At the risk of sounding like Ray Liotta at the start of Goodfellas, as far back as I can remember I’ve been a history buff. When I was four or five years old, my parents gave me small action figures and toy soldiers from a variety of historical eras, and (when I wasn’t playing with them) I used to spend hours looking them up in the family encyclopedia and reading about them. History was always my favorite school subject; many of my elective courses were history classes. Much later I spent a couple of years working as a historian.
This blog allows me to share some of my favorite interests: writing, gaming, movies, comics, and (on a good day) I get to throw a little history into the mix. Today’s a good day.
Quick – what was President Franklin Roosevelt’s favorite hobby? If you said “schtupping Lucy Mercer” you earn a couple of points for humor, but you still go directly to the back of the class. No, kids, it was stamp collecting – no fooling. Stamp collecting was a very popular hobby during the Great Depression because it was both interesting (every stamp tells a story) and inexpensive. Back in the days before Facebook and e-mail, people tended to be avid letter writers; whereas today you might see four or five pieces of mail in your box (usually bills and advertising) on a big day, back then it wasn’t unusual to discover more than a dozen items in your mailbox every day, many of them letters and post cards from friends and relatives. Some of the envelopes would bear interesting or unusual stamps, so you’d clip and save them in an album or scrapbook. It was cheap (you were getting the stamps for free), instructional (many stamps depicted historical places, events, and people, and if you didn’t know the significance of the picture you’d go look it up), and many people collected stamps just for their artistic and aesthetic qualities.
Stamp collecting remained quite popular up until sometime during the last quarter-century. When I was young every drugstore and variety store (like Woolworth’s) had a small “hobby” section which offered supplies for stamp and coin collectors. You could purchase packages of common stamps as starter kits, specialized albums for your stamps, and special gummed “hinges” used to mount the stamps in the books. Many stamp albums were specially categorized (by country or era) and had small black and white pictures of specific stamps; when you acquired a certain stamp, you’d mount it over its picture in the scrapbook. The goal was to complete the book – of course, few collectors ever did because the books often depicted several rare, valuable, hard to find stamps.
I collected stamps when I was a kid back in the 1960′s and 1970′s, and I certainly wasn’t the only one of my generation who did; while it wasn’t as popular as collecting trading cards, stamp collecting still had a place in the American psyche up until some point during the last two or three decades. Drugstores no longer routinely carry supplies for stamp collectors, and I rather suspect a significant number of people under thirty years of age might never have even heard of such a hobby.
FDR was well known as a philatelist and this may well have contributed to the hobby’s popularity. Stamp collecting is a quiet, contemplative pursuit, one which seems to have suited Roosevelt. I can picture him seated late at night at a desk upon which a single lamp glows, poring over his collection, perhaps adding a few new acquisitions, while in the back of his mind he’s considering options on how to maneuver Joe Stalin into agreeing with the war plans FDR’s devised with Churchill.
Quite a few Golden Age comics presented features about philately, often one page stories about an interesting new stamp just released by the postal service or a text page offering tips on how to get started in the hobby, and comic publishers continued to do so long after Roosevelt’s death in 1945 (demonstrating that interest in stamp collecting was not just a passing fad). In the late Golden Age there was even an ongoing comic book devoted entirely to stories based on stamps:
The title Thrilling Adventures in Stamps Comics might make you laugh, but the publication was actually an earnest, interesting, and charming series which sought to bring the stories behind the stamps to life for its readers. Each feature began with a black and white image of a particular stamp followed by the story behind that stamp, told in comic form. Stamps Comics was a lively anthology title; the bulk of its content consisted of history and biography, but there were also occasional fictional adventure pieces (usually a jungle story tied to a stamp depicting a exotic beast). Some stamps of the time depicted athletes, for which Stamps ran a corresponding sports story. And one memorable tale began with a picture of a Polish stamp which commemorated the Nazi concentration camps, which led into the exciting true story of a concentration camp escapee.
Stamps Comics occasionally got the history wrong; a story about the Chicago Fire began with Mrs. O’Leary’s cow kicking over a lamp in a barn (which is an old wives’ tale; no one really knows how the fire began), while another depicted Teddy Roosevelt’s famous Rough Riders fighting on horseback (despite their colorful name, Roosevelt’s men had to leave their horses behind in Florida and fought in Cuba on foot). Despite errors such as these, the book definitely had its heart in the right place. It also employed some terrific illustrators; the great Doug Wildey (of Jonny Quest fame) contributed his talents to Stamps Comics, as did the legendary Roy Krenkel. When I first read Stamps Comics a few months ago, I felt very much as I’d felt in childhood when I read my first Classics Illustrated comic book; I had the feeling that there was so much more on every page besides mere pictures and words.
It was hard for me to decide on a single story for this blog post; there are just so many good ones in Stamps Comics. But I finally settled on the story of the B&O Railroad; I’m a Marylander, so it’s a story from my home state. It’s also historically accurate, and you can still see many of the trains mentioned in this story at the B&O Railroad Museum in Baltimore. I visited it last year and it’s a place worth seeing; it’s jam-packed full of interesting trains and stories, and kids will love their awesome model train layout filled with local landmarks.
By the way, you might be wondering why the stamp at the start of the story is printed in grainy black and white with a verbal description of its coloring. All of the stamps you’ll see published in Golden Age comics look this way; it was done to deter counterfeiting.
Have fun! — Steve
Copyright 2012, Steven A. Lopez. All rights reserved.