A History of America in
Thirty-Six Postage Stamps
By Chris West
Picador, 336 pages, $28
By Stephen T. Watson
News Book Reviewer
Inanimate objects, it seems, are the latest story-telling devices for historians.
We have “The Smithsonian’s History of American in 101 Objects,” “A History of the World in Six Glasses” and the forthcoming “A History of Baseball in 100 Objects.” Chris West has added to this canon with a narrow focus: stamps.
Previously the author of “A History of Britain in Thirty-Six Postage Stamps,” West turns his attention to our side of the Atlantic Ocean for his latest work, “A History of America in Thirty-Six Postage Stamps.”
It’s a topic that appeals to a one-time philatelist like me. I collected stamps for several years, beginning in elementary school, after my late grandfather Joseph Singleton, a longtime U.S. Postal Service employee, got me hooked on it.
West, who aptly describes a stamp as a “time-travel machine,” breaks up the book into 36 chapters centered around one stamp each to represent a historical figure or era.
West’s book and other works of this kind, by their nature, lack the depth of histories that focus on one personality, event or movement. But West makes a laudable effort to put each stamp in its historical context.
The strengths of the book are the anecdotes and pieces of Americana that West sprinkles throughout the text. My favorite is the tidbit that Andrew Jackson’s funeral was interrupted when his pet parrot, Poll, let loose with a stream of curse words, learned from Jackson, that necessitated the bird’s removal from the church.
If there is a unifying thread to the work, it’s the history of the post office that West returns to in nearly every chapter.
“Thirty-Six Postage Stamps” starts with a 1765 British revenue stamp, issued under the hated Stamp Act, and concludes with a personalized stamp printed through Stamps.com that highlights the challenges confronting the Postal Service.
The book answers some postal trivia questions. Who has appeared on more U.S. stamps than anyone else? George Washington, of course, beginning with the very first.
The first living person to appear on an American stamp? Jefferson Davis, on a stamp issued by the Confederacy. Davis was the last, as well, unless you count the actors from the Harry Potter series in 2013.
West writes of the start of home delivery, which was launched during the Civil War to provide privacy to parents who otherwise had to visit the local post office and read, in public, news of a son’s death. The initial 449 carriers began working in the North’s largest urban areas on the first day of the Battle of Gettysburg.
West includes the 1898 “Western Cattle in Storm,” a $1 stamp voted by philatelists as the most beautiful ever issued in the U.S. The stamp illustrates the myth of the Old West, because it’s based on a painting of cattle near Glasgow, Scotland.
However, in using a stamp from a set issued to mark the 1901 Pan-American Exposition, held in Buffalo, West awkwardly tries to connect the Gilded Age mantra of Social Darwinism to the assassination of President William McKinley, which was the act of anarchist Leon Czolgosz.
West does well to point out that a recognizable woman didn’t get her own stamp until 1902, when Martha Washington earned the honor.
And Chapter 18 tells the story of the Great Depression, with one of the stamps from that era printed with the name of the state where it was issued. That overprinting was an attempt to make it harder for the post office raiders of the late 1920s to resell the stamps they stole.
Today, an overprint 8-cent Ulysses S. Grant from 1929-30 sells for $70, West writes. A regular Grant stamp sells for $8, so some unscrupulous collectors buy the regular Grants and modify them with a printing kit.
Franklin D. Roosevelt, we learn, was an avid stamp collector who continued with his hobby throughout his presidency, as a way of lowering stress. FDR, who recognized the “power of stamps as propaganda,” in West’s words, had more than 1 million stamps in a collection that was broken up and sold after his death.
West recalls Mr. Zip, reminding 1960s correspondents to use the new Zoning Improvement Plan codes. ZIP codes were a success, but another innovation from that period, mail delivered by missile, was not.
A 1963 5-cent stamp recognizing the 100th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation was the first designed by a black artist, Georg Olden. In those 100 years, just three African-Americans appeared on stamps. For the 1990s and the era of Bill Clinton, West uses the 29-cent Elvis Presley stamp, from the Legends of American Music series, the most-collected U.S. stamp ever.
The volume of letters mailed in this country peaked in 2000, before the rise of emails, text messages, social media and every other form of online and electronic communication.
Despite all of that, West is optimistic about the future of the mail, and of stamps. I hope he’s right, for the sake of the generations of collectors to come.
Stephen T. Watson is a business reporter for The Buffalo News.