STAMPS AND STAMP COLLECTORS IN LITERATURE
Stamp collecting, philately, philosophy and intrigue have long featured in literary works.
One of the earliest novels to embrace these themes was published in Paris by Hatchett et Cie in 1898.
Le Roi de Timbre-poste" by Gérard de Beauregard, et Henry de GorsseThis book was translated in the same year by Edith C. Phillips and published by Stanley Gibbons in 1898.
The story charts the adventures of two competing philatelists from the New York Philatelic Society; The Stamp King, William Keniss and young novice, Miss Betsy Scott, as they travel the world in search of the rare Brahmapootra stamp. Theft, forgeries, betrayal and espionage abound in this fast-paced novella set in the golden era of philately
Some extracts illustrate the style of writing and the sentiment of a novel when stamp collecting was associated with the wealthiest and most influential people in society.
“ I tell you” said William Keniss with decision, “I believe her to be quite capable of doing it”.
“It is ridiculous!” said stout Dr Buxon, emphasising the remark with a shrug of the shoulders.
“Well, well,” said little Mrs Evans-Bradford, “who knows? Nothing is impossible for a true American. Now Mis Betty is one of the real sort. I can answer for it.”
“Pooh!” replied Buxton, his fat cheeks quivering. Such a pretension is much less the act of an amateur in stamps than that of a professional”.
“But I solemnly declare”cried Mr Hartlepool, as soon as he was able to put in a word, “that I really do collect the finest stamps, and plenty of them”.
“I know perfectly aware that I am at the New York Philatelic Club, that I am a titular member of the same, and have every qualification for being so.”
“I doubt if you even know what the qualifications are”.
“What a libel. One must, in order to belong to the Club, prove one’s self to be at least twenty times a millionaire: I am one thirty-three times over. One must promise never to discuss politics or religion: I have a horror of such controversies. Finally, one must be interested in postage stamps and prove that one possess a collection. I am interested in them and I have a collection.”
“A fine collection, on my faith”, returned the voluminous doctor, who was much given to contradiction. Scarcely twenty-five thousand stamps!”
Stamp Collecting in modern literature
One of the Stamp collectors and stamp collecting feature regularly as important themes in modern novels, and the authors often provide interesting insights into our hobby.
Here are some recent examples:
From Keller's homecoming by Lawrence Block
E Book Published by QA Productions: 2011
The author describes the book as follows - Keller, an introspective fellow, was always your basic Urban Lonely Guy. He collects stamps. He used to have a dog, until the dog walker walked off with him. Then he soldiered on alone.
It’s his profession that sets him apart. He’s a hit man. He kills strangers for a living.
"Then a couple of weeks ago, Julia and Jenny walked into his upstairs office - Daddy's Stamp room - to find him shaking his head over the new Peachit catalog. Julia asked what was the matter.
'Oh this', he said, tapping the catalog. 'There are some lots I'd like to buy'.
'Well, the sale is in New York'.
'Oh', she said.
'Daddy'tamps', said Jenny.
'Yes, Daddy's stamps', Keller said ,
and picked up his daughter and set her on his lap. 'See?' he said, pointing at a picture in the catalog, a German Colonial issue from Kiachau showing the Kaiser's yacht, Hohenzollern. 'Kiachau', he told Jenny, 'was an area of two hundred square miles in southeast China. The Germans grabbed it in 1897, and then made arrangements to lease it from China. I don't imagine the Chinese had a lot of choice in the matter. Isn't that a pretty stamp?'
'Pity 'tamp', Jenny said , and there the matter lay."
"A LONG ENGAGEMENT" BY SEBASTIAN JAPRISOT
Sebastian Japrisot is relatively unknown in the UK although his work has been translated. This book was originally published in 1991 as "Un long dimanche de fiançailles".
Recommended by our President, Peter Wood, it is a moving tale of lost love in the chaos of trench warfare in the First World War: and in which tale postage stamps have a role to play.
The novel has also been adapted as a film under the same title.
To give away too much of the plot would spoil the enjoyment of the story as it unfolds - but to set the scene: the narrative follows Mathilde Donnay, who doubts the veracity of a report that her fiancé, Manech, has been killed in combat. Despite her inability to walk, she uses her investigative skills to gather information about his location, also unearthing the French government’s complicity in a corrupt scheme that sentenced soldiers, including Manech, to the no man’s land on the front lines. The story is shaped by a series of clues that Mathilde discovers about what befell her fiancé between two days and two nights in January 1917.
FICTION THAT MIRRORS REAL LIFE?
Many of the books that depend upon a stamp collecting theme highlight the desire to possess a rare stamp, and the consequent descent into criminal activity to achieve this.
In 1892 the French police were baffled by the murder of a Gaston Leroux, a wealthy Parisian. There appeared to be no motive with no evidence of any robbery. The case was solved when one of the policemen, who was a keen stamp collector looked through Leroux's extensive collection and noticed that there was one stamp missing - a 2 cent Hawaiian 'Missionary Stamp'.
The police started interviewing other philatelists known to Gaston Leroux. One of these a Hector Giroux aroused their suspicions. They examined his collection and found a cope of this very rare stamp (only fifteen are known to exist). Under questioning Hector Giroux broke down and confessed to the murder, admitting he did it because he desperately wanted to own this stamp. He was subsequently hanged for his crime.
This case was sensational at the time, and brought the passion of stamp collecting onto the front pages of all the French newspapers, and was also reported widely in the UK, USA and elsewhere.
An interesting footnote, however, is that whilst the Hawaiian 'Missionaries' are some of the rarest stamps in the world, so called because they were usually found on the letters of missionaries working in Hawaii, they are also a target for forgers.
In 1920, new Missionaries were 'discovered' by Charles Shattuck, who said that his mother had connections with a missionary family in Hawaii. The stamps (known as the Grinnell stamps) were sold to a dealer for $65,000. But in 1922 a court case deemed the stamps as forgeries. Since then, numerous studies have been done on the stamps, but no one has quite agreed on whether they’re real or not. A detailed study of the RPSL's Expert Committee's concluded that the Grinnell stamps are forgeries. Patrick Pearson of the RPSL published a book detailing the Committee's investigation and findings.
"Antigua, Penny, Puce" by Robert Graves
First published in 1936, re-issued in 1984 by Penguin; performed as a BBC radio play in 1995.
This story is quite unlike most of Robert Graves' other work. Critics comment that it is more in the style of Evelyn Waugh, a contemporary, a fast paced novella with dashes of humour. Graham Greene (another contemporary) described it as like the Marx Brothers, humorous initially but then the gags wear thin. But others, especially those who read it as teenagers, are more appreciative, not least because unlike a 'children's book' the characters are often quite repellent and there is a surprising incidence of bad language!
The story starts with the children, Oliver and Jane, always quarrelling about their stamp collection. Many years later, as adults, they still meet and argue about it. And there is one stamp in particular - a very rare one, that causes a lot of trouble and radically affects their lives
This "Antigua, Penny, Puce”, is the rarest and most beautiful stamp in the world. That was how the auctioneer announced it, and from that moment the feud began in earnest, for as children they had agreed to share Oliver's schoolboy stamp collection, and Jane now wanted her rightful share.
A book from the 1930's that continues the tradition set by "The Stamp King" in 1898 of associating philately with the hope of finding a great rarity, and the intrigues and insight into people's character, that follow the pursuit of such stamps.
"The Plot Against America"
Philip Roth: published by Houghton Mifflin 2004.
The cover of the book shows a copy of the 1934-1935 USA 1 cent stamp showing 'El Capitan' in Yosemite National Park. But the stamp is defaced with a black swastika.
The novel is an alternative history in which Franklin D. Roosevelt, is defeated in the 1940 election by Charles Lindbergh, and the story follows the fortunes of the Roth family during the Lindbergh presidency, when antisemitism becomes rife.
The young narrator has a nightmare early in the book when he dreams that his prized set of the 1934 National Parks stamps have all been vandalised with a swastika overprint, and that the portraits on his George Washington stamps have all been replaced by a picture of Adolf Hitler.
A key element in this disturbing re-imagining of history and alternative outcomes, is the significance of his stamps, the pictures and and stories they tell, to a seven year old boy. Many collectors will remember when they too carried their stamp album around with them, and it had pride of place in their bedroom.
Chasing Jenny: A Philatelic Mystery
From the Philatelic Mysteries, Book 1 by Jeff Sage
Published October 2013 by Self.
The following is taken from the publisher’s description.
"A fire in an old, exposed-beam summer cottage leaves two people desperately searching for an escape. A slippery car chase over country roads through a blizzard. Explosions. Magic. A deadly knife. Deceit. Prowling U-boats. Thievery. Death.
So, these are the elements of stamp collecting?
Perceptions of the hobby are turned upside down in Jeff Stage’s “Chasing Jenny: A Philatelic Mystery,” a history-based novel that includes the story of the U.S.A.'s first airmail flight in 1918; a tense WWII convoy across the Atlantic; and a brush with the post-war 1950s. Much of the story is contemporary, set in Syracuse, N.Y., and the cottage area of the south-eastern shore of Lake Ontario.
In 1955, someone boldly plucks a block of four rare postage stamps – the world-famous inverted Jennys – from beneath security guards’ noses on the third morning of a national stamp show in Norfolk, Virginia.
Fictional “Chasing Jenny” picks things up nearly 60 years later when Lizzy Smith thinks her aging father has one of the rare stamps, and she’s out to find the tiny piece of paper that could be worth $1 million. Trouble is, so are others, who are willing to steal, lie and commit murder."
This fictional and entertaining story is based upon the real life events of the famous "Spinning Jenny" U.S. airmail stamp.
When this was printed in 1918 a single sheet of the stamp (showing a Curtiss JN4-H biplane – popularly known as the Jenny) – was printed with the biplane upside down.
This single sheet was purchased at a Washington, D.C. Post Office by William T. Robey for the combined face value of the stamps, $24. It immediately became an icon for stamp collectors. The sheet changed hands and it was broken apart, sometimes as single stamps, sometimes as blocks.
In 1936 Ethel B. McCoy (1893 – 1980), a patron of performing arts and an avid collector whose father, Charles Bergstresser, was a co-founder of the Dow Jones company purchased a block of four for $16,000.
Then, in September 1955 while on exhibit at the American Philatelic Society convention in Norfolk, Virginia the stamps were stolen.
The block was apparently broken apart, and one of the stolen stamps was discovered in 1977, another in 1981. Both were recovered with the participation of the FBI.
In 2014, Donald Sundman, President of The Mystic Stamp Company in Camden, New York, offered a reward of $50,000 per stamp on behalf of their current, legal owners, the American Philatelic Research Library, in Bellefonte, Pennsylvania. The two missing stamps have not as yet been recovered.
The Philatelist by Tito Perdue
Published by Counter-Currents Publishing; 2014. Also available on Amazon Kindle.
In this otherwise grim and rather depressing novel shines the joys of stamp collecting as a refuge from an unhappy life and the detritus of a decaying urban neighbourhood.
In the words of Tito Perdue, the author, “It happens more than just sometimes that overly refined persons like thee and me may opt to turn away from ordinary things and seek entry into a more perfect world than this one. I’m thinking about art galleries, concert halls, coin and stamp collections, ingenious mechanical devices or a well-played chess match.
People like you spend too much time gazing at the stars while others, like my good friend who offers us a case study of the type, has traded away his life in a still-continuing struggle to assemble a non-representative array of the world’s most beautiful postage stamps. A little custodial ‘art gallery,’ he calls it, his own bespoken domain after three failed marriages and a deleterious son. All the elements, I’ve been told, can be found in a single drop of sea water. So, too, with a choice collection of the world’s postage brought together for aesthetic purposes. Thus my friend. One doesn’t need to be a good person, remember, to be extraordinarily interesting anyway.”
“Now was the time to take out my collection and magnifying glass and focus on some of the images provided in the classic material prior to 1945. Here one could see castles, battle scenes, portraits both of stern looking rulers and garden variety human individuals. Those were serious times, those, masculine in character ,before the West lapsed into…into the huge black fly who had just then settled on a Hungarian issue that had cost me better than $400 at that time. A bloated as she was on human blood, I dasn’t swat the ting lest she do damage to one of the best views of Budapest in my collection.
Turning to Romania, I lingered over the 1941 “fortress and monastery” series of semi-postals showing stone buildings of historical importance, and never mind that the stamps themselves have no antiquarian value. You have already seen, or soon will, that I care only for the aesthetics, a personality defect that angers some of my philatelic colleagues who actually strive to make money from what ought to be a spiritual project only, beneficial to the soul. Watermarks? Variants? Mistakes? Perforations? Superior people care nothing for such trivia. Both here and in life itself, art is all. I am even able to enjoy some of the commemoratives of King Carol II, one of Europe’s most contemptible men, and the murderer of Codreanu.”
Note: Corneliu Zelea Codreanu was an ultranationalist Romanian politician, who founded a right-wing group called the Iron Guard. He was assassinated in 1938 after opposing the growing links between Romania and Nazi Germany. King Carol II was a keen stamp collector and patron of the hobby.
The Romanian issues of 1941 for the Restoration of Bessarabia, and Bukovina, follow a simple classical design highlighting the beauty of the buildings. The two sets, totalling 25 stamps, were recently catalogued by Stanley Gibbons at £25 unused.
A VERY EXCITING INDIAN STAMP COLLECTING ADVENTURE
by Adam Acidophilis. Published by fableman.com 2015
A JOURNEY TO AND AROUND INDIA INSPIRED BY HIS GRANDFATHER'S STAMP COLLECTION
"My grandfather Charlie, widowed and retired, was a very, very, serious stamp collector. He had shelves of leather bound albums like encyclopedias. I used to spend my school half terms with him and on a selected day, we would settle in his lounge, fold out the dining table, and 'do the stamps'. He would lay out the albums and pore over their pages - one of which I recall, featured many, many specimens of the same Swiss stamp, arranged in a perfect grid, but each in a slightly different shade of blue. "
MONUMENTS OF INDIA
" 'Monuments of India' was a series of stamps issued in 1949 by the newly independent Indian Post Office. It featured 16 engravings of, I suppose, the 16 best monumnets in India. They range from a rather small low-value stamp (for letters or postcards) to a rather large and expensive stamp (for, presumably, parcels). I still have them; they must have come from Charlie. "
A JOURNEY TO INDIA
"And the more I thought about what it was that was pulling me towards India (the music?, the peace and quiet?, the cuisine?) the more I realised that a lot of my interest was connected to a set of stamps."
A fascinating story, embracing many facets of India, its history, and culture, and illustrated by references to these 16 beautiful stamps.
The Finder (Fight for the Future Book 1). By Carl Wildrick
Published by CreateSpace Publishing. 2017
The Amazon description of the book is as follows:
Carter Owens was leading a charmed life, devoting his time to soccer, the game he loves. Academically and athletically gifted, popular at his middle school, and blessed with a loving and happy family, things couldn’t be better for Carter, until suddenly his world is torn apart by tragedy. His younger sister disappears without a trace. His family life begins to unravel, and things swirl further out of his control, after his grandfather passes away unexpectedly. Carter inherits his grandfather’s stamp collection. As he examines it, he discovers some seemingly common stamps have shocking technology hidden within them that might be the key to finding out what happened to his sister. Join Carter and his closest friends Alex, Vic, and Ellery as they discover the world of philately and go on some amazing adventures. Along their journey they encounter dinosaurs, soccer legends, witness the birth of the United States, and finally begin to reveal the secrets surrounding Carter's missing sibling and an ancient, far deeper conspiracy. A must read for philatelists, the Carter Owens trilogy is highly entertaining for readers both young and old, whether they are stamp collectors or not.
Some short extracts:
'His grandmother smiled at him. “Carter, I had been thinking of asking you to clean out the shed while your mother and I worked in the house”. Carter groaned but managed to keep it inside. “however, I had a better idea”. Carter prayed the new idea would not be a worse one than the shed. “I know your mother will have a tough time paying for your education later. You’re a talented boy and we can keep our fingers crossed for a soccer scholarship, or better yet, an academic scholarship, but one never knows how it will turn out. If you add the hours up, your grandfather spent years of his life up in his workroom with his stamp collection. You can see from Mr Black’s actions, its clearly very valuable to some people, but the reality is I have absolutely no idea what it’s worth, or what to do with it. You’re old enough that if you are willing I’ll let you go through his workroom and figure out what he has there and what it’s worth. Later on we can figure out how to sell it and we’ll add the money to your college fund. What do you think?”
“As he thought about it he realized that he really knew nothing about stamp collecting. He envisioned a bunch of boring old men peering through magnifying glasses. On the other hand, his grandfather had been an entertaining and fun guy to be with. Perhaps he would find the project interesting if he worked at it a bit.
From time to time his grandfather had incited him inside his workroom, and tried to show him a few stamps he thought might be interesting to a young boy, but nothing had ever garnered his attention.
[at the funeral] Vic and Alex both said they felt sorry for him. Ellery, always the optimist said, “there are a lot of famous people and places on stamps, many you don’t hear about every day. Who knows? You’ll almost certainly learn something, and it may turn out to be a fun project”. '
Then the fun begins! A book which will entertain both young adults and "boring old men (and women) with magnifying glasses"!
"THE ADVENTURES OF THE ONE PENNY BLACK"
By Ellery Queen: A short story that first appeared in the second issue of "The Great Detective Magazine" in April 1933
"Ellery Queen" was a pen name created and shared by two cousins, Frederic Dannay and Manfred B. Lee, as well as the name of their most famous detective.
In "The Adventure of the One-Penny Black", a man tells Ellery that someone knocked him out and stole a book from him, and when he later got home his other copy of the same book had also been stolen.
The reader is drawn into a world of obsessions, of which 'stamp collecting' is one. Others are the world of book collecting as the stolen book is obscure and yet several copies are stolen from a small Manhatten bookshop over the course of a few days, and the compulsion to philosophise on political systems in far away countries.
The 'stamp collecting' theme itself contains an obsession within an obsession with rich men hiring assistants just to curate their collections, and reflecting on the nature of a person who would aspire to be such a curator and the level of trust necessary for them to be able to undertake their work (or is it to indulge their own passion rather than work?).
This very early work in the 'Ellery Queen' oeuvre is also one of the first of a sub-genre the two writers brought to the 'who dunnit' - the pursuit of a murder where there may not be a death.
“THE SCARLET RUSE"
By John D. MacDonald first published in 1972
The story begins when an expert stamp collector is left frantic when he misplaces the extremely valuable collection of an important and shady client.
The private investigator Travis McGee is too busy with his houseboat to pay attention to the little old man with the missing postage stamps. Except these are no ordinary stamps. They are rare stamps worth four hundred thousand dollars.
McGee becomes more interested when he finds that a crime syndicate has put out a contract on him, and the hired killer knows something about stamps .
A short extract:
"A block of four stamps filled the screen. They were deep blue. They showed an old-timey portrait of George Washington. The denomination was ninety cents.
“This was printed in 1875”; Fedderman said. “It is perhaps the finest block of four known , and one of the very few blocks known. Superb condition, crisp deep colour, full original gum. It catalogues st over twelve thousand dollars, but it will bring in thousands more at auction”.
“Meyer said, “As the purchasing power of the currencies of the world erodes, Travis, all the unique and the limited quantity items in the world go up. Waterfront land. Rare books and paintings. Heirloom silver. Rare postage stamps.
“Classic postage stamps”, Fedderman said, “have certain advantages over that stuff. Portability. One small envelope, with a stiffener to prevent bending, with glassine interleafs for the mint copies, you can walk around with half a million dollars.”
The whole thing seemed unreal to me. He claimed to have made fifty thousand last year as a buying agent for the investment accounts. But here he was in a narrow little sidestreet store."
An old fashioned thriller but as one reviewer wrote:
Probably the best part of The Scarlet Ruse? The stamp collecting. John D. MacDonald is recognised for his character-building, but his talent at dramatising minutiae isn't something to be sneered at. The elderly Hirsh gives a spirited defense of stamp collectors coupled with a few fascinating anecdotes about the trials and triumphs of collecting. (from a review in "underground reading".)
"THE LITTLE MAN FROM ARCHANGEL”
by Georges Simenon
This is a novel by Georges Simenon in which Inspector Maigret does not feature. First published in an English translation in 1957.
In outline it tells of Jonas Milk, a timid and quiet man who lives in the small provincial town in Berri. he lives above his second-hand bookshop and also deals in rare stamps. He feels at home amongst the other small businesses in the town, until he marries his maid, a much younger woman with a doubtful reputation in terms of her morality. He converts to Catholicism from his Jewish faith. But his wife is neither a good housekeeper nor a faithful wife.
One day day when she has not come home after a night away Milk decides to spare himself yet more embarrassment over her affairs, and lies over her whereabouts. As the days pass, his lies are believed by fewer and fewer neighbours, who begin to shun him, and somebody informs the police. His anguish is increased by the fact that his most valuable stamps, which only she knew about, are gone from his safe!
The story develops as a psychological drama (it was adapted as radio play by the BBC in 2011) and is interspersed with details about Milch's stamps, why he collects them, and the affection he holds for them.
"THE RARE STAMP MYSTERY"
Mary Adrian. Published 1960 by Hastings House
A delightful 'thriller' written for young adults which also contains a lot of information about the practicalities (and fun) of stamp collecting.
A summary from "GOODREADS" explains the basic plot.
'There was plenty of excitement at the Red Barn that day. The Red Barn was a restaurant on the Macdonald farm run by Skeet Macdonald's parents. News had come that a rare stamp had been stolen from the home of a nearby collector. Skeet and his friends thought that this loss might tie in with a theft a short time ago at the Macdonald Farm. So the three children start out to solve the case.'
An extract gives an idea of how stamp collecting is woven into the story.
"Come up to my room with me, Chris," said Skeet. "I want to mount those new stamps in my album, especially the dollar stamp. You don't see many of them nowadays. The big post offices use a postage meter, and only a small piece of paper with the amount of postage is pasted on the package"
The boys raced each other up the narrow stairway to Skeet's room in the old hayloft. Then Skeet went to the bathroom and partly filled a glass with lukewarm water. He came back to his room, set the glass on his desk, and under the watchful eyes of Chris carefully placed the stamps in the water.
"I'll let them soak until they come loose from the wrapping paper," he said, "Then I'll peel them off with my stamp tongs [tweezers] and put them on clean paper to dry"
"I do that, too, when I take stamps off a package or an envelope", said Chris, "but I'll have to buy a pair of stamp tongs because I've spoiled some stamps by touching them with my fingers".
Skeet opened the desk drawer. "I have an extra pair, Ill give them to you"
"Gee, thanks, Skeet".
"A Letter from Paris"
Mrs Duchesney's Mystery in the Stamp Market