If someone calls you a philatelist, it does not mean you’ve done anything unlawful or are a medical practitioner. A philatelist is one who seriously collects postage stamps. It is a very obsessive hobby, with many small rabbit holes to go down—for instance, collecting plate blocks or sheets of stamps, first-day covers (envelopes mailed on the date of issue with a cancelation as proof). There are those who only collect mint or virgin stamps. Some house them in albums. Others have more elaborate set-ups.
Philately is taken very seriously by the United States Postal Service. For decades the institution has impaneled experts from many fields—well-known and unknown—to select the subjects and themes worthy of commemoration on a stamp.
Decades ago, Bradbury Thompson, who served a long run as design consultant to USPS and proudly designed a few of his own stamps, nominated me, and I served for a brief period on the committee. It was a fascinating and demanding role that required a nose for what would sell, who and what is deserving, passing judgement on artist and designer selections and more.
Titled the Citizen’s Committee, the body of consultants determines what the USPS issues using many criteria. Some argue that this is the golden age of postage design since we are no longer limited by printing technologies—anything from embossing to shape-shifting is possible. Others look back wistfully to when stamps were less elaborate, printed in a limited number of colors and very special (they still are special—but differently).
David Cobb Craig has just published First Class: America’s Marvelous Midcentury Stamps (Schiffer Publishing), featuring many of those stamps from the 1950s and ’60s and ’70s, when postage was a fraction of the cost it is today. And the designs were just as frequently abstract as literal. Forget the self-adhesive, too—these stamps were finger-licking good.