Part I – The Social Scene at the Beginning
© Calvet M. Hahn 2000
How did stamp collecting originally develop and what caused it to grow into one of the world’s major hobbies? One leading industry spokesman recently claimed:
“In the early days, the appeal of stamps was universally to young people, mostly to boys. When the first generation of boy collectors grew up…they were uncomfortable continuing a boyish pursuit…They transformed stamp collecting into philately, Greek rooted, full of French phrases, redolent with scholarly trappings…”
Is this really what happened or was the growth of the hobby a logical development of the social conditions of its times? The first generation that took up the hobby of stamp collecting was part of a drab world where exploration and exotic lands were daily new wonders. It was an era of general drabness so the small bits of paper that were stamps were colorful and exotic souvenirs of adventure and romance.
How drab was society? The industrial revolution was in full swing in the 1840s and 1850s, and city after city was filled with industrial smog. The well-reported London fogs lasted into the 20th century.
In discussion fashion, Oswald Barron F.S.A. noted:
“From 1830 begins a period of singular ugliness. Tight stays came back again, the skirt swept the pavements, a generation of over-clad matrons seems to have followed a generation of nymphs. The ‘fifties showed even more barbarous devices, and about 1854 came in from France the crinoline, that strange revival of the ancient hoop. Plaids, checks and bars, bright blues, crude violets and hideous crimsons, were seen in French merinos, Irish poplins and English alpacas. Women in short jackets, hooped skirts, hideous bonnets and shawls seemed to have banished their youth. The French empress Eugenie, a leader in European fashion, decreed that white muslin should be the evening mode, and at balls, where the steels and whalebones of the crinoline were impossible, the women swelled their skirts by wearing a dozen or fourteen muslin petticoats at once. Towards the end of the ‘sixties the crinolines disappeared as suddenly as they came and by 1875 skirts were so tight at the knees that walking upstairs in them was an affair of deliberation.”
Ever since the Regency days of Beau Brummel, black was the color for men. Bulwer-Lytton in an 1828 work noted that “people must be very distinguished in appearance’ to look well in black. In the early Victorian era, many men wore long hair, so freely oiled that the ‘anti-macassar’ came in to protect drawing room chair-backs. English working men went to work in a frayed and greasy morning coat whose cut followed that of the rich Londoner paying a morning call.
It must be remembered that the coal-tar aniline dyes that gave richness to the colors of the ‘gilded age’ were discovered only in 1856. They did not affect the public until a decade or more later. The Currier & Ives lithographs that became popular in 1835-1840 didn’t move into mass production hand coloring until the 1860s when women colorists earned a penny a print.
In the drab world of the 1840s and 1850s, stamps stood out for their color. At the same time they represented romance and adventure. The California gold rush of the late 1840s was followed by one at the far ends of the earth in Australia. Explorers began to fill in the blanks on continent after continent.
Young readers were absorbing adventure tales ranging from Ellm’s Pirates Own Book (1838) to Dana’s Two Years Before the Mast (1840), Prescott’s History of Mexico (1843), Fremont’s Exploration of the Rockies(1843), Parkman’s Oregon Trail (1849), Perry’s Expedition to Japan (1856), and Darwin’s Origin of Species (1859), which was a result of his earlier Journey of a Naturalist (1837-1838) report on the voyage of theBeagle.
Newspapers and journals kept the public attuned to foreign lands with reports of the Opium War in China (1840-1842) and the opening of the treaty ports, the Crimean War of 1853-1856, the opening of Japan in 1854, and the Indian Mutiny of 1857-1858. While the Civil War drowned out foreign new in the United States in the early 1860s, the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869 closely fit with the news of the opening of the U.S. transcontinental railroad and had a major popular opera (Aida) at its opening.
In literature the public had already developed a taste for the foreign, romantic and exotic by the time stamp collecting came upon the scene offering souvenirs with the same appeals. The literary movement began a generation earlier with the romantic poets such as Keats, Shelley and Byron, with Coleridge providing a touch of exotica with his Kubla Khan and other popular poems. Carlyle set a new historical style with his 1837 ‘history by lightning flashes’ French Revolution, romanticizing it.
Contemporaneous with the introduction of adhesives were such literary works appealing to the foreign, romantic and exotic as the following English works. Macaulay’s Lays of Ancient Rome (1842), Tennyson’s romantic Locksley Hall (1842), Robert Browning’s Home Thoughts From Abroad (1845) and his wife’s Sonnets From the Portuguese (1847-1850). Matthew Arnold’s Sohrab and Restum (1853) was a typical work of the period.
In the United States, Edgar Allan Poe (1808-1849) set new literary traditions by inventing the detective story and creating a tradition of the macabre. He is considered a seminal influence in the literature of the next century, and he influence one of France’s greatest writers, Baudelaire, who published his Fleurs de Mal in 1857. Verlaine’s Poemes saturniens of 1855 were less affected, but there was a connection with Rimbaud whose Illuminations came out in 1872. One of the world’s great exotic works, Richard Burton’s Arabian Nights, was begun in 1852, although not published for many years.
In addition to its ties to exploration, adventure and exotica, stamp collecting had strong roots in religious experience as well. Since gaining independence, America had been swept by waves of religious revivalism to the extent that certain sections of upstate New York were known as the ‘burnt-out district.’ An important element of the revivalism of the 1830s and later was missionary activity, with missionary letters from exotic lands read from the pulpits of churches throughout the land. These first-hand accounts from exotic lands complemented the literary tradition and supplemented the reports of explorers.
Although French Catholic missions to the South Seas began in 1817 and the Catholic Institute for the Propagation of the gospel was formed at Lyons in 1822, the latter was spending about a million dollars annually on missions by 1852. The French Sacred Heart missionary activity began in 1855 while the French Society of White Fathers began to focus on Africa in 1868.
Hawaiian missionary activity began in the 1820s; and a direct descendant of one of the first missionaries, Thurston Twigg-Smith, formed the greatest holding of Hawaiian philately known, the Honolulu Advertiser collection. Another well-known philatelic personality, the well-known dealer and auction agent, the late Ezra Cole, was a descendant of one of the most successful Hawaiian missionaries, Titus Coan, who converted more than 20,000 Hawaiians between 1836 and 1839. In fact, the first Hawaiian stamps are known as ‘missionaries’ because of their predominant use on letters of the early missionaries back to the United States.
The Baptists founded a mission society for India in 1833. By 1851 there were some 9,100 Protestant converts, with the number doubling each decade until there were 417,000 by 1881. In 1858 the Christian Vernacular Education Society for India was founded, while in 1866 the Delhi Medical Missionary Society was founded. In 1867 the Friends (Quakers) founded a Mission Society for Syria and Palestine.
In 1840 the American Board for Foreign Missions was formed at Williams College. In 1844 the South American missionary Society was formed. American missionaries were in Burma as early as the 1820s and an American missionary, Dr. Price, brought the Burmese terms to the British forces that resulted in the end of the first Burmese War. In Thailand, American missionaries such as Bradley were there in the 1830s and wrote back vivid letters about the country.
On another continent it was in 1846 that the principal Methodist African and Colonial Mission Society was organized, while the Central African Mission Society began in 1858, with the Central African Mission of English Universities following in 1860. A major wave of African missions followed the death of Livingston in 1872. At the close of the Civil War, Americans, particularly ex-Confederates, became deeply involved in a mapping project for Africa.
The China School Mission Society was created in 1862, while in 1884 the Cambridge University Seven formed a China Mission Society. In 1886 the American Students Volunteer Mission movement began, continuing the long tradition of mission activity in the United States.
Public interest in the Far East was not so much inspired by missionary reports as t was by business opportunities. The Empress of China was the first American flag vessel to reach China, arriving at Macao on August 23, 1784, six months out of New York. Its supercargo, Major Samuel Shaw of Boston, was named the honorary American consul at Canton when he returned there in 1786. Except for the British, American flag vessels were outstripping everyone in the China trade, but they ran into a problem of paying for goods. The British used silver, but Americans countered with furs from Oregon. Later they was the ice trade commemorated philatelically by the ‘ice house 1869 cover.’ Between 1836 and 1850, the Boston ice trade was extended to every large port in South America and the Far East. When Edward Everett (the other Gettysburg speaker) met the Persian ambassador in London, the ambassador’s first words were of appreciation of Boston ice in Persia. The trade prospered for a full generation after the Civil War. Additionally, the American ‘China clippers’ dominated the seas at the time.
Correspondence from major American trading firms not only represented the amassing of New England fortunes, but also represented a source of stamps for collectors. The Heard correspondence is typical of this interest, with Mr. Heard instructing his agents to use adhesive stamps wherever possible once they became available. The correspondence runs from the War of 1812 into the post-Civil War era. Another significant American correspondence was that of the Boston food purveyor S. S. Peirce. This firm traded around the world for its products, and its letters begin in the 1830s and run into the 20th century, with both stamped and stampless covers reaching the philatelic market.
As has been shown, stamp collecting fit right into the social patterns of society at the time when stamps were first issued. They became a collectable souvenir of the foreign, romantic and exotic elements that fascinated the min-19th century world. The major difference between numismatics and philately and the other collecting habits of the period is the fact that both stamps and coins developed an institutional framework and the other hobbies didn’t