Le Monde diplomatique published a paper on philately #2

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Chanada
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Le Monde diplomatique published a paper on philately #2

Post by Chanada »

Thank you Mark, Sargonnas and DigitalPhilatelist for your help with the first one :)

Let's try to start again with good links and more complete information this time.

And thank you to share your views here, I'm curious to know what do you think about his opinions.


If you know "Le Monde Diplomatique" you may be surprised they recently published a long text on philately. I definitively was! The author, Thomas Frank, gives us an interesting, if rather depressing, mix. He tells his story of how he discovered philately as a young man and how he rekindled this hobby as an adult. He writes about philately history and other concerns about what he considers a declining hobby. And, here comes the reason it's in Le Monde diplomatique : he links that to a critical view of evolution of our societies.

Personally, I maybe share a part of his viewpoints (I don't know enough to be certain), but I hope he is wrong about the intrinsic value and the future of philately.

The beginning of the text can be read in French here :
https://www.monde-diplomatique.fr/2022/08/FRANK/64962

The rest ask for membership but I included a translation of the whole text here :

When philately told stories
Stamp collections no longer in demand
By Thomas Frank

Philately was for a long time the most important domestic leisure activity. Stamp collectors met in clubs to exchange stamps. Each stamp had its own 'face value' and sentimental value, and its own hope of increased value. For Thomas Frank, the confinement was an opportunity to rediscover this hobby.

In the darkest hour of the pandemic, I returned to my childhood home in a suburban Kansas City suburb to care for my elderly father. He was the kind of person who was reluctant to throw anything away, so all sorts of relics from the stages of our lives were piling up in the house.

The stamp album caught my eye. I began to leaf through its dusty pages. I had given up collecting stamps myself in 1982, when I stopped going to the post office to buy each new issue with my parents' lunch money.

As I turned those pages, on which the 17-year-old me had carefully arranged hundreds of stamps from past decades, I realised that now, in the age of email and eBay, I could surely complete my collection and see this long-abandoned project through to the end. And as I examined these small coloured rectangles, printed a long time ago, my old fascination seized me again.

What had happened to philately? There was a time in the United States when the hobby was almost universally embraced. Children from all walks of life formed clubs to cover the pages of their scrapbooks with stamps. During the Second World War, President Franklin Roosevelt relaxed between meetings by contemplating his collections. In the 1950s and 1960s, at philatelic conventions, crowds of people lined the exhibition halls even before the doors opened.

What about today? I don't know anyone in my generation who still collects stamps. I don't suppose young Americans even know what they are, so much have these relics of my childhood fallen into disuse. Even my father, who was an avid collector for years, finally got bored.

There are many theories to explain this decline. One theory is that the US postal authorities themselves sabotaged the hobby in the 1970s, when they started creating so many new stamps in so many different forms that it became clear that they were trying to squeeze money out of hobbyists.

I prefer another, more cultural-political explanation. In my opinion, the core activity of philately - acquiring, cataloguing and admiring bits of paper created by the state bureaucracy - no longer has a place in the contemporary world. Collecting stamps implies a kind of naivety, a belief in the heroic narratives of the state. An ingenuity that we remember with embarrassment, after the official lies of the Vietnam War, Watergate, the invasion of Iraq, the subprime crisis, the Trump years... Opening an old stamp album makes you feel a little dizzy in front of the historical tranquillity that unfolds without contradiction of any kind.

Everyone sets up their own museum
To this we can add economic disillusionment. Every collector at the time was deeply convinced that he was accumulating valuable items; he had no doubt that his passion would one day pay off, and that even the most common postage stamp could become one of those rare items that sell at auction for exorbitant prices. When time belied this hope, leaving no doubt that it was a pipe dream, interest in stamps took a serious blow from which it has never recovered. Why treat a piece of paper like a jewel (handle it with special tweezers, put it in a small plastic envelope...) when its market value is barely a few cents? Most of the obsessive collections of my childhood met the same fate: comics, vinyl records, baseball cards, beer cans... All were borne of a misjudgment of the laws of the market, and all eventually withered away.

Thinking back during the pandemic, a time of general cynicism, the idea of returning to an obsolete hobby for which there was no financial gain was attractive to me. This useless activity came at the right time to fill my spare time. While my usual work of criticizing social practices was sinking into futility, accumulating objects related to everyday life began to distract me again.

"Stamp collecting is distinguished by its educational value," said the director general of the United States Postal Service in a 1957 guide to stamps published by the administration. "No one can practice this activity intelligently without developing a knowledge of the national heritage." My younger self would have enthusiastically agreed with this statement. Even as an adult, I can't deny that I sometimes found this knowledge useful, especially before the advent of the Internet and Wikipedia.

But I still remember the day when all my convictions of this type collapsed, when I realised that stamps had the effect of making the work of national propaganda easier. To study American stamps before 1982 is to be confronted with the work of an author who would constantly, pretentiously if not profoundly, wax lyrical about American heroism, the inventiveness of the country, the beauty of its architecture and natural spaces, the ingenuity of its institutions and, above all, the greatness of its leaders - all the while studiously ignoring other, less glamorous aspects of the national story.

Truths that were thought to be eternal
The establishment of pioneer cities. Statesmen. Inventions. National parks. The time we beat the British. The other time we beat the British. The flags, capitols, birds and slogans of the States, their dates of entry into the Union. The professional associations. The universities. The railways. The dams. Canals. The armed forces corps. Space adventures. More victories over the British. A sixteen-part series celebrating Columbus's arrival in Santo Domingo, which managed to omit the brutalities inflicted on the local people.

In the midst of all this, however, the US stamp canon compulsively focuses on the first US president. At every opportunity, George Washington is featured. And then, for a change, George Washington's wife. His house. His associates, Adams, Hamilton and Jefferson. The places where he stayed during the Revolutionary War. The battles he won. The ones he lost but managed to escape. And, finally, the countless buildings that bear his name.

To any American student of history, the banality of all this is provocative. Great men, the postage stamps tell us, are truly great. Our national life revolves around battles and treaties. Legal formalities matter. National symbols must be honoured. Triumphs commemorated. Heroes are everything. Those who follow are nothing. Social movements don't really count. The losers are destined to be forgotten.

In terms of historical narrative, the stamps have little to envy to Hollywood westerns. But beyond the lyricism with which they disguise past events, or the grotesqueness of their homage to slave-owning presidents, they are nonetheless artefacts of the society that had them printed. If one approaches philately as an approach to reflecting on the great discourses of the past - which is what Americans believed in - the hobby transforms, and becomes more interesting.

Collecting old stamps is a fascinating gateway to the history of mainstream thinking. Politically, it is a rich learning experience. After all, some of the stamps from 1933 to 1980 - those celebrating public works, old flags or collective bargaining - were part of a political order that produced civil rights laws, strong trade unions, environmental protection measures or the rudiments of the welfare state. So much for all the orthodoxies eventually collapsing. The stamps were not conceived and designed to prove this, but they do. The progressive consensus of the post-war years, reflected, for example, in stamps extolling the 'beautification of America', seemed as legitimate and enduring to respectable people of the time as societal radicalism does to today's young executives educated at the best universities. To the stamp consumers of the late 19th century, the austere truths that were reflected in the postal effigies must also have seemed destined for eternity.

Now, as my album reminds me every time I open it, those moments of national consensus are dead and buried. This is perhaps the most important lesson that stamps teach us: even the most seemingly unshakeable doxas eventually wither. Our era, too, will have produced its propaganda, and then it will be gone.

Translated with www.DeepL.com/Translator (free version)
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Re: Le Monde diplomatique published a paper on philately #2

Post by Sargonnas »

Thanks for making the article visible to us and translating it Chanada.

It is an interesting article but I think he is wrong in the end. I agree on the point that the tradional clubs are disappearing but I think he fails to mention that it is shifting to digital clubs. When I take alook at stampboards we are doing here exactly the same thing as traditional clubs, only online. We discuss, sell, buy, exchange and show our stamps. And with added bonusses, I'd be hard pressed to find any Indian recent issues at my local club, not here.

What irritates me in the article is the way he looks back with modern opinions on stamp issues from decades back. One needs to place those issues in the time they were issued, not bash them with modern arguments. Learn from them, learn from those times.

I think Thomas misses some opportunities
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Soccer theme, Netherlands and overseas territories, GB, Channel Islands and older used (Tuck's) postcards.
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Re: Le Monde diplomatique published a paper on philately #2

Post by steevh »

Someone should give Thomas Frank a subscription to Stampboards -- so he can find the hobby is alive and well!

What's more, it wouldn't cost him anything, as its not hidden behind a paywall like Le Monde Diplomatique.

(I used to enjoy reading Le Monde, before they joined the paywall gang.).
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Re: Le Monde diplomatique published a paper on philately #2

Post by RogerE »

Thanks Chanada for sharing that piece by Thomas Frank.

His "overviews" (that is, non-engaged viewpoints at a distance) share insights and opinions that those currently engaged in philately don't often consider.
Thomas Frank wrote:Collecting old stamps is a fascinating gateway to the history of mainstream thinking. Politically, it is a rich learning experience. After all, some of the stamps from 1933 to 1980 - those celebrating public works, old flags or collective bargaining - were part of a political order that produced civil rights laws, strong trade unions, environmental protection measures or the rudiments of the welfare state. So much for all the orthodoxies eventually collapsing. The stamps were not conceived and designed to prove this, but they do. The progressive consensus of the post-war years, reflected, for example, in stamps extolling the 'beautification of America', seemed as legitimate and enduring to respectable people of the time as societal radicalism does to today's young executives educated at the best universities. To the stamp consumers of the late 19th century, the austere truths that were reflected in the postal effigies must also have seemed destined for eternity.
Treating stamps as primary historical documents is a viewpoint I learnt from my historian-philatelist friend Dr Tony/Agbenyega Adedze
https://stampboards.com/viewtopic.php?p=8872730#p8872730
.
There are many possible motivations for engaging in stamp collecting, or more seriously, philately. One of the best contemporary aspects of philately is its social dimension — interacting with others who share your interest, enthusiasm and appreciation of many facets of the activity. Some such activity can be enjoyed online, as Stampboards proves. Even better, if you can participate in a "real world" club, where members actually meet face to face, it is especially satisfying. My main local club — Newcastle Philatelic Society — has two public meetings per month, and the high point of the meeting is looking at a coherent selection of a member's (or visitor's) philatelic collection. You don't have to collect the same subject, you just enjoy and appreciate and learn from the enthusiasm of the display presenter. Stamp club meetings can include some buying and selling, but that kind of activity can be quite absent, or at best a very small, low-key part of most meetings.

Recall that the late 1970s and early 1980s saw an economic "bubble" in stamp collecting. It looked like anyone could make a small fortune by buying and then on-selling current stamps — buying at the post office, then selling through "classified advertisements" in the newspaper or stamp collecting magazines. Many people engaged in that speculative market, without having any real knowledge or enthusiasm for stamp collecting, just the motivation of making money. Inevitably the bottom fell out of that market, and many people were left holding accumulations of mint sheets and post office packs of stamps that "no-one" wanted. That glut of stamps of the period, and even those of a couple of decades later, still clutters the philatelic market, and disappoints sellers by realising a very modest fraction of their face value — to be gradually used by the buyer for "cheap" postage...

The motivation of "making a profit" is a poor primary basis for stamp collecting. Knowledge, enjoyment of beauty, satisfaction with deep understanding of a specialised subject, the pleasure of patient sourcing and arrangement of a group of related items, and the joy of enthusiasms shared with others, are all great reasons for engaging in philately. Making wise investment can also figure in the activity, but ideally it is a lower level motivation in the overall set of reasons for stamp collecting.

/RogerE :D
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Re: Le Monde diplomatique published a paper on philately #2

Post by DigitalPhilatelist »

There is always a narrative that the death of the traditional stamp club equals the death of the hobby. I have criticised many philatelic organisations (including the APS) for using such a narrative in their communication because it's simply not true. One only needs to step away from these relics of the past and step into a modern online platform to see hundreds of thousands of stamp collectors sharing collections. I think the author has done very little research when writing this article.
If you have a philatelic blog, website, organisation etc., let me know! You can list it for free at TheDigitalPhilatelist.com.
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Re: Le Monde diplomatique published a paper on philately #2

Post by Hankmccoy »

The article may be a bit negative - but at least the hobby is still being talked about. :D
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Re: Le Monde diplomatique published a paper on philately #2

Post by Chanada »


Very interesting to read your comments Hankmccoy, DigitalPhilatelist, RogerE, steevh and Sargonnas, thank you!

I agree, Mr Frank clearly overlook the digital world of philately. Stampboards and the thousands of ebay transactions about stamps are to instances of many that show it's changing, not dying.

More generally speaking, when I read a little of another paper and about his books, it made me think he's another victim of the nostalgia for the past - the supposedly good old days... His negativity about today (about everything, not just philately) seems more to do with a rigid worldview than with reality and its infinite nuances and possibilities.
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Re: Le Monde diplomatique published a paper on philately #2

Post by Bill H UK »

Never mind philately, he's just wrong about this, too, surely:?

"Most of the obsessive collections of my childhood met the same fate: comics, vinyl records, baseball cards, beer cans... All were borne of a misjudgment of the laws of the market, and all eventually withered away."

Plenty of comics go for huge sums, and the market is very strong - just look at what dominates the cinemas these days! And my vinyl record collection from the sixties was worth thousands when I finally sold most of it. Baseball cards I know nothing about, but probably still have their rarities. (Beer cans he's probably right about!)
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Re: Le Monde diplomatique published a paper on philately #2

Post by Greaden »

Did the author even consider stamps issued in the US and France in the past 20 years?

Now they frequently celebrate social movements, and have much broadened how nations are imagined and represented.
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