount of establishment propaganda inherent in any country’s postage stamps, the USPS has done a good job at being fairly neutral & populist throughout its history. How will it handle honoring the living on stamps, while trying to sell the greatest number of stamps?

It's only a matter of time...

There are huge numbers out there who would insist that Sarah Palin deserves to be on a stamp. Many others would say she’s just a corporate whore just playing a part to make money and deserves to be drowned in rancid baby vomit and fermented coyote urine. A decade from now people will most likely be saying, Sarah who? Will the USPS cave to popular demand and put the latest fad on a stamp? If they did, maybe it wouldn’t be such a bad thing. They’d be using Internet troll techniques to get attention, but at least it’d get people talking and thinking about the USPS, and that might ultimately be a good thing.

Saving a Dying Hobby: Scott Catalog to the Rescue!

From 1982 to 2007, the average age of the stamp collecting population (at least the subset of collectors belonging to the APS) increased by 19 years. In 2007, the average age of collectors was 63. That increase should be alarming. Very few new collectors are entering the hobby. At the current rate, the hobby will die soon, unless we make a concerted effort to save it.

There’s lots that could be done to make the hobby relevant to a younger generation. This has nothing to do with trying to make philately seem “hip” or “with it” or “cool” because such attempts are always obvious to the target audience and inevitably make one look stupid. Instead, we should be asking what the barriers are that prevent that prevent new philatelists from enjoying the hobby to the fullest.

Such obstacles may be invisible to long-term collectors. Part of the fun of stamp collecting is knowing the value of the stamps in one’s collection, but how do you know what a stamp is worth? In the USA and Canada, the values are set by the Scott Catalog. The current catalogs weighs in at 6 volumes, is over 5000 pages and will set you back $599.94 if you buy it on Amazon. If you want to stay current, you have to buy the new edition every year. How welcoming is that to the new collector? That pretty much excludes everyone but the hardcore collectors and dealers from knowing the current value of their collection. Personally, I’m using a 2005 set that I picked up used. I figure it gives me a ballpark value that’s good enough for now.

It doesn’t have to be this way, though. All these values could go online and be made available for a modest subscription fee. It could be so much more than just an online version of the paper catalog, though. Facial recognition software is becoming prevalent, and is affordable enough to include in cheap applications like iPhoto. Faces are far more complex than postage stamps. An application could be written for  whereby one could scan a stamp. The stamp would be instantly identified. The user would find out where and when it was published and the stamp’s current value. It could even link to the Wikipedia entry that relates to the content of the stamp. All this could be put into an app on a smart phone, so the user wouldn’t have to be tied to a computer to use it.

The limitations of such an application could be used as a “teachable moment.” With current technologies, the identification it provided would be a best guess. It would be able to identify the stamp, but not necessarily the condition, perforation, or grille. But when it encountered such things, it could offer guides that would teach the user how to make such distinctions.

Such an app could also be used to create a catalog of one’s collection, to keep track of what you have and to know what it’s current value is. It could alert you when values change, and present you with graphs of your progress. It would get rid of the drudge work of keeping track of all that and make it a dynamic and exciting process.

It could also be a tool for trading. You’d scan in your collection, including multiples. You’d set the status of as many of these multiples to “Offering.” Meanwhile, the application would be able to identify the gaps in your collection, such as the stamps you need to finish a set or complete a year. You’d set these to “Want.” You’d receive an alert when a match occurred and it would be up to you to make the trade. The trade would be tied into the value of the stamps, so both parties would be assured of a fair trade. Starting out you’d be limited to trades of low value. For each trade you made, however, you’d earn “trustworthiness” points. The higher your rating, the higher the value of the trade.

All this would be fairly simple with current technology. It would make philately more approachable and exciting for new collectors while providing valuable tools for more experienced collectors. Subscription fees could be kept low while providing Scott with increased revenue. The expensive part, gathering the data and setting the values, is already done, so it’s a matter of leveraging that data into a new medium. That medium doesn’t have the expense of physically producing a 6-volume set of books. It wouldn’t cannibalize the existing market for the print catalog because the average collector isn’t buying it anyway. It’d be a win for Scott and a win for philately.

Russia, 1921

This is one of my all-time favorite stamps. Keep in mind that this is all done with only black ink, in a space that’s 1.5″ by .5″, and yet the detail and lighting, the sense of depth and motion is just breathtaking. Our handsome young hero, after a long night’s battle, has vanquished the dragon. He looks up to greet the dawn of a new day, free from the terror and tyranny of the dragon.

Of course, this is another stamp that’s probably best without knowing the historical context. It’s from Russia, 1921, a few years after the October Revolution and just one year before the formation of the USSR. Most likely it’s shameless propaganda, and not an illustrating a classic folk tale. No matter. It has a timeless, mythic quality that transcends its original intent to become a masterpiece of illustration.

Ecuador Celebrates the US Constitution


Ecuador Celebrates the Sesquicentennial of the US Constitution


Ecuador Celebrates the Sesquicentennial of the US Constitution

Sometimes I’m happier not knowing the backstory of things. Here are two beautiful stamps (click the pics for larger views). The scans don’t really do them justice. They’re breathtaking in real life. And yet, they don’t make a whole lot of sense. Ecuador, a small South American country, celebrates the sesquicentennial of the US Constitution. Sure, it’s worth celebrating, but these stamps are larger by far than any other stamp published in Ecuador in 1939. They’re a five-color print job when most stamps published in the world at this were one color, occasionally two. They’re far more elaborate than any other stamp published in Ecuador at this time. They’re an order of magnitude more impressive than the US stamp celebrating the same event:


USA Celebrates the Sesquicentennial of the US Constitution

So, I don’t know if the Ecuadorians were genuinely that excited about the US Constitution, or if this was some way of sucking up to the boss. I’m glad I don’t, because I can pretend it was the former and just enjoy the stamps for the beautiful things they are.

Letter Writers Alliance

I just happened along the wonderful blog of the Letter Writers Alliance. It’s not about philately per se. It’s about the love of sending and receiving letters, real physical letters sent by snail mail, and all aspects thereof. From it’s mission statement:

In this era of instantaneous communication, a handwritten letter is a rare and wondrous item. The Letter Writers Alliance is dedicated to preserving this art form. Prepare your pen and paper, moisten your tongue, and get ready to write more letters!

The LWA blog gives a lot of attention to stamps, as well, but from a much more humanistic perspective than other philatelic blogs I’ve seen. It celebrates  stamps as beautiful things in and of themselves, without regard to how rare they are, or how much they’re worth. It recognizes a value of stamps that many philatelists ignore: these are things that are created to transport a letter from one human to another. This is something that occasionally is almost overwhelming when I’m working on my collection. There’s a history in a canceled stamp. Someone bought that stamp. Their tongue moistened it and their hand pressed it on an envelope. Very old stamps would have been hand sorted and hand canceled. A mailman (or femailman as the case may have been) walked up to the mailbox and dropped it in. Somebody received that letter and read its contents. It could have been anything from a love letter to a bill to an advertisement, but it was a communication from one person to another, enabled by the stamp. How many hands did that stamp pass through before it came into my collection? “Used, hinged,” is second only to “damaged” as the most worthless of stamps, but think about who soaked that stamp off its envelope and put it into an album, and who else pulled that stamp out of the album. In my stamp collection there are connections to hundreds of thousands of people who I can never know anything about! But I digress. The LWA blog doesn’t necessarily talk about any of that, but it reminds me that stamps can be about more than just the physical fact of the stamp, and that’s a great thing!

I’m tempted to join the LWA. Membership is only $3. But to be honest, it’d make me feel a little hypocritical. My actual letter writing happens once a year with our annual pantheistic  holiday card. Maybe this is because I never really learned how to write a casual letter. Letter writing for me was always about seduction and foreplay. I was always awkward with the spoken word, but in print I could be Casanova. I’d choose paper and ink as carefully as my words, and often the letters were epic multimedia montages. All to win or to sustain the love of a distant damsel.

This was back before email and Unlimited Family and Friends calling plans. Think about that for a moment. Every communication with a distant somebody took real effort and cost money. Do people even write real, physical love letters anymore? Or do they just send a text message?

There are qualities of physical letters that email will never capture. There are possibilities for communication that only exist in physical form. I’m glad the Letter Writers Alliance is around to help us remember that!

Mongolia LOVES Elvis!

Mongolia is the land of the mighty Khans, Genghis  and Kublai. Formerly it was the Mongol Empire, the largest contiguous empire in the history of the world. Elvis is the once, current and future King of Rock and Roll. I love them both honestly and un-ironically. Yet somehow, seeing the two of them together doesn’t sit quite right for me. (Click the pics for larger sizes. It’s totally worth it!)

Mongolia Loves Elvis

Funny, I don’t remember Elvis’ trip to Mongolia!

It could be that the Mongolians truly celebrate cultural diversity and Elvis is an important cultural figure to them. Given that Elvis’ music would have been suppressed by the Communist government until the 90s, I’m not sure how that could be. It seems like the great Mongolian guitarist Enh-Manlai would be a much more fitting subject for such an homage as this series of stamps and souvenir sheets.

Elvis in Love

Elvis’s heart burned bright, even as a child…

Here’s the thing. Mongolia realized a long time ago that they could be making money off stamps. Not from their own people (even today, 20% of the population lives on less than $1.20 a day), but from foreign collectors. So, while Mongolia was a Communist country, closely aligned to the Soviet Union and suppressing Western thought amongst it’s citizens, it was also issuing stamp after stamp celebrating the US Space program (and cats, dinosaurs, and other collector-popular topicals).

Nuclear Elvis

Forget the babe. Notice that Elvis is escaping a nuclear explosion in a flying British hot rod while Giant Elvis plays on…

So none of these stamps have ever graced the surface of a letter sent by a Mongolian, or have seen the inside of a Mongolian post office. Most likely they were all sold straight to Western collectors.

Elvis is Everywhere

It’s the guitar-penis-motorcycyle-rocket that does it for me!

Of course, I’m probably biased about this. Growing up in the US of A, my philatelic obsession during my grade school years was with US commemoratives. These celebrate our important historic events, our cultural, political and military heroes, and other things that are, or should be, important to us as US citizens. When Edgar Allen Poe is on a US stamp, for example, he’s there because he’s one of the most important literary figures in US history. It’s hard to picture a cabal of postal workers saying, “If we put Poe on a stamp, those Poe fans will buy millions. MILLIONS!”

It just seems to me that putting something on a stamp just to get people to buy it is really tacky. Something only a fallen empire or a country that’s hard up for cash would do.

Oh yeah, right…

We're all Mongolians

A sign of a postal system in trouble.

Wow. That’s almost as cheesy as the Mongolian Elvis Celebration! It’s a fine line, really. Elvis is a significant figure in musical history who deserves to be commemorated, on the one hand. On the other hand, there’s a difference between commemoration and exploitation in order to sell a product. Star Wars, the original 1977 movie, changed filmmaking forever. It is a significant cultural event. Darth Maul and Princess Amadalla aren’t part of the event. This stamp sheet doesn’t commemorate the historical event. It’s an advertisement for the Star Wars marketing empire, and it exists strictly because Star Wars fans will buy it.

It embarrasses me that my own country is now engaging in such practices. But I guess I’d rather see the postal service survive…

You know you’re too specialized when…

Experts often recommend picking a subject area to focus on when collecting stamps. The logic is that collecting from the totality of all the many hundreds of thousands of stamps ever printed in the world can be too overwhelming. Picking a subject area like “cats” or “World War II” can help you focus and build a satisfying, cohesive collection. Personally, I’m a generalist, preferring to embrace the totality of human experience instead of arbitrarily limiting myself. However, I do focus on certain areas to a degree. The US and Canada, because they’re familiar to me, and easily available. Great Britain because I’m an Anglophile. Hungary and Austria because I love their design aesthetic. Mongolia because they’re so shameless in creating stamps just to get collectors in other countries to buy them (unless Mongolians really do love I Love Lucy, Elvis and Marilyn Monroe) and there are so many over-the-top big and pretty stamps that totally appeal to the kid in me. So I’ve got nothing against specialization per se. I think you need to be careful about getting too overspecialized, however. Case in point:

Jewish Chess Masters on Stamps!

Jewish Chess Masters on Stamps!

Still, I guess there would be something kind of fun about collecting something so specific as Jewish chess masters. It’s extremely unlikely that I’ll ever have a complete album of every stamp ever published in Hungary. However, the collector of Jewish chess masters on stamps has a reachable goal. Chicks would TOTALLY dig it, too! “Hey baby, come back to my place and check out my collection of Jewish chess master stamps. I’ve got every one ever published…”

My First Stamp Album

My First Stamp Album
I found My First Stamp Album at a flea market this weekend for $2. It’s a lovely hardcover, published in 1954 by Minkus. I love the parade of clean-cut white children, marching through the streets with their giant stamp signs.
My First Stamp Album

A year later the Civil Rights movement would begin, and those signs would change:

The book was part of set called My First Stamp Outfit: The Ideal Outfit for the Beginning Stamp Collector. Along with the album, it also included a magnifying glass, hinges, flag and coat-of-arms stickers, and stamps. Everyone one would need to start collecting! Unfortunately, for the boy or girl who got this gift, stamp collecting didn’t really click. There’s a half-hearted attempt to place a few stamps, and they didn’t even put in all the flag stickers before they gave up.

In the back of the album there’s even a place to fill the Boy Scout Stamp Collecting Merit Badge:
Boy Scout Merit

Do they still have that? Or have they replaced it with an Gay Bashing merit badge yet?

Contrast My First Stamp Album with a contemporary version of the idea:

Here we see one of the reasons why there are so few new stamp collectors. For My First Stamp Album, they actually hired an artist to paint a cover that portrays stamp collecting as something that’s fun and interesting for kids. They really try to relate it to kid’s lives, tying stamp collecting into other things they might be into (dogs, Scouting, cute girls in pigtails…). The new version looks like someone just threw a bunch of random stamps onto a scanner, slapped some text on there and said “Good enough.” The only way one might suspect that this might be a fun thing to do is that it says FUN KIT on it. Seriously, who are you trying to sell to here? Who are you trying to attract?

I wonder what a modern version of My First Stamp Album might look like. My own first stamp album, given to my by my brother Jeff when I was 4, if I remember correctly, had a picture of a magic genie’s lamp, spewing a cloud of world stamps from the spout. It really captured what stamp collecting was for me back then. It was a kind of magic. Each stamp was a gateway to wonderful things and places I’d never known about: space ships, exotic animals, cathedrals, masks, distant landscapes and infinitely more. To be honest, it’s still that way to me!

It could be that way to a new generation as well, if someone tried.