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!

Lifelong learning by reviving a boyhood hobby

Among US air mail issues, the Diamond Head, Hawaii stamp (bottom row, second from left) is a favorite (photo: DY)

Going back to boyhood days, I have been an inveterate collector. Even many of the hobbies I pursued involved collecting. This included baseball/football/basketball cards, coins, and — spotlight, please — postage stamps. I collected stamps through grade school, and I credit that hobby for nurturing my love of history. After all, stamps, especially commemorative issues, tell stories, often those of notable historical events and figures. You can learn a lot about history by building a stamp collection.

At times I have dabbled in stamp collecting as an adult, but I never truly dove back into the hobby. Until now, that is. During my university’s semester break, the pandemic-induced semi-quarantine that has been my life during the past year prompted me to look into collecting again, and this time it stuck. I now have a couple of new stamp albums, a box of supplies, and subscriptions to a two mail order stamp approval services. I also hunt around eBay for stamp bargains.

All sorts of famous people have collected stamps, including such varied figures as Franklin D. Roosevelt, Amelia Earhart, Warren Buffett, Queen Elizabeth II, Sally Ride, and George Bernard Shaw. But the name that stands out to me is Simon Wiesenthal, Holocaust survivor and renowned Nazi hunter. Three years after the Second World War ended, he began collecting stamps. As explained by the National Postal Museum in Washington, D.C.:

Simon Wiesenthal once wrote that he became interested in stamp collecting in 1948, when he visited a doctor for severe insomnia. “He suggested that I do something at night to take my mind off my troubles, and that’s how I began collecting postage stamps,” Wiesenthal explained. “My hobby has since given me many pleasant hours and helped me to meet people in many countries.”

My life is not remotely as momentous as Wiesenthal’s, but I, too, am already finding that stamp collecting is an absorbing and relaxing hobby as an adult. The subjects captured on the stamps themselves stoke my curiosity, and the process of sorting and placing stamps into my albums has a therapeutic effect. I have a pretty strong feeling that I’ll continue this satisfying and educational hobby, even after it’s safer to be out and about again.

I love US commemorative issues from the post-WWII through mid-60s. Mini works of art. (photo: DY)