Part 1 – The Social Scene at the Beginning

 French Supremacy

At the time stamp collecting was institutionalized, Frenchmen dominated the intellectual world.  A wave of liberalism swept over Europe in 1848, set off by the abdication of the French “citizen-king’ Louis Phillipe in February 1848.  It was immediately met by a conservative reaction in country after country.  In France a combination of Catholics, monarchists and militarists elected Louis Napoleon Bonaparte as ‘prince-president’ of the Republic.  Although he had failed twice before, he created a coup-d’état and had himself crowned Napoleon III on December 2, 1851.  His aim for the next two decades was to restore France to its past Napoleonic glory as a new Second Empire.

France enjoyed an economic boom during the 1850s and at the time of the 1855 Paris international art exposition was generally conceded to be the world center of art, fashion and diplomacy.  Beginning in 1853, Napoleon III unleashed Baron Haussmann on Paris to redesign the city, creating the broad boulevards and spacious gardens for which the city of light has ever since been famous.

In addition to the previously mentioned Baudelaire and Rimbaud, there were a number of other writers who were creating a French literary renaissance.  In 1847 Mérimée authored Carmen, a masterpiece that became Bizet’s opera in 1875.  The following year, 1848, Dumas fils produced the first novel of passion and contemporary mores, Dame aux Camelias. It was translated to the stage by the younger Dumas and in 1853 was transformed into Verdi’s opera La Traviata.  Flaubert introduced a new literary school of realistic novels with his Madame Bovary (1857).  Regarded both for its realism and the precision of style used by the author, it had a tremendous impact throughout Europe.  A similar result followed the publication of Hugo’s Les Miserables in 1862.  Swinburne termed it a great epic and its author ‘the greatest man born since the death of Shakespeare.’  Zola, whose serious writings were published after France surrendered at Sedan, created a series of novels featuring a ‘scientific study of heredity.’  These Zola novels were less literary masterworks than reflections of the concept of extending scientific observations into art, which was a feature of the era.

The Second Empire’s French artists were heavily involved in naturalism and realism.  While the French impressionist painters were beginning their studies during this period, they did not burst upon the world scene until after the close of the Franco-Prussian War, at which point they began to dazzle and dominate European art until well into the 20th century.

One leading group of Second Empire artists was that of the Barbizon landscape painters including Corot, Millet and Daubigny.  The ‘realists’ included Courbet, whose Stonebreaker was pained in 1852.  Also in this school were Rosa Bonheur’s horse paintings, which were prizewinners at the famous 1855 Paris international art exhibition.  A leading realist of the period was Gerôme, whose Death of Caesar was painted in 1859.  He fought the impressionists in a series of bitter battles.  It is also possible to put Moreau’s mythical 1862 Oedipus and the Sphinx, exhibited in 1864, into the realist school. In sculpture Carpeaux’s realistic nude Dancingwas selected for Napoleon III’s new Paris Opera House and was a scandalous success.

The realist school involved not only painting and sculpture; it also brought in architecture, lithography and photography.  Daumier’s Third-class Carriage of 1862 shows how the realist concept was translated into social commentary through painting by a skilled lithographer.  It is a presage of the lithographic posters Toulouse-Lautrec was to produce in the impressionist period.

Although lithography had been invented in the previous century and used earlier for both art and postage stamps, it was not until grained paper lithography was invented in 1868 that lithographic art took off as an important medium.  In the late 1850s lithography was used to create the first illustrated colored posters.  Among the first to achieve international fame were those of Jules Chetet in 1866.  They were so popular they were stolen right after being put up, and new laws on posting bills were needed.  It was only later they were purchased directly from the printer or artist.

In philately the first lithographic issues were the Zurich locals of 1853.  In the United States the Confederate issues were the first produced, somewhat before the French Bordeaux issues of 1870.  De La Rue used the lithographic process and failure to use it eventually cost Perkins, Bacon its stamp contracts.  De La Rue first produced lithographic revenues on April 14, 1853, and began going after postage contracts in 1855.

In the same vein early photography was dominated by the French from Dauguerre’s improved process of 1844 through Niepce’s albumen process, Gaudin’s dry-plate collodion process (1854), and Becquerel’s colored daguerreotypes of 1848 to Lippman and Lumière’s work.  In Second Empire photography Negre’s street scenes and Nadiers’ 1858 photos ware well regarded even today.  In philately most stamps are produced by photographic processes today, while some of our earliest stamp illustrations were photographic carte de visites made around 1862 in Paris.

The realist or naturalist art movement spread around the world.  In England William Morris and Burne-Jones were working in this mode both in art and architecture.  Whistler’s Sixteen Sketches etchings, which included his 1869 Black Lion Wharf, show the effect of realist draughtsmanship.  Repin, who had a traveling scholarship in France in 1869, brought realism back to Russia and became one of its more famous painters.

In America one of the leaders of the naturalistic Hudson River school was Frederick Church, (Scott 3236n) who in 1853-1857 traveled to South America where he painted a series of realist landscapes such as his 1859Heart of the Andes.  It had the same combination of exotic locale and realism that endeared postage stamps to the collecting public.  Kennsett chose realist painting styles for his 1857 commission to decorate the U.S. Capitol, some of which ended up as stamp designs.  Winslow Homer, who began exhibiting in 1863, is as well known for his realistic seascapes as for his genre paintings. (Scott 1207 and 3336j)

The history of collecting in general up to the 1870s can be found summarized fairly well in Princeton Professor Thomas Kaufmann’s analysis of the Habsburg collections in his chapter contribution to Cultures of Collecting, published by Harvard in 1994.  Kaufmann noted that from about 1550 to about 1750 the collection of ‘curiosities’ dominated all collecting.  It was a period in which the nobility and the wealthy who emulated them assembled hoards of rare, exotic things into Schatzkammers or treasuries.  Most of the great libraries and art museums in the West are descendants of these treasuries.  Harvard President Neil Rudenstine made a similar point in a speech of October 25, 1997 comparing the last half of the 19th century to a second age of discovery.

The Schatzkammers gradually evolved into collections of the products of human artifice, called Kunstkammers, around the time of the French encylopaedists.  These Kunstkammers, into which stamp collections fit neatly, were designed to provide the raw material and organizational basis for scientific investigation.  A new basic collecting objective in this period became education and study.  For example, the Habsburgs set up their Albertina museum holding of graphic studies as a separate entity in 1800.

Figure 3 Stamp display at left in Kunstkammer exhibit at Antwerp in 1887.

Following the revolutionary upheavals that swept Europe in 1848, Habsburg Emperor Franz Joseph revised the Habsburg collections, turning over all but his personal Schatzkammer (which remained in the Hofburg) into a series of public museums.  This shift took place between 1857 and 1891, the same era in which stamp collecting developed as a major hobby.  The directors and curators of the various Habsburg collections were professors of the history of art, and the collections began to serve as part of academic instruction.  Beginning in 1882, yearly publications called Jahrbuchs were made of the findings, and a link was forged between the collecting, teach and publication of knowledge.

For generations the family most associated with the postal system was that of Thurn and Taxis.  It had handled mail from 1290 to 1867 and held a monopoly throughout the Holy Roman Empire from 1505 onward. Prince Johannes von Thurn and Taxis noted, “I don’t collect art.  I surround myself with ancestry.”  This meant his family Kunstkammer was devoted to the posts, early postal artifacts and the Thurn and Taxis adhesives.  It was the first postal museum.

It is quite likely that a number of the first two generations of stamp collectors saw themselves as collecting along the same lines as major art collectors, their holdings were in the Kunstkammer tradition with a focus upon miniatures of intaglio engraving and lithography rather than large wall paintings or sculpture.

As befit the citizens of the intellectual capital of the world, French philatelists dominated the hobby when it was becoming organized during the Second Empire.  The early 1861 catalogs were written in French, as was a good deal of the early literature.  Georges Herpin coined the word ‘philately’ in 1864 to describe the new formal scientific approach to stamp collecting as opposed to the earlier accumulation of exotic souvenirs or artifacts.  It wasn’t until the 1870 debacle of Sedan that the demoralized French collectors lost their lead.

Dr. Jacques LeGrand (an early collector, born 1820, who entered philately through his nine-year old son in 1862) published a key article on watermarks in 1866 under the pseudonym of Dr. Magnus.  However, this article was scooped by Mme. Nicholas, an early Parisian dealer, whose 1865 catalog, compiled by Ernest Regard, was the first to list watermark varieties.  LeGrand, however, did not have to share the honor of proposing the first perforation gauge, which he canned an odontometre, in October 1866.  From this point on new stamp varieties included perforation varieties.  Another aid to collecting of the period was the stamp hinge, which Maury proposed in his Timbres-Poste Album of 1868.  The idea, however, was in the air, for an advertisement mentions hinges in the May 1864 Stamp Collector’s Magazine, published in Great Britain.

One of the early advanced collectors, Adelaide Lucy Fenton, commented about the new scientific approach to stamps that the French were promoting, noting in the September 1866 issue of Stamp Collector’s Magazinethat such studies of stamp peculiarities expanded ‘their history, their date, their formation, and their usual terms of existence.’

The idea of getting together to study was in the air of the French Second Empire.  The Congrés des Sociétés Savantes was first convoked at the Sorbonne in 1861.  The French Société d’Horticulture et de Botanique was founded in 1864.  The first meeting of the Congres Medical International was held in Paris in 1867, while the Ophtalmologie Congres took place at Brussels in 1857.  The French Société Industrielle began at Amiens in 1861, while the Congrés International pour les Progrès des Sciences Géographique first met in 1871.  The first International Astronomical Congress met at Heidelberg in 1863.  In England, the Aeronautical Society of Great Britain began in 1866, the Geologists’ Association was formed in 1858, and the Institute of Electrical Engineers dates from 187l.  In the United States the National Academy of Sciences was incorporated in 1863, while the American Entomological Society began to publish its proceedings in 1861.

In philately the Société Philatelique de Paris was formed in 1865, but lasted only two years while the Philatelic Society of London (now known as the Royal and the oldest surviving institution) began operations on April 10, 1869.  The first international Philatelic Exhibition took place at Dresden, Germany in 1870, beginning a stream of internationals that has lasted to the present.


** “In the latter part of the 19th century, another age of discovery—a sort of Magellan-like efflorescence—had begun.  There was a more or less unstoppable urge on the part of compulsive tycoons, middle-class classicists, pecunious as well as impecunious botanists, insatiable bibliophiles, and indomitable entomologists and archaeologists to travel, search, unearth, possess, organize, display, study, and, in effect, conquer everything in sight by amassing collections of every conceivable kind …At Harvard, the Peabody Museum, the art museum, the Warren Museum at the Medical School, the new observatory, and the Museum of Comparative Zoology were a few of the tangible structures created by this powerful surge of sustained inquiry and acquisition…”

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