Tuesday, February 11, 2020

Famous American

     Stamp collecting is considered a benign pastime, without the risks inherent in, say, whiskey connoisseurship or bungee jumping.
     The hobby is not, however, without its perils.
     For instance, I shudder to think how much of my brain is filled with useless philatelic information that I can easily recall without checking, from the first American postal stamp (1847) to the first commemorative stamps (issued in conjunction with the World's Columbian Exposition in 1893) to the first living person honored on a United States postage stamp, Charles Lindbergh.
     That 1927 stamp shows his plane, the Spirit of St. Louis, but not his face, because of a Postal Service policy that forbids depicting living persons on postage stamps. The USPS considered doing away with that regulation in 2011, then cooler heads prevailed. Which is why we don't have any Donald Trump postage stamps. Yet.
     I could go on and on. The 1930 Graf Zeppelin set? In 65 cent, $1.30 and $2.60 denominations. Green, brown and blue. The green is not to be confused with the 1933 Century of Progress zeppelin stamp, which is far less valuable. When I first got a job, in 1987, I considered celebrating by blowing the $600 or so the three-stamp set cost back then. (Not a good investment; you can buy them today for a thousand bucks on eBay).
     You never know when this stuff will pop up. I was at the Northbrook Post Office last week, sending the boys their new driver's licenses, which they got over Christmas break, to get the all-important gold star that somehow makes air travel more secure.
    I looked down on the counter, and noticed a plug for the new Walt Whitman stamp. Must have missed it when it was issued last year, to mark the bicentennial of his birth.
    Did I think, "Oh good, they're honoring the greatest American poet!" or "About time!"
    No, I did not.
    I thought, "Again? He's already in the 'Famous Americans' series of 1940."
    At home, it took me all of 10 seconds to lay my hands on the cover. Yes, I still have my collection.
    There's nothing more to say, than to hang my head in shame. I wish I had spent those years—approximately between 9 and 15—studying French or literature or some more valuable pursuit.
     I suppose I could throw out for discussion the whole idea of "Famous Americans." It sounds so dated, doesn't it? The Hall of Fame for Great Americans is a neglected anachronism tucked in a corner of the Bronx. "I want to be famous" sounds almost crazy, like something mass killers say, or deluded teens who'll end up in sex trafficking. Maybe it's just the word, "fame." Too much baggage at this point, and Andy Warhol's 15 minutes of fame have attritted to 15 seconds. To want to be famous is to aspire toward an illusion, to grasp at nothing. Then again, there's a lot of that going around.


  1. I once made a water treatment sale to an elderly Floridian stamp collector. He had thousands of cards like the one pictured here, drawer after drawer stuffed full, overflowing into a second room and beyond. I saw the ones he held most dear and I had no appreciation for his passion. If he had an inverted Spirit of St. Louis, I would have remembered that. I do remember that he was sweet man, meeting him more valuable than my $300 commission.

  2. There is an exception to the no-living-person-on-stamps rule, although it depends on a somewhat tendentious interpretation. From iwojima.com:

    When the public first demanded a stamp commemorating the [Iwo Jima] Flag Raising picture, the US Post Office initially rejected the idea out of hand. “No living person(s) can appear on a US stamp,” they replied. But the public demand was so great that Congress pushed for the stamp. It was issued just five months after the Flag-Raising.

  3. Did you mean the Inverted Jenny? It's also known as an Upside Down Jenny, or Jenny Invert) According to Wikipedia, it's a 24-cent United States postage stamp first issued on May 10, 1918, in which the image of the Curtiss JN-4 airplane in the center of the design is printed upside-down. This error has made it one of the most prized of all stamps.

    Wikipedia also state that a single Inverted Jenny was sold at auction in 2007 for just under a million dollars. In 2016, a Jenny invert in "superb" condition sold at auction for $1.3 million. Two years later, another Inverted Jenny stamp sold for just under $1.6 million.

    I'm not much a stamp collector, so I don't know if there were ever any inverted Spirtit of St. Louis stamps from 1927. I did own a 1907 Jamestown Tricentennial stamp that I found on a mailing tube in an old steamer trunk, but then my coin and stamp collections disappeared. Probably stolen by a houseguest's teen-ager. Sorry, kid, but they weren't really worth all that much.

    1. I think Grizz is responding to JP’s post.

    2. My mistake, Grizz, thanks for the correction. In my defense, I may have assumed a dead nazi sympathizer because a live one is so omnipresent.

  4. As soon as the Orange One privatizes the Postal Service, ALL the stamps will bear his image.

  5. Neil, I spent a whole lot of time with my stamp collection too when I was a kid, but it wasn't wasted. I learned about history, geography, politics, etc. through stamps. I had stamps from countries that don't exist anymore, from former French/British/Dutch colonies that became independent nations, and a lot of US stamps with famous people to learn about (like Walt Whitman). Not a waste of time at all.


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