It doesn’t happen often that CSB suggests a blog topic. How about never? However he has frequently pointed out subjects that he thinks do not warrant attention on SQD. Anything hagiographic. I would like to point out that many months if not years have passed since I have alluded to any saints, martyrs, or medieval mystics on these (imaginary, cyber) pages.
But CSB just suggested that I write about the stamps. The very many stamps. Back at the Orchard, my sister and I always knew that my mother had a large stash of stamps in her desk drawers. We had no idea of just how large.
Let’s have some context: Stamp collecting used to be a very respectable pastime. Lots of people collected stamps, traded stamps, and pasted stamps into albums. People acquired stamps from shops, from post offices, and from letters, back when the sending and receiving of letters was considered normal. Bon Papa, who traveled everywhere and loved geography, collected stamps from the countries he lived in, specifically Egypt and Indochina. As a child, whenever I visited my father’s office on Essex Street in Boston, I was allowed to roam free in the sample room and snip foreign stamps from the hundreds of samples of cotton linters and combers that were sent in brown paper from all over the world. In my memory, the sample room is the size of a coffee beneficio, and dimly lit; there are rows upon rows of wooden shelves and the samples are stacked on the shelves from floor to ceiling. I am guessing that my spatial memory is affected by my relative puniness at the time. I would bring my treasures home, soak them in water, and then, using special tweezers, put them in my stamp album. I was a strange and geeky child, but this was not the strangest thing I did. My collection skewed heavily toward cotton-growing countries: Turkey, Pakistan, Ethiopia India, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Brazil, and Mexico.
No one knows if my mother collected stamps herself, back when. Now we will never know. But we have figured out that sometime in the 1970’s, or maybe earlier, she started buying US commemorative stamps. Lots of them. Whenever a new stamp was issued, she bought a sheet, or three, or ten if she found it appealing. My mother was an excellent correspondent. She famously sent out 350 Christmas cards every year, and wrote letters constantly. Even so, she could not use up her supply of stamps, and over the years, the stamps piled up.
I don’t know what CSB found more bizarre: my mother’s remarkable hoard of stamps, or the fact that I spent Saturday morning calculating the face value of all her stamps. (It wasn’t that hard. Most sheets have 20 stamps and even I can multiply single and double- digit numbers by 20. I also have a calculator app on my phone.) The total was $1001.68. That is not an insignificant amount.
The truth is that I enjoyed sorting through the stamps, witnessing what the postal service has deemed worthy of commemoration over the years. There were of course stamps honoring presidents, athletes, artists, cowboys, and scientists. Every Olympics got its own set of stamps. Flowers, flora and fauna, cuddly mammals, and American history get lots of attention. One of my favorite honorees was Dr. George Papanicolaou: he invented the eponymous Pap smear. Alas, the stamp does not show my show my least favorite medical device: the icy cold speculum. (The vaginal speculum we all know and love was invented Dr. Marion Sims, the so-called founder of modern gynecology, about whom the less said the better. He may have statues, but he does not appear on any stamps.)
Some old-time commemoratives, like these for “World Peace Through Law” (10¢, 1974) and “Energy and Conservation”(13¢, 1975), seem archaic,and innocently hopeful in our present political climate. Would a Trump-led Postal Service dare to extol "World Peace Through Law"? Must we prepare ourselves for a stamp suggesting "World Peace through Nuclear Armaments"? Or praising "Clean Coal"?
Some are just self-serving, honoring either the Postal Service itself, or extolling stamp collecting. Is a stamp featuring Stamp Collecting considered a meta -stamp?
So what do we do with them? More than half of the stamps, in denominations ranging from 6¢ to 39¢, require licking. Do we even know how to lick a stamp anymore? Who can conjure up that redolent taste of postage glue, sort of sweet and sort of toxic?
In the usual way of research, I looked on line to find out if there is a resale market for stamps. There is, after a fashion. There are a few sites that will buy unused stamps, at a deep discount: %50 of face value for complete sheets under 49¢, %40 for partial sheets. All of my mother’s stamps have a face value of less than 49¢, and remarkably few of the sheets are “complete and undamaged”. In other words, my face value calculation is somewhat meaningless.
The only way to get our ‘money’s worth’ from these stamps, is to actually use them for postage.
Let me know if you want me to send you a postcard. (My mother also has hundreds of postcards.)