By John Apfelbaum
Stamps and philately had both a cause and an effect on the changing world view that began in the mid nineteenth century and which continues today. Now, we have a highly interconnected world with world supply chains producing most manufactured products, entertainment that starts in Hollywood and finds its way to the smallest villages worldwide, and instantly transmitted news . And we take this interconnectedness for granted. It’s all most of us have known. Yet, when Jules Verne wrote his classic Around The World In Eighty Days in 1873, the hook of the book, beyond its entertainment value, was that it was inconceivable that someone could traverse the earth in a mere twelve weeks. Ninety years later in 1962, John Glenn orbited the earth in ninety minutes.
Increasing the speed of communication and reducing its cost were two of the major technological advances in the last two centuries. Stamps were originally issued to reduce post office costs (by allowing people to prepay postage) and allow greater efficiency (postal clerks didn’t have to rate and exchange money for each letter posted). But the efficiencies produced by the first postage stamps became a catalyst for technological change. The Penny Black in 1840 was, in part, responsible for the quintupling of mail volume in just twenty years. Vast increases in the mail volume allowed national postal services to be among the first to sign contracts with railroads for postal carriage, thus subsidizing the building of the worldwide rail system on which our current system of roads is based.
Stamp collecting proved to be not only educational, but early worldwide stamps provided a window for the growing nineteenth and early twentieth middle class to communicate with and envision the world. Until the last fifty years, travel beyond one’s local community was the privilege of only the rich. Beginning about 1950, as travel costs were reduced and speed of carriage increased, many middle class families were able to see the world for the first time. But travel to Africa and Asia was still rare for Americans and Europeans (and would remain so until about 1970). For these more exotic countries, stamps provided an opportunity for stamp collectors to better understand their history, culture, and flora and fauna.
Increasingly, stamps have become a venue for the art and design of different cultures. The stamps of Sweden for instance, look very different from the stamps of Bangladesh. Collectors who came to the hobby for history and geography have found themselves entranced by the different cultural flavor of each nation’s stamp art and design. So again too today, philately teaches us about the world.
Want more of John Apfelbaum’s expert insights into the stamp hobby? Read his full blog. And then be sure to shop Apfelbaum’s stamp and postal history inventory.
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