Beginning of the American Century
With the 1918 end to World War I, the center of philatelic inspiration moved across the Atlantic to the United States, and a new emphasis began.
The first American exposition was the Eden Musée show back in 1889. In the show catalog J. Walter Scott noted,
“Is it to be wondered at that these attractive and valuable little pictures at once arrested the attention of the diletante (sic) in the fine arts, the student of geography and political economy, the amateur of numismatics, the collector of curiosities, the omnipresent speculator, and the gentleman of leisure looking for an elegant occupation? Certain it was that before five years had passed (e.g. 1845) stamp collecting had a select circle of votaries, which in time was supplied with a prolific literature in every European language, numerous societies or clubs in all the large cities, and traders carrying in the aggregate many millions of dollars’ worth of stamps in stock … while interesting collections can be formed at a cost of $100 or less, some wealthy amateurs have expended as much as half a million dollars on their favorite hobby.
“Stamp collecting has provided instructive amusement for countless thousands throughout the civilized world, numbering among its votaries many of the brightest minds in literature, science and art, together with statesmen and soldiers, including the self made men of our own country and the princes and nobles of Europe. Nor is our favorite pursuit restricted to any age or sex, and can be enjoyed by rich and poor alike, as is attested by the army of youthful collectors who combine pleasure with profit. At least one case has come under my notice where a boy of twelve years made sufficient cash in four years trading in stamps to pay for a two years’ term at one of our great Eastern colleges…”
During this ‘gilded age’ portion of the Anglo-German hegemony, American literature used the nobility and the upper classes as a measuring rod, frequently in emulative fashion. A cynical Mark Twain illustrated this in his 1882 The Prince and the Pauper and in his 1889 A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. Henry James’s Washington Square of 1882 and his The Bostonians of 1886 took a close look at ‘proper’ American society, while William Dean Howell’s 1884 The Rise of Silas Lapham also used aristocracy as its measure.
The measuring rod changed following World War I, and the common man was feted in Edgar Lee Masters’ 1915 Spoon River Anthology as well as in Sherwood Anderson’s 1919 Winesburg, Ohio. At the same time the nobility was reduced to Graustaurkian status, not to be emulated, in Franz Lahar’s operetta The Merry Widow and Sigmond Romberg’s Student Prince which followed in the mode of Gilbert and Sullivan’s 1885Mikado and other D’Oyle Carte productions that took America by storm. Booth Tarkington’s The Magnificent Ambersons of 1919 and Sinclair Lewis’s 1922 Babbitt took a devastating look at the contemporary social leaders. They were not people to emulate. Edith Wharton, a cousin of Charles Coster, continued to use the foibles of ‘gilded age’ society as grist for her works such as her 1920 Age of Innocence. Conversely, Carl Sandburg’s 1926 Lincoln: The Prairie Years put forth a new type of icon to emulate. The real life antics of Edward VIII with his mistresses and playboy friends tended to confirm the unreliability of emulating the aristocracy.
Actually, philately had already begun to change before the war. Fred Melville (1882-1940), a major philatelic writer and promoter of philately for youth, quoted William H. Crocker (1861-1937), one of the major collectors, as follows:
“During the eight years that I have been asleep, philatelically speaking, a great change has been wrought in the status of stamp collecting, or, to be more correct, in the estimation in which it is held by the general public. I remember well how everyone not directly interested in stamps looked upon their collecting as a boyish pastime. Now we find the best and most intelligent class of people engaged in riding the hobby.”
Crocker had begun collecting late, in 1884, and continued until the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. He abandoned collecting for about eight years, coming back in time for the Pan-Pacific Exposition, for which he was a major fund-raiser as well as first vice president.
The ‘great change’ Crocker observed between 1906 and 1915 was the result of major shifts in social forces. In Russia, the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-05 had left the government and its leaders humiliated. The head of the state police, Venceslas de Plehve, was assassinated in 1904, while the popular uprising in St. Petersburg in 1905 forced the Czar to propose the ‘October Manifesto’ and a new popular Duma. In Germany by 1912 the Social Democrats had put together the largest bloc in the Reichstag and were tightening the reins on the Kaiser and the military when war broke out. In France the Orleanists, Bourbonists and Bonapartists squabbled over power while General Georges Boulanger rode to power (1886-1889) as the ‘man on horseback.’ The Dreyfus Affair resulted in the purge of royalists from the army in 1899, while the general working population expressed their unhappiness in the 1910 railway strike, the first general strike in history, which reflected Georges Sorel’s Reflections on Violence of 1907, which, in turn, set the intellectual background for political general strikes.
England, too, had seen monumental social changes. In 1884 the Third Reform Bill had added two million rural workers to the voting role, which eventually brought the 1906-1911 Liberal-Labor coalition to power under Asquith and Lloyd George. Although George failed in his 1909 attempt to tax the rich, the Parliamentary Act of 1911 sharply cut the power of the House of Lords, while in 1918 the Reform Bill generated universal suffrage for men as well as for women over 30. Clearly emulation of the nobility was not in Europe what it had been at the beginning of the Anglo-German hegemony era.
The social upheaval in America was even greater than in Europe for there were less social barriers. During the last two decades of the 19th century labor unrest and strikes had grown in severity until the unrest climaxed in the Homestead strike of 1892 and the Pullman strike of 1894. Although the 10-hour working day had become accepted by 1890, labor’s demand for an eight-hour day was stopped only by the aftermath of the Chicago Haymarket riot of May 1896. Nevertheless, by 1900 the building trades had achieved an eight-hour day, by 1912 Massachusetts had enacted a minimum wage law, and by 1913 a Department of Labor became part of the executive branch.
Anti-railroad and anti-monopoly feelings in rural America had led to the rise of the Grange and Populism so that by 1892 the People’s Party was formed and won one million votes. The Populists joined with William Jennings Bryan’s Democrats, and the 1896 election was closely contested, even though the populist forces lost. In the cities there was a massive in pouring of immigrants between 1900 and 1907 that added six million to the population, mostly from southern Europe with Catholic, not Protestant, backgrounds. The increase in potential voters led to the institution of direct primaries in 1903, and by 1913 the 17th constitutional amendment provided for direct election of the Senate. The day of the senator for steel or the railroad was ending.
Communication was also becoming much more rapid. In 1890 electric railroads began to link the cities and the suburbs, with the first subways following within a decade. Between 1897 and 1912 rail traffic tripled. A Hearst newspaper stunt in 1896 illustrated part of the change when Hearst sponsored a ‘bicycle express’ between San Francisco and New York that made the trip in 11 days.
An important communication change was the arrival of the automobile with all its implications. In 1904 the newly developed car was a plaything of the plutocrats, with popular fiction showing willowy Newport heiresses falling for mechanics or chauffeurs with grease on their faces, who turned out to be the scions of wealthy families. In 1908 Henry Ford’s assembly line made the Model Ts (black only); by 1915 there were one million on the roads. In 1910 Senator Hiram Johnson stumped California in his automobile. By 1920 there were some nine million cars on the road!
To support the auto, new roads were needed. Surfaced miles doubled between 1909 and 1916, with states borrowing heavily through highway bonds to finance the road network. By 1916 the federal government began authorizing grants for reliable highways, so that by 1930 there were three million miles of such roads, one quarter of them surfaced. The rural farmer was no longer isolated. In 1905 Teddy Roosevelt moved into Panama to take over construction of the Panama Canal, completed in 1914 as a new water freight link between the East and West Coasts.
The Spanish-American War made the United States a world power and gave it an empire. The Boxer Rebellion of 1900 required it to exercise some of its new power in pursuit of international obligations. The average American was finally forced to examine questions of foreign affairs that had remained dormant since the days of George Washington, the War of 1812 and the Monroe Doctrine.
The robber baron plutocrats of the post-Civil War era operated in a very laissez-faire environment that changed with the turn of the century. Between 1905 and 1917 the U.S. Supreme Court retreated from its strong defense of property rights and became more popular-minded, as well as more popular than it had been for a generation. Helping in this shift was the trust busting of 1905 and the passage of the Pure Food and Drug Act. The Standard Oil case, which ran from 1906 to 1911, resulted in the breakup of that company, and American Tobacco was broken up in 1911. Politically Roosevelt rode the new wave with formation of his Bull Moose Party in 1912, while the Pujo Committee exposed much of the financial behind-the-scenes operations of the House of Morgan in 1912. The Interstate Commerce Commission finally got authority to regulate the railroads in 1913, and the Clayton Anti-Trust Act was passed in 1914. In Congress, too, there was a revolt against the old dominance, which led to the removal of Joe Cannon as Speaker of the House in 1909. In general the era between 1905 and 1915 was not a good one for those in the United States who were emulating the excesses of the European nobility.
Another significant change was the rise in power of a petite bourgeoisie of tradesmen and professionals. In 1870 compulsory education covered only 57% of the student population; it reached 72% by 1900. The number of high schools rose 30-fold from 200 in 1865 to 6,000 by 1900. The long period of prosperity between 1897 and 1917 helped establish the new professional class, which now was more literate and had more leisure time and more money than ever before. The 60-hour workweek of 1890 had dropped to 55 hours by 1915, while weekly manufacturing wages rose from 20¢ to 30¢ an hour.
Annual manufacturing wages, which need to be multiplied by about 20 times just to reflect inflation, rose from $435 in 1900 to $568 by 1915, while clerical wages rose from $1,011 to $1,267 and teacher salaries from $328 to $578.
In consequence the potential market for stamp collectors rose sharply as the following table of major occupations in the thousands (000) shows:
1900 1920 1930
White collar workers 5,115 10,529 14,320
Managers 1,697 2,803 3,612
Professionals 1,234 2,283 3,311
Lawyers 108 123 161
Doctors 131 151 123
Pharmacists 46 64 84
Dentists 30 56 71
Just as emulation of the nobility and plutocratic class was out as a motive for collecting, the new appeals of stamp collecting were more intellectual in nature, reflecting the rise e new professional class. The change that William Crocker observed was based upon a tripod of new collecting approaches, each of which was more intellectual than earlier collectors had used to fill their Lallier, AppIeton or Scott albums. Rather than the optimism of ‘gilded age’ collectors who sought to cover the entire world, the new collecting interests were much more specialized.
Gilded age authors had expressed optimism in works such as Horatio Alger’s 1867 Ragged Dick, or his later Jed, the Poorhouse Boy, Luke Larkin‘s Luck and Struggling Upward. A new realism with a despairing tone was set in T. S. Eliot’s 1922 The Waste Land and in Eugene O’Neill’s 1920 Emperor Jones and his 1923 Moon of the Caribbees and Six Other Plays of the Sea. William Graham Sumner’s 1883 What Social Classes Owe to Each Other was considered passé by the new stamp collecting class.
When postage stamps were first issued and began to be collected, they were colorful souvenirs of foreign and exotic lands with an appeal of romance and adventure. In the post-world they had to compete with the colorful Sunday ‘funnies’ or be viewed at home on tables brightened by electric lamps shining through the colorful Tiffany shades of the ‘art deco’ period.
Much of the sense of adventure and romance that had permeated society prior to the Great War was dissipated. War was not romantic as Hart Crane’s 1895 The Red Badge of Courage showed and as Eric Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front confirmed. Rather than Dana’s Two Years Before the Mast, we have Thomas Wolfe’s 1929 Look Homeward, Angel and his 1935 Of Time and the River, demonstrating a young man’s hunger for experience.
The postwar equivalents of The Pirate‘s Own Book were the Tom Swift adventure stories or a combination of adventure and exotica contained in Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Tarzan and Barsoom works and Frank L. Baum’s Oz books. It is not surprising that science fiction began to take off in the late l920s and 1930s, just as the ‘penny dreadfuls’ and westerns had supplied the ‘gilded age.’
Real life exploration was limited. Most corners of the globe had been explored by World War I. The one unexplored area — the polar regions — did develop and along with it a philatelic taste for the polar thematic in the l930s.
Exotic locales became fictional as in science fiction and fantasy, for real exotic locales been partially debunked by the allied expedition to relieve Peking during the Boxer rebellion and by the insurgency battles in Cuba and the Philippines during the Spanish-American War. The thrill of digging the Panama Canal was offset by yellow fever, heat and bugs. It was found that exotic locales had mud, snakes and a severe shortage of ice and modern indoor plumbing compared with American homes. The unpleasant nature of many exotic locations was reinforced during the North African and Pacific campaigns of World War II and the Korean and Vietnam conflicts that followed.