On Memorial Day, instead of eating barbecue and drinking Budweiser (excuse me, America!), I did one of the nerdiest things ever — I went to the World Stamp Show.
It took place (and is actually still taking place, until tomorrow, June 4) at the Jacob Javits Center in New York City. Prior to attending, I did not know much about stamp collecting, or philately, which is essentially the study of stamps and postal ephemera.
Without that prior knowledge, I’ve been thinking about why I was drawn to this specific trade show, and not say a trade show about comic books or like, vacuum cleaners. And what I keep circling back to is just how antiquated and archaic stamp collecting feels. Which makes it very interesting.
It’s not really a secret, but the United States Postal Service is in decline. According to Bloomberg, in 2015, First Class Mail — the mail you use to send letters— fell 3% from the year prior, on trend with previous years. An entire generation raised with email, text and social media will likely never have a need for this service.
That isn’t to say that people aren’t mailing things. Just that what they’re mailing isn’t the same as it once was. Now, it’s mostly packages and bigger items. To wit, package shipping rose 8% in 2015, buoyed by Amazon, who in 2014 started using the U.S. Post Office to deliver on Sundays (which has been great for Amazon, bad for postal workers and the post office, generally).
But other companies do package delivery. UPS, FedEx, DHL. You’re familiar with all of these, I’m sure. And there are dozens of start-ups focused on package delivery, too. Package delivery is a sexy business. Everyone loves packages.
What nobody wants to do is mail letters, which, to a large degree, is what the World Stamp Show celebrates. The show takes place once every ten years, which makes it kind of a big deal. At the Javits Center, I felt like I’d been brought into this very private world, where dealers and collectors who traffic in this very niche thing all seemed to know each other.
Nerdy as they might be, stamps don’t lack for sexiness — rare stamps are worth a lot of money. A stamp like the 1918 ‘Inverted Jenny,’ pictured above, is one of the rarest in existence, with only 100 ever printed. During the show, it sold at auction for $1.3 million to a private collector.
Meanwhile, another ‘Inverted Jenny’ was stolen from a display case more than 60 years ago. It inspired a book — “The Inverted Jenny: Money, Mystery, Mania” — and at the show, it was finally returned, to the tune of a $60,000 reward.
While I’ve never personally met anyone who might pay the exorbitant prices some stamps command, if I were a much wealthier person, I could see myself splurging. Even with limited knowledge, stamps in the hundred to two-hundred thousand dollar range felt like they were rare pieces of history. When the world is fully paperless, and nobody even knows what pen or paper or sending a letter even means anymore, it would feel like I owned a rare item from a time forgotten.
Which isn’t to say that one need to spend that much money, really. In fact, I did purchase some stamps — cheap, newer ones at that. In total, I think I spent around $25, grabbing a few stamps from India and a few from Israel. These are, presumably, not worth much money, and probably never will be. But I liked their design and just thought they looked cool, which is reason enough to buy anything.
Perhaps the most interesting part of the show though wasn’t the slick mix of dealers, collectors and rarities on display, but rather the philately exhibits. I’d never seen anything like them before. Running horizontally, hundreds of exhibits take up about 1/3rd of the Javits Center, and the best way to describe them would be to say they are like a series of poster boards, with stamps, letters and writing arranged in such a way as to give a history lesson. Very cool.
This is an example of what they look like (note that the following was not inspired by DJ Khaled):
Now, if you can imagine, exhibits like these purport to tell the history of many different countries, world regions, historical events and collectively, they aim, in some odd way, to explain life itself. A remarkable level of scholarship seems to have gone into each one, and I couldn’t imagine how much time was spent — years, probably.
How many years, exactly? Well, my wife and I sat down at one dealer’s table and began looking through a box of direct-mail advertising covers — what you might know as envelopes — dating back to the 1870’s or some time around then. They were all very specific; companies in Ohio, advertising woodworking products. These envelopes were beautiful, ornately designed things, more work of art than junk mail.
“A guy put those together for an exhibit,” the dealer said. “Spent years collecting them, searching for the right ones. But he died before he could finish. Are you into woodworking?”
I told him that I’d taken wood shop in high school, that I’d made a cutting board for my father, but I wasn’t into woodworking per se. Though he was at least thirty years older than I was, he said he’d taken wood shop in high school too, but he wasn’t into woodworking either.
“I don’t think they have wood shop in high schools anymore,” he said.
“You could cut yourself,” I replied.
“There might be blood!” he joked. “No more wood shop.”
The dealer went on to tell me that back then, just like it is now, advertising through newspapers wasn’t especially effective. If you were local and you wanted to advertise something very specific, you went and looked at who had done business with you in the past, and then you mailed them one of these envelopes, sometimes with a letter inside.
“What about new customers,” I asked. “Did they purchase mailing lists and things like that? How did they get new business?”
The dealer said: “What they’d do is, they’d go to the mailman and give him the mail they wanted to send. ‘Take these to the woodworkers on your route,’ he’d say. And then the mailman would do that. It was all very personal. You could do that back then. Now, forget about it.”
I thanked the dealer for his time and his knowledge, then left. We walked around some more and stopped at a dealer who specialized in mail from pre-independence Indian States, looking for stuff from Hyderabad (where my wife’s family is from). We didn’t buy anything, but he gave us a mail cover from the 1920’s at no charge — a small memento of a day well spent.
If you have some time today or tomorrow, check out the World Stamp Show. There are millions of stamps on display and it’s a super interesting peek into a world not that many people seem to know about anymore. And it won’t be back for another ten years!