Stamps as stories: The Penny Black

In a previous post, I wrote about reviving my boyhood hobby of stamp collecting. As a long-time amateur student of history, I especially love the educative value of stamps that commemorate significant events and individuals. Avid collectors often remark that the ways in which stamps tell stories is one of the great appeals of the hobby, and I heartily agree. 

In addition, some postage stamps constitute historical markers in and of themselves. I offer as a prime example the Penny Black, the world’s first postage stamp, printed in England during 1840-41. As mail service became an increasingly important part of English life and commerce, a British educator named Rowland Hill proposed an easy way of paying for postage, by using bits of printed paper that could be affixed to envelopes. 

Hill’s proposal eventually took hold, and the result was the Penny Black, featuring the profile of Queen Victoria. This marked the beginning of a long British tradition of adorning postage stamps with the profiles of monarchs. However, this took some getting used to, as initially some British subjects found it disrespectful to lick what they regarded as the back of the Queen’s head! Queen Victoria herself intervened to endorse the use of stamps, assuring everyone that no such offense was taken.

For the most part, stamp collecting is a very affordable hobby, at least at my level of engagement. But like any hobby involving collectibles, the rarer, more notable pieces can cost a chunk of change. From an affordability standpoint, the good thing about the Penny Black is that the Brits printed a lot of them, a fair number of which have survived in various conditions. Thus, while select specimens can run into the many thousands of dollars (or pounds, if you’re across the pond!), used Penny Blacks in lesser condition can be obtained at a cost equivalent to picking up the tab for a meal and drinks at a nice restaurant.

Earlier this year, I decided that I wanted a Penny Black as the cornerstone of my budding collection. So, here is my modest specimen, purchased online. It gives me goosebumps to think that this is an authentic piece of Victorian England, having once been affixed to a letter that made its way through the mail system during the 1840s. I can only imagine the story this stamp could tell!

Go online to take free courses from leading professors

If you’re looking for an opportunity to engage in free, college-level learning on topics of personal and professional interest, think about taking a MOOC or two.

MOOC is short for Massive Open Online Course, a form of learning that started to become popular about a decade ago. A typical MOOC is a short-term, non-credit, continuing education course on an academic or professional topic, taught by leading professors in their fields. The course usually mixes online text, pdfs, recorded lectures, and various exercises, quizzes, and tests. Although students enrolled in a MOOC usually do not have direct interaction with the professors who prepared it, they do get the benefit of watching faculty lectures and reading their publications.

You can enroll in most MOOCs for free, though you’ll often have to pay a fee for a formal certificate of completion that can be listed on a resume.

Two of the leading providers of MOOCs are Coursera and EdX.  The UK’s pioneering Open University offers free online courses through its OpenLearn portal. You can also utilize Mooc List to search for other MOOC offerings.

I’ve taken several MOOCs over the years, including “The Science of Happiness,” offered through EdX and taught by professors associated with the Greater Good Science Center at UC-Berkeley, and “Psychological First Aid,” offered through Coursera and taught by a professor at Johns Hopkins University. The Psychological First Aid course is required for students enrolled in my Law and Psychology Lab at Suffolk University Law School.

If you’re interested in exploring the vast array of free courses available online, then I recommend checking out the sites I provided above. They may be of special interest to those of you who are looking for easily accessible, no-cost intellectual pursuits while we continue to get through the coronavirus pandemic.