Stamping American Memory: Stamp Collecting in the U.S., 1880s-1930s




Brennan, Sheila A.

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This dissertation traces how stamp collecting developed from an obscure leisure time activity in the 1880s into one of the most popular hobbies in the 1930s, and demonstrates how communities of collectors and non-collectors, and the postal service, engaged in a conversation about citizenship and race through the subjects of commemorative stamps. Often unexamined as cultural evidence, stamps provide visual snapshots of the American past that spoke to Americans about their present, particularly at a time when the United States emerged as a global imperial and industrial power. In the early years, stamp collectors formed communities and defined themselves as philatelists to achieve an expertise in this leisure activity. By the 1890s, the United States Post Office Department (USPOD) capitalized on that growth in popularity to earn money and support for its agency by printing limited-issue commemorative stamps. During this process, the USPOD began to see collectors as consumers with money to spend, even if it was only two-cents at a time. The Department expanded its already close relationship with Americans by encouraging them to purchase and save commemoratives as patriotic souvenirs. Stamps circulated widely containing government-sanctioned narratives that honored select heroes and events from the past that spoke to contemporary cultural debates over immigration, and racial and gender inequality. Because of the accessibility of American commemoratives, these stamps served to reinforce and naturalize an exceptionalist and triumphant vision of the American past that obscured the complicated legacies of conquest, slavery, and inequality.



Stamps, Collecting, Postal history, Memory, Collectors, Imperialism