Does anyone collect stamps any more? I am writing this on my Apple computer in which “Mail” is denoted with a stamp icon. The irony, of course, is that it is thanks to computers such as Apple that stamps are becoming obsolete except with collectors. A couple of weeks ago, Indiapost released a set of Rs5 stamps commemorating the five national parks: Mudumalai, Bandipur, Kaziranga, Bandhavgarh and Periyar. This would have spawned a collectors’ frenzy in my childhood but, now, they barely register in the national news.
I used to collect stamps as a child. My husband is husbanding his childhood stamp collection for our children, little realizing that they have no interest in these square pieces of paper that provide a glimpse into wonderful worlds. As any philatelist can attest, the prettiest and most colourful stamps come from the smallest and poorest countries—almost as if they are making up in flamboyance what they lack in GDP and size.
Stamps from Mozambique and Liechtenstein were my particular favourites. My brother preferred the ones with the musical strange-sounding names. For a long time, we couldn’t figure out what ‘Magyar Posta’ meant till a well-travelled friend told us it was from Hungary. Similarly, Nippon sounded like a pressure cooker gasket, not a stamp from Japan. Polska was Poland. Most dreary of all were stamps from the UK. They all had pictures of the Queen in profile in shades of grey. It may have looked regal, but it was no match for the plumage of the birds in flight on the Malaysian stamps.
Our stamp collection is stored in an ancient wooden chest that I inherited from my grandmother. Maintaining it is an arduous task. Come Sunday morning, we fill plastic buckets with water and float our stamps on them so that the paper on which they are stuck comes off. One by one, the kids peel off the paper and leave the stamps to air out on the balcony, covered with a thin sheet of plastic so they don’t fly off. Once dry, we have to organize them. Unlike professional philatelists, we don’t have a stamp folder with pockets for stamps. Nothing fancy like that. Ours is mostly an ad hoc collection tempered with a lot of love. We stuff our stamps into envelopes of various sizes and toss them into the antique trunk. The India stamps take up the bulk of space, with several portraying the beaming countenance of Mahatma Gandhi. Then come the bigger countries—the US, the UK, Germany (which was called Weimar on the older stamps) and Japan. The stamps that interest us the most are the smaller countries. Rhodesia, for instance, has a fantastic image of two horses standing on their hindlimbs and facing each other.
Stamps make me sad. I think they are on their way out. Who writes letters these days? And, most of the office mail is sent using those electronic branding machines without colour or character. Nowadays, it is only collectors who care about stamps. Some fetch good money. I saw a Weimar Republic set of four stamps selling for $102 (Rs4,182) on eBay. I suspect people buy stamps for the same reason they collect antiques—for their history; because they are becoming increasingly rare in today’s world and because they symbolize the golden era of the postal system when letters were handwritten (with fountain pens, I might add), sealed and sent with these square colourful emblems of geography.
As children, my brother and I used to wait for letters. Airmail letters were the best and we quickly tore out the stamps even before we read the letter. We had a stamp-exchange going with the other kids in our neighbourhood—most of our friends collected stamps and Triple Taste covers. There was a strict hierarchy in our exchange—smaller countries such as Tanzania were preferred to vast swathes such as Canada; stamps with animals such as penguins and tigers were preferred to birds in flight; human heads were the least interesting of all, especially monarchs and politicians. Einstein was better than Gandhi, in other words. Stamps with primary colours fetched a higher premium that those faded green and grey ones. And, of course, surface area was key. The larger the stamp, the greater its exchange value.
There are those who buy first-edition stamps. I did, too, while a student at Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts. The college released a stamp bearing the face of Mary Lyon, the college’s founder. Flyers were sent out to the student body, trumpeting the release. Friends told me that first-edition stamps gained in value over the years. As a penurious student, the thought of making money interested me more than the stamp itself, which was fairly hideous. Mary Lyon wasn’t photogenic and there were no primary colours to leaven the dullness of her face. I still have the stamp, however. It is lying in our collection, in between the precious Magyar Posta stamps.
Philatelists may disagree, but I was wondering how it would be to ask Microsoft and Apple to come up with custom “stamps” for every email that we send out. We could either choose our stamps or, better yet, follow the same format as real-world stamps with their preset geography. In other words, emails that are sent from India will only have a specific choice of “Bharat” stamps so that the receiver will know instantly that the email is from India. Similarly, emails from Austria will have stamp icons bearing photos of... oh, I don’t know, snow-capped mountains, and The Sound of Music. When my cousins send me email from Kenya, I suppose it could have a stamp of a wildebeest or a bison staring out of it. But then, I wonder, would virtual stamps carry the same cachet as real stamps? Stamps served a purpose, after all. They indicated the cost of mailing and were, all told, an ingenious invention. It was an English postmaster, Rowland Hill, who invented these prepaid square pieces of paper that standardized the mailing process. The French came up with the word “Filatelia”, which became philately or stamp collection. There are organized philatelic societies and then there are loose exchanges such as the ones in my neighbourhood.
Today’s kids, however, don’t seem to “get” stamps. My daughters don’t view stamps with the same fascination that we did as children. To them, stamps probably have the same import that transistor radios had for me. I remember my father used to prize his old transistor radio for years and years and I could never understand why, especially when there was TV. Now, I get it; now, I understand the romance of the radio.
Maybe my kids will treasure our stamp collection, too. After a few decades.
(Shoba worries about the future of stamps. Email your feedback to email@example.com)