Came across an interesting article about history of stamp collecting which I thought others might enjoy- have edited it down a bit...don't let the title put you off
It picks up on a number of topics explored on this forum such as age and gender of collectors, role of dealers, motivation of collectors etc etc
Gelber, Steven M. "Free market metaphor: the historical dynamics of stamp collecting. (philately as expression of capitalism)."
Comparative Studies in Society and History 34.n4 (Oct 1992): 742(28)
Stamp collecting and industrial capitalism in the United States emerged simultaneously in the mid-nineteenth century. England issued the first government postage stamp in 1840, and other nations quickly adopted the idea. The United States printed its first official stamp in 1847, although it was preceded by the provisionals issued by local postmasters.
Postage stamps were a product of the industrial revolution. The adoption of the prepaid penny post in England, while opposed by the General Post Office, was widely supported by large merchants who understood that a low-cost, single-rate system was vital to the communication demanded by an increasingly national market.'
The adhesive label was originally conceived by the English postal reformer,Rowland Hill, as a convenience for illiterates who would not be able to write addresses on the official envelopes that he preferred as proof of prepayment.
Within a decade, almost every major nation in the world had borrowed this device, which became a symbol of the economic transformation of the nineteenth century.
I would argue that the collecting of these tokens was a microcosmic performance of the system that created them. Stamp collectors took on many of the key roles of actors in the market economy and played out various conflicts embodied in the larger society in the philatelic arena. Collectors struggled with the issue of gender roles and with the problem of distinguishing adult from child behavior, but at the same time they attempted to reconcile the psychic rewards of the hobby with the potentially corrupting lure of profit. These tensions were never resolved in the hobby any more than they were in the real world, but confronting the issues in both work and play gave the collectors twice the chance to make sense of their places in society.
Stamp collectors were acutely self-conscious of the ways in which their activity mimicked the real world of commerce. They appropriated the language of the commodity market and used it to both praise and criticize their leisure activity. I contend that stamp collectors transferred to the leisure sphere the discourse that defined the meaning of industrial capitalism and used the languageand images of the marketplace to legitimize both work and leisure. By making their leisure like work, they could bring to it all the honor accorded productive activity in a work-oriented society. At the same time, by replicating business activity in their spare time, stamp collectors reduced the contrast between work and play and thus made work, as well as play, less alien.
Stamp collecting is a subset of the leisure category of collecting, which in turn is a subset of a broader set of activities called hobbies. Most of the individual endeavors that we commonly think of as hobbies began before the term hobby emerged, but significantly, what appears to be one of the earliest modem uses of that word is an 1871 reference to stamp collecting. The Stamp Collector's Guide, one of hundreds of short-lived, dealer-published, nineteenth-century stamp periodicals noted that "all great men have their hobbies:
although we have records of people collecting for more than two thousand years, collecting was not perceived to be a distinct form of leisure until the second half of the nineteenth century.
By World War 11, stamp collecting had become the quintessential hobby, widely promoted as a wholesome pastime
for both young people and adults. This essay suggests that stamp collecting achieved its position as "the king of hobbies, and the hobby of kings" (George V collected, as did Franklin Roosevelt) in large part because it helped its participants define themselves in relationship to the prevailing economic
system .By recapitulating many of the fundamental structures and relationshipsof Gilded Age capitalism, stamp collecting taught and reinforced therules of the economic game.
Ross McKibbin has argued that the hobbies of the British working class provided their participants with a sense of autonomy lacking in their regular jobs. This sense of personal achievement came, however, not because they were doing something different from work;on the contrary, it was closely linked to the fact that their hobbies were verysimilar to their jobs: For example, the author of a 1956 introduction to a book on philately suggested that the hobby could boost "the
lagging ego of the average American adult," who would "find compensation for a mediocre performance in his life's work in outstanding accomplishments in the charmed world of philately." But the author's idea of compensation consisted on the one hand of building monetary value in a collection and on
the other of the possibility that "the common man" could "triumph over the exceptional man through sheer philatelic ability."'
It took approximately twenty years for stamp collecting to emerge as a male dominated,market-oriented pastime. Women and children were the hobby's first participants, and their interest was more aesthetic than economic. Stamp
collecting had a number of qualities that made it particularly attractive to women. First, the home was the appropriate sphere for the Victorian woman, and most stamp-collecting activity took place within the home. Second, as the
people with the greatest amount of leisure time in the nineteenth century, middle-class women were the first and most frequent hobby participants.
Finally, the pictorial element of stamps made them artistic and therefore feminine. Within a year of England's first issue of postage stamps in 1840,women and schoolboys began collecting them. Punch identified collectors as "the industriously idle ladies of England," and other sources seemed surprised
when adults as well as young boys were seen collecting stamps. The first female collectors appear to have been attracted to the aesthetic properties of stamps. Indeed, the world's first collector was apparently a English woman who advertised for stamps in 1841 to cover her dressing room walls; and other women of the same era used stamps to decorate work boxes and trunks. Bythe turn of the century, however, the idea of using stamps as decorative devices had become so absurd that philatelic journals made jokes about stamp
What may be thought of as the aesthetic phase of stamp collecting came to an end around 1860 with the commoditization of stamps. That year, the Boston Daily Advertiser noted that stamps were beginning to develop differential values relative to one another and that therefore amateur stamp brokers could get hundreds of common European and American stamps for just a halfdozen
rarer Mauritius or Hawaiian stamps.
Once men displaced women as stamp collectors the very essence ofthe hobby changed. As other countries adopted postage stamps, collecting spread until it reached fad proportions in Europe during the early 1860s and gave rise to an intense market-based subculture. In fact the informal, open air stampmarkets that appeared more or less simultaneously in a number of European countries in the 1860s were commonly referred to as bourse, which was also the name of the French stock market. Conceptual sets were easy to create but difficult to complete, and thus a market fordesired stamps emerged. Because men could, of course, properly engage in the rough and tumble of commodity trading, Victorian men, not women, and Victorian boys, not girls, were understood to be traders in the marketplace.
The aesthetic quality of stamps was the most problematic because the appreciation of beauty was thought to be a feminine attribute. Women collectors brought a very different set of assumptions to the hobby than did most men.
Explained one male collector, "When to us, a stamp only represents so much money expended in its purchase, the philatelic female will weave a wondrous web of sentiment around it." It was taken as a given that "women love and
enjoy bright colors and artistic pictures even more than men do" and would appreciate the opportunity to place their stamps in albums in "whatever novel and artistic designs they may devise."
This careful gender distinction between monetary and artistic value was no Victorian anomaly. In the twentieth century, women were pioneers in topical collecting. Unwilling to conform to the standard scientific taxonomy, Fay Jordan, a collector in the 1940s,amassed forty albums of nothing but violet-colored stamps, including anexample of the legendary "Post Office Mauritius.Thus, even a woman who was making a living by buying and selling stamps rejected the market model as appropriate for women and instead emphasized the "romance" in stamps, "the long journeys they have taken, the messages they have carried [and] the pictures on the stamps
The market model, which underlay stamp collecting from its earliest days,militated against female participation because both men and women perceived dealing as inappropriate feminine behavior. Yet there was also a fairly high
level of ambivalence in male attitudes toward the economic aspects of their hobby. It was true that the give-and-take of the marketplace provided stamp collecting with a masculine, business-like aura and that the possibility of Nevertheless, there needed to be something more creative, more meaningful, more psychically enriching, more socially acceptable, in fact, more feminine to justify philately as a hobby.
Although men almost never commented on the aesthetic or romantic aspects of postage stamps, some of the qualities embodied in those twocategories were included in the much-touted educational benefits ascribed to stamp collecting from its very earliest days. Unlike aesthetic creativity,, education was a positive good for both sexes. In addition to being educational, stamp collectors also claimed their hobby promoted
a rich social life and positive personal values. Each of these noneconomicbenefits could be, and usually was, indirectly linked to some practical economic advantages. In other words, even if the psychic reward itself brought no monetary gain, it contributed to an ideology, the work ethic, that would make the hobbyist more successful in the workaday.
The widespread popularity of stamp collecting among boys has been attributed to the "spirit of adventure and the desire to explore foreign lands" and hypothesized that Freud would see albums as symbols of "repressed imperialism" and the desire to enjoy "the sense of universal conquest."
The educational benefits of stamp collecting were so widely promoted in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries that two researchers in the 1930s decided to test the claim that stamp collecting led to increased knowledge.Their conclusions revealed the different meaning collecting had for different
age groups. Younger stamp collectors, who accumulated rather than collected systematically, were no better informed about history or geography than their non-collecting peers. Yet older adolescent and adult collectors did in fact know more about those two subjects than non-collectors.
As early as 1871 a New Jersey stamp paper linked the educational benefits of stamp collecting with the more general advantage of wholesome leisure. Philately, it said, was not only a "pleasant pastime" but also a "useful labor." Stamp collecting kept young men at home and occupied minds that
would otherwise have been idle, said the paper, which then reminded its readers that "an idle mind is the devil's workshop." Although it may have occupied the idle mind, stamp collecting also absorbed the idle dollar that might otherwise have been spent on social vices. The "few pennies" expended on stamps were better spent there "than at a billiard table, or at the bar,"
concluded the same writer.41 A contributor to an 1892 edition of The Eastern Philatelist, who candidly signed himself "Blue Nose," recounted the sad tale of his descent from his clean philatelic life style into drinking, smoking, and gambling after he left his small-town Nova Scotia home and fell under the evil
tutelage of a big-city roommate. Fortunately he was saved from his life of debauchery when he discovered two of his fellow clerks were collectors and began to spend his evenings working on stamps with them. In the company ofthese untainted young men he was "gradually weaned from any desire" to smoke, drink, or play cards.
Although collecting is essentially a solitary pastime, stamp collectors frequently stressed the social attractions of
their hobby. What one nineteenth-century collector called "the Freemasonry of philately" was more than the casual gathering of traders on the market floor: It was the creation of a genuine community of friends.43 When R. L. Thompson wrote about the social benefits of philately in 1895, he made the hobby sound like the ultimate answer to the problem of human loneliness. His
article told of a homesick freshman collector who found a friend and protector in a dignified senior philatelist and of an urban newcomer who, after spending lonely nights in his room, was invited home by an older stamp collector to enjoy the comforts of family life.
Despite the fact that few women participated in the supposedly democratic fellowship of stamp collecting, there was
still some sense-perhaps hope is a better word-among men that stamp collecting could improve their success with the opposite sex. If there were ever a poor pastime for meeting women, it had to be the male-dominated world of stamp collecting; yet the stamp press carried a surprising number of pieces in which stamps were the vehicle through which men came to know women more intimately.
These noneconomic benefits did not come without a social price. Although it was usually suggested in a light-hearted
manner, many collectors recognized that their hobby could also become a compulsion that carried dangers of its own, albeit less than those of the saloon or gambling den. From its very beginnings in 1842, satirists made fun of the single-minded
pursuit of stamps. In that year Punch carried the frequently quoted poem that referred to stamp collectors as "Knights of the Spit-upon." The poem turns on the absurdity of "some fool in mustachios" persuading "half the town" to "fill a peck measure I With the coveted treasure I Of as many old stamps as per force can be lit upon."There is a strong sense in the literature that stamp collectors perceived of themselves as engaging in driven behavior best compared with a disease.
Along with the gently self-deprecating tone that marked so much of the material about the so-called stamp fiends and stamp mania, there are also indications that some, perhaps many, collectors were genuinely embarrassed by or ashamed of their pastime. In 1880 a New Jersey collector claimed he
had just as much right to laugh at a button collector as the button collector had a right to laugh at him.
Burdened from the beginning with the stigma of childhood play, adult stamp collectors strove to justify their participation in the hobby. While the social benefits of aesthetic pleasure, education, friendship, and moral leisure may well have held real attractiveness for collectors, it is not difficult to believe that these assets were also trotted out so frequently because they
legitimized a child's game with generally approved values. Those values,however, were not uniquely adult, and a pastime seen as childish on the one hand or maniacal on the other needed to be elevated above the merely beneficial.
Foremost among the arguments that sought to separate child's playfrom adult avocation was the stress on stamp collecting as a science.Although almost all collectors seem to have accepted
the designation of their activity as scientific, there was nevertheless sufficient ambiguity in their minds to precipitate a steady stream of questions that located stamp collecting as a hobby as well as a science. With stamp collecting is some indication of the inferiority complex felt by stamp collectors in the nineteenth century. Seven years later when a Colorado collector laid out some rules for assuring successful stamp clubs, prominent among them was the requirement that club officers be willing to admit that they were stamp collectors. "
One member stated "I did not inform my employer what my object was on my vacation was to purchase stamps, as I had a dread of telling him I was a stamp collector, fearful lest I should lose my job."
The aspects of stamp collecting that proponents deemed scientific included a variety of technical skills and knowledge having to do with water marks,perforations, engraving, and other physical properties of the stamps themselves. Scientific stamp collectors cared not about appearance but about two kinds of authenticity: first, that it was not a counterfeit and second, that it had been neither repaired nor artificially enhanced.'
Authenticity was important because a genuine and undoctored stamp had more value in the marketplace than a copy or repaired item. The idea of scientific stamp collecting was thus closely linked to the market, an aspect of the hobby that men took much more seriously than women.
Underlying the physical aspects of the stamp itself was the taxonomic structure of the entire hobby. Like biological specimens, stamps could be analyzed and placed into specific categories. Once the stamp was authenticatedand analyzed, it could then take its place as part of a defined set.
The way in which stamps were issued-by countries, in
certain denominations, with particular purposes and pictures, in given years,and so forth-allowed them to be arranged into closed sets that could be, depending on how such sets were defined, made more or less difficult to complete. The sets or series completed the commoditization of stamps bycreating scarcity and thus value.
THE MARKETPLACE OF STAMPS
For its first half century, the stamp market operated without any support and with frequent opposition from post office departments. Until the 1890s post offices not only
refused to cooperate with stamp collectors, but several governments, including Canada and the United States, actually made it illegal to exchange or sell uncanceled stamps at more than their face value.This uncooperative attitude underwent a dramatic about-face after 1894, when Portugal realized
that a collected unused stamp, especially one with a high face value, represented pure profit. Until the turn of the century, however, stamp collecting operated independently of governments through full-time dealers who sprang up to supplement the casual street markets.
When treating their stamps as commodities, collectors tended to adopt one of three models, each reflecting a different perception of the marketplace. The first, or merchant model, was most commonly used in the nineteenth century. Merchants sell or trade their stamps either to fill their own collections or to
make a modest profit on each transaction. The second model, which I refer to as the investment model, is a logical extension of the first but focuses more on the increase in the value of stamps over time than on the trading activity itself.
Both the merchant and the investment models assume that the collector is interested in enhancing his own collection and that profits, if any, are an incidental benefit. However, the third or speculative model places lucre before leisure. The speculator buys stamps low to sell high and thus changes the rules
of the game. Unlike other collectors who win by completing their sets,that there were profits to be made in selling their own surplus stamps, apparently recognized that they could make even more money by reselling stamps they had bought for that express purpose.
Boy dealers in particular were the bane of the hobby. Because of their limited capital and their apparent propensity not to fulfill their commercial obligations, these budding traders came in for a good deal of criticism from adult dealers, many of whom published the stamp papers in which the smalltime retailers ran their advertisements and who therefore bore the brunt of
complaints from mail-order buyers who failed to receive their stamps.
Observers instinctively used the stock exchange metaphor when describing this category of collectors, recognizing it for what it was, a nascent commodity market being born on the streets, as had the stock markets themselves. The writers who casually used the stock exchange metaphor when discussing
stamp collecting were not trying to make fine distinctions among various categories of collectors; they were simply using an image that was intuitively obvious to anybody watching the behavior of the philatelists. The stock exchange analogy is, nevertheless, a useful one because it incorporates a series
of separate roles that stamp collectors used to describe their own activity:
While the stamp collectors who are merchants turn their profits through small regular transactions, those who are investors and speculators seek to make money from the increasing value of the stamp commodities themselves. Their profits come not from the merchants' incremental markup but from the change
in value of the commodity in the market place as demand for the limited number of stamps increases. In other words, although the merchants act like stock exchange brokers, other collectors behave more like the stock brokers' customers-people who are looking for an increase in the value of their
INVESTORS AND SPECULATORS
By the 1930s, when stamp collecting and other hobbies were granted imprimaturs by educational and governmental authorities, speculating in duplicates had not only become routine but was implicitly encouraged by the American post office department, which churned out commemoratives at an
unprecedented rate.Collector-in-Chief Franklin D. Roosevelt and Postmaster General James A. Farley worked together to encourage the hobby, and neither man exhibited an overly refined sense of ethics when it came to stamp collecting. Roosevelt, who was as much an accumulator as a scientific philatelist, would take stamps from any source willing to give them to him; and Farley was none too punctilious about distributing specially autographed unperforated sheets to his friends. The New Deal speculative boom, however,
was merely the culmination of a tradition that blurred the boundaries among collecting, trading, investing, and speculating.
Stamps were a commodity:canceled stamps had no intrinsic value and their price depended entirely on the continuing growth of stamp collecting as a hobby. Writing in the panic year of 1894 one collector optimistically insisted that "philately to-day rests upon a sound commercial basis" but then
admitted that this was true only because of the "enormous accessions to our ranks in the near past." If collectors wanted to maintain the value of their stamps, he warned, they had better make sure that their numbers continued to increase. Collectors wanted stamps because they were valuable, but they were valuable because collectors wanted them.
Just as the idea of the marketplace underlay the entire hobby of stamp collecting, the dream of striking it rich underlay the stamp market. It was a fantasy, like winning the lottery or
finding buried treasure. All the collector needed was knowledge of which stamps were rare-and some luck. The standard twentieth-century stamp histories are replete with accounts of great stamp finds, many of which involve
taking advantage of ignorant janitors -there were almost no articles in the nineteenth-century stamp periodicals about
people actually finding a rare stamp on an old envelope in a trunk in the attic.
The sense that profit was a perversion of the proper reason to collect ran through most stamp literature from the mid-nineteenth century to the mid-twentieth. But the hope that one
might was the guilty secret that lurked behind the facade of the real collector. A collector in the mid-fifties admitted that, "like some of my collector friends, I try to kid myself that the financial value of my stamps is not an animating motive," but he concluded that "few things please me more than to
find a marked increase in the catalog value of a stamp or set."l Even as writers touted the economic benefits gained by stamp collecting, they were aware of the tension between stamps as commodities and as hobby components.
Once in the market, collectors faced a set of ethical issues that blended situations in business, interpersonal relationships, and the special conflicts faced by collectors.
The ethics of stamp collecting was the final arena in which the market metaphor played itself out. Whether or not the field of philately was rife with deceit, as some collectors seemed to feel, it was certainly rife with the opportunity for deception. Theyoung collector will "soon find that few pursuits present a wider field for willful fraud than philately," warned a writer at the turn of the century. The mail order market figured prominently in the history of stamp fraud. Collectors
who ordered approvals, that is, stamps sent to potential buyers that they were supposed to purchase or return, could substitute inferior stamps for the ones removed from the approval sheets.
Because they are massproduced items of historically recent vintage, it is quite possible to have a large number of identical and equally valued stamps. The problem for collectors,
however, is to determine what that value is. Stamp catalogs, which included retail prices for all known issues, were first produced in Europe and America in the early 1860s.Yet even after the introduction of standard price catalogs the value of a stamp varied with its condition, which was, to some extent, a subjective matter. More important, highly specialized areas of
stamp collecting were not normally covered by the catalogs; and even in the best of times, catalog prices were only an approximation based on the previous year's sales.' Thus, the expert who attended sales and auctions read some of the dozens of stamp papers that existed at any given time and stayed abreast of the changing fashions in stamp collecting was in a position to recognize value in an item that would appear uninteresting to the beginning or less knowledgeable collector. Even though the stamp market was a much
more rational economic environment than the art market, there was still agreat deal of leeway for an expert to exploit a neophyte.
An English writer in the 1920s resolved the issue by assuming there was a clear split between professionals and amateurs and that professionals, that is,dealers, because trading stamps was their livelihood, were justified in taking advantage of customer ignorance. However, he believed amateurs "should
not take advantage of a layman seller's ignorance, because the seller has no reason to believe that an amateur will offer less than he considers an article to be worth. As we have seen, however, the division between amateur collector and professional dealer was frequently blurred, and, in any event,
most writers were loathe to accept such Darwinian ethics, even for professionals.
All transactions, whether simple trades, face-to-face sales, mail transactions, auctions, or blind purchases of unexamined stamps, were exercises in the essence of capitalism. The participants had to weigh issues of individual knowledgeability and honesty and of market value in both the short and long
run. All of these issues in turn had to be balanced with the noneconomic elements of stamp collecting. The tensions existed both within the marketplace aspect of the hobby and between the marketplace and the psychic aspects. Although there was no way to resolve them, there was in fact no need
to resolve them, as it was those tensions that made stamp collecting sopopular. The psychic benefits legitimized stamp collecting as a hobby, that is,as non-work or not-for-profit behavior. Yet the myriad ways in which the hobby paralleled real life gave it another kind of legitimacy. It was a training
ground for, and an affirmation of, fundamental capitalist values. More specifically, stamp collecting mimicked the roles of the essential middlemen ofcapitalism: those who bought and sold the products that other people made.
They produced nothing of concrete value themselves, but their mutual demand or a finite supply of stamps made their pastime the perfect free market metaphor.