Part 9- Philately at 100

Part IX

                                                                   Philately at 100

The centenary of stamp collecting on May 6, 1840 took place at the time Nazi hordes were wiping up Norwegian resistance and the German planners were preparing their May 10th blitzkrieg sweep through Holland and Belgium into France.  On a long term basis the growth of stamp collecting had reflected a shift in demographics.  Originated in the middle class professionals of 1840-1860, the hobby soon was adopted by European royalty and their emulators among the rich status-seekers of the mercantile world.  By the beginning of the American century there was a significant rise in the educated professional class who happily took to stamp collecting for relaxation.  White-collar workers had risen from five million in 1900 to over ten million in 1920 and almost fifteen million by 1930.  The number of managers and professionals had more than doubled between 1900 and 1930 (from 2,931,000 to 6,915,000).  By the end of the 1930s, stamp collecting had thoroughly penetrated into the mass middle class demographic groups.

Was this mass increase in philatelic activity sustainable?  Was it really a function of demographics or was there a strong component of social anodyne during the depression era that would disappear once prosperity and society reassurance returned?  In other words was the high level of activity remembered by the older collectors of the present era reflective of a blip rather than a sustainable increase?  Subsequent indications are that the 1930s and 1940s were a zenith of philatelic activity based upon a psychological blip generated by the need for social anodynes to offset the shaking of verities during the depression.

At this point it is useful to review the original causes of the appeal that stamps had to collectors and see how those appeals fared at the stamp centenary mark.  The original appeals were: a) color in a drab era, b) romance and adventure of far-away places, c) the appeal of the exotic, d) symbolism of widespread missionary, religious and business activity, and e) the desire to systematize human intellectual activity as seen in the ‘kunst kammers.’

By 1940, color was no longer a rare phenomenon confined to stamps in ordinary household activities.  Painter John La Farge (1825-1910) and jewelry company scion, Louis Comfort Tiffany (1848-1933) had introduced stained glass into American homes, particularly with the Tiffany shades for the new electric lamps.  At the same time the ‘art deco’ movement of the post World War I era had used the breaking of German patents for dies and plastics to produce a host of colorful products.  Glass bricks for construction were first produced in 1935.

Newspapers had introduced the comic strip with the ‘yellow kid’ and ‘captain and the kids’ before the turn of the century.  Colored Sunday comics were widespread during the depression. New York’s Mayor La Guardia (1882-1947) even read the Sunday ‘funnies’ over the new medium of radio during a newspaper strike.  Comic books and ‘Big Little’ books also took off during the depression with Superman arriving on the scene in 1938.  He had been preceded by the short Flash Gordon film series even earlier.

Walt Disney (1902-1966) and his ‘Laugh-o-Gram Films’ introduced cartoons to the film medium in 1922 with ‘Alice in Wonderland.’  His wife and an animation inker, Lilian Bounds, nicknamed one early cartoon character ‘Mickey Mouse’ in 1928.  Two years later this 1930s era icon starred in ‘Steamboat Willie,’ a sound track synchronized cartoon.  This was barely three years after Al Jolson’s ‘Jazz Singer’ had introduced ‘talkies’, revolutionizing the new film industry.  Disney produced his first colored cartoon in 1932 and by 1937 his ‘Snow White’ was a smash hit full-length animated sound tracked color film.  It is only fair to conclude that the color appeal of stamps had been massively diluted by 1940.

The entire globe had been fairly widely explored by the close of the depression decade.  Expeditions had gone into the Gobi desert, up the Amazon, and into Tibet.  Travel films, narrated by Lowell Thomas, documented many of the world’s backwaters, detailed maps and pictures of the inhabitants and customers were shown in the National Geographic, while Frank Buck (1884-1950) in his 1930 Bring ‘Em Back Alive and his 1937 On Jungle Trails cover the wild life.  Zeppelin explorers in the Artic and Admiral Byrd’s trips to Little America in the Antarctic focused on these major new ongoing exploration areas.  Stamps dealing with both topics were highly popular.

The romance factor of air travel was also exploited philatelically by those who collected flight covers, airport dedication cachets and signed covers of famous fliers, male and female.  It must be remembered that while much of the world had been linked by rail over the preceding century this was not true of the Canadian Northwest nor of Latin America.  Those areas were now being covered by planes with plenty of souvenirs for collectors, ranging from Columbia’s Scada adhesives to labels of Canada’s Patrice Airlines.  The drama of the air is perhaps best highlighted in the U. S. by the 1930 Graf Zeppelin issue.  This issue became the sought after grail of most young collectors of the era, for they were unable to afford it when the stamps first came out.

The focus upon air exploration and its romance was given a special poignancy by the 1935 Lindbergh baby kidnapping trial and the May 6, 1937 Hindenburg disaster in New Jersey.  Overall, foreign areas were also brought much closer to the average American home in a realistic fashion by the advent of the big picture magazines such as Life and Look with their massive circulations.  Although there was little or no philatelic copy, another important publishing mass magazine dominating the period was the Reader’s Digest, which selected and condensed articles from other publications.

Depression era philately did successfully exploit the romance and adventure of far away places, but it faced considerable new competition in the films and magazines of the period.  Further, millions of Americans had gone overseas during World War I, with lesser numbers having traveled outside the continental boundaries during the preceding Spanish American War and the consequential beginnings of an American empire.  Stories of adventure in the Philippines, Panama, Cuba, Puerto Rico, Mexico, Haiti, and Nicaragua had shown members of many families that foreign areas were neither particularly romantic nor exotic, demonstrating that adventuring there was greatly overrated.

What replaced the stamp as a souvenir of adventure and romance in exotic locales was the growth of escapist literature.  The depression era was the heyday of pulp magazines that had replaced the ‘penny dreadfuls’ of the gilded era.  The cowboy era had basically ended by the winter of 1886-1887, while the cowboy novel first gained credence with Owen Wister’s 1902 The Virginians.  The images were mythologized in the Zane Gray novels and hundreds, if not thousands, of stories and films popular during the depression era and thereafter.  In the same fashion the historic old south of Mary Chestnut’s diaries became Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind novel of 1936 and the subsequent film.  Among the ‘pulps’ Doc Savage replaced Dr. Livingston as the intrepid adventurer, while James Hilton’s Lost Horizons mythologized Tibet.  Asia became the home of the insidious Dr. Fu Manchu and deepest Africa was the realm of Lord Graystroke, known to his friends as Tarzan.  The triangle, diamond and other odd-shaped stamps featuring the animals of Liberia, Nyassa, Obock and Tannu Touva were being hard pressed to match the adventure and romance of the locales feature by the ‘pulps.’

Exotic locales developed even further.  With the 1923 publication of Weird Tales, followed by the 1927 introduction of Amazing and the January 1, 1933 arrival of Astounding, a new literary genre was introduced, figure 96.  Science fiction appealed to the desire for adventure, far-away places and the exotic.  By 1938, the genre was a serious contender in escapist literature as well as futurology.  Stanley G. Weinbaum (1902-1935) published A Martian Odyssey in Astounding in 1935.  Not only did he refer to the use atomics in spaceships, he also created the first non-anthropomorphic Martians, who were not ‘bug-eyed monsters,’ figure 97.

Science fiction also discussed the new field of atomic science, relativity and uncertainty.  In fact, in the fall of 194l, a ‘science fiction’ story in Liberty magazine entitled ‘Black Sunday’ narrated a Sunday attack by the Japanese on Pearl Harbor.  Lester del Rey (1915-1993) published ‘Nerves’, in Astounding in 1942.  It was a sufficiently realistic depiction of an American atom bomb plant that there was a massive investigation to determine if someone had leaked details from Oak Ridge, Tenn., although no such leak had occurred.  There was even discussion of closing down the magazine until cooler heads prevailed.

The symbolic appeal of stamps in the areas of adventure, romance and the exotic had been substantially diluted by the time of the 1940 postage stamp centenary as has been shown.  It was not that stamps were no longer a symbol of these appeals, but rather than there were many other symbols that were becoming more potent at the same time that there was a marked decline in the need for such symbols as the world shrank though better communications.  Too, many more people had personal experience of ‘exotic, foreign and romantic’ locations through newsreels, picture magazines and personal travel.  The need for adventure, romance and the exotic were more and more transferred into the realm of the imagination.

By 1940, stamps were also definitely no longer a symbol of widespread missionary, religious or business activity.  The ratio of church membership climbed from 1916 to 1950 except for the middle of the depression when there was a sense of loss of social verities.


Church Membership (000) Total Population (000) Church Membership Percentage
1916 41,927 101,966 41.1%
1926 54,576 117,399 46.5
1936 55,807 128,053 43.6
1940 64,502 131,854 48.9
1950 86,330 151,234 57.1

Source: U.S. Government Historical Statistics

Despite the decline in the mid-1930s, ‘mission’ and ‘bank’ mixture were supplying a number of interesting stamps to collectors.  A Yale specialist in mission activity, Kenneth Latourette, termed the 19th century ‘the Great Century’ of mission activity for Christian missions.  However, during the last days of that century and during the 20th century, there was a widespread growing opposition to spiritual mission activities, which were seen as opening the way for exploiters and conquerors.  The Boxer rebellion in China is a good example of this reaction as was the growing anti-colonial sentiment in Africa, Asia and Latin America.  This resentment was beginning to be exploited by communists.

In 1933, a group of prominent American laymen published an important report, Rethinking Missions, following which there was growing support for indigenous churches and a focus upon educational and medical goals instead of conversion.  While the evangelical churches and the Mormons continued to send out missionaries, particularly to Latin America, these became more concerned with inter-Christian denomination conversions rather than in non-Christian conversions.  This shift of objectives set the stage for some of the 1980s conflicts between Catholics and Protestants in Central America, particularly in Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua.  The conflicts themselves led to local massacres in those countries, as different groups in each country had different religious backgrounds.

The shift to humanitarian religious activity was spelled out in Asia by Alice Hobart (1882-1967) in her 1933 book Oil for the Lamps of China, while Pearl S. Buck (1892-1973) published The Good Earth, depicting rural China including the impact of mission activity.  The result was an outpouring of pennies from American school children during the depression to help alleviate the massive Chinese famines and floods.

The systemization of knowledge about human activity that had resulted in creation of the ‘Kunst Kammers’ and the initial French philatelic efforts to create catalogs and definitions in the 1860s continued to play a significant role in stamp collecting during the ensuing years.  As noted earlier, there were new catalogs like the German Michel, and the French Yvert.  The latter began recognition of new philatelic areas such as its 1929Catalogue des Estampilles et Oblitérations Postales de France, one of the first stampless cover catalogs. Other regional or national catalogs were also instituted such as the Scandinavian Facit and the Swiss Zumstein.  At the same time, Scott introduced its first U.S. Specialized catalog in 1922, edited by Eugene Costales (1894-1984).

Catalogs for specialized collecting areas also sprang up.  Among these were the airmail cover catalog put out by A. V. Dworak (1879-1931) and the later 1930s airmail catalog put out by airmail dealer Nicholas Sanabria (1890-1945); it was still being published in the 1990s.

In the cover and cancellation field, the late ‘Pep’ Thorp revised the postal stationery studies of Bartels and published the 1943 Thorp-Bartels Catalog.  Eugene Klein published his United States Waterway Packet Marksin 1940, while Edward Stern of the Economist Stamp Company published a catalog in 1936 entitled History of Free Franks.  Manuel Hahn published a monograph on U.S. Postal Markings 1847-1851 in 1938 and a booklet on Waterbury fancy cancellations in 1940.  Delf Norona first published his Cyclopedia of postal markings in 1933 and 1935, following it with the first U.S. general Catalog of United States Postmarks in 1935.

Perhaps the most important publication in the postmark field during the 1930s was the journal Postal Markings, which began publication in October 1930 and ran on into World War II.  It covered the gamut of markings from ship cancels, R.F.D., and various killers to precancels, bureau prints and stampless covers.  Delf Norona first published his catalog findings in it, while Harry Konwiser began serializing the early version of theStampless Cover Catalog in its pages.  Selections from Adolph Gunesch’s precancel book were published, as were early articles by Louis K. Robbins in the August 1931 issue.  The Hoover Brothers work on precancels was also featured in the journal, with N. R. Hoover being the precancel auction manager for the journal.

Financing the American Century in Stamps

American stamp collectors were blessed in the 1930s and 1940s with higher percentages of disposable income than their foreign counterparts.  This was a little recognized but highly important fact that helped create the ‘American century’ of stamp collecting.  Not only did America have a rising middle class of better-paid professionals, it also had benefited from three merchandizing revolutions that did not occur elsewhere until much later.  These were: the development of chain stores, the introduction of self-service and the arrival of the supermarket.

The traditional origin of the chain store is attributed to the founding of the Great Atlantic & Pacific Tea Company in 1859, although one small company with strong philatelic associations had an earlier origin. That company is the Boston firm of S.S. Pierce.  It had capitalized upon the introduction of canned or ‘tinned’ goods in the 1830s.  Late in his campaigns, Napoleon realized the importance of food preservation to successful large-scale troop movements and offered a prize for the man who developed a successful preservation method.  That man was François Appert, brother of the French philanthropist Benjamin Appert (1797-1847).  François died in 1840, but left a work called Art de Conserver les Substances Animales et Végétables. It was the first work on canning and the process became particularly popular in America.  The Pierce firm was one of the first to offer a large selection of tinned goods.  Its correspondence is well known philatelically as it bought and sold goods on an international scale, particularly selling to embassies abroad.  However, the firm did not open its second store until the chain store revolution was well under way and it never grew with the other chains.

Mail order chains such as Spiegel began in 1865, with Montgomery Ward following in 1872, the same year that a second major U.S. grocery chain, Grand Union was founded.  The first variety chain, Woolworth, began in 1879, while the McCrory variety stores followed in 1882.  The third major mail order chain, Sears Roebuck, began in 1886, although none of the early mail order houses initiated retail store operations until the jazz era.  Both the A&P and the chain suppliers such as manufacturer Libby, McNeil began to use the mails at an early date to solicit business.  Figure 98 shows an illustrated A&P corner card cover with a Black Jack.  By 1877, Libby was using the new postcard medium introduced in 1873, to promote its products.  In some cases local retailers were banding together to put several ads on a single card as the beginning of mass-market advertising.  By the 1890s, the rising medium of magazines was being used by suppliers to tout their wares to consumers.  Figure 99 shows an early A&P trade card giving store addresses in the 1860s.

In 1894, the S. H. Kress variety chain opened its doors, the same year that Melville Shoes, the first shoe chain began.  By 1899, the Cunningham Drug chain was formed, as was the Child restaurant chain.  In 1901, the United Cigar Store chain, with its ever-present wooden Indians, began.  This chain later became the Whelan Drug operation.  In 1902, J. C. Penney began as a clothing chain and in 1906, both the W. T. Grant chain and the Walgreen Drug Company were founded.  The Liggett Drug chain first opened its doors in 1907, and the first auto supply chain, Western Auto, began in 1909 to supply the new automobile market.

What was going on was a departmentalization of the old general store or trading post combined with a centralized organization.  Cash and carry was also becoming a critical criterion.  Among the early pioneers was the Lowell, Massachusetts Public Market, which in the immediate post Civil War years began to precut meats prior to sale.  Another was Michael Uhler’s 1848 general store, which advertised,

“A word to farmers: Any quantity of produce for which the highest market price will be paid in cash or trade such as corn, oats, potatoes, dried apples, cherries, butter, lard, soap, etc.

The public nowadays buys goods where they can get them the cheapest and I am will aware of it and adhere to the motto, ‘A nimble sixpence before a slow shilling.’  I buy for cash and sell for cash, and I am determined not to be undersold by any establishment in town.”

In 1894, Frank Munsey, head of Munsey publications and owner of the New York Sun, opened his Mohican Market in New London, Ct.  It was quite different from the service counter grocery stores of the era in that it had a wide variety of goods, departmentalized and price-marked, provided some self-service and free delivery, although stressing the cash and carry aspect. Its advertising was of the sensational variety; however, it did not prosper for another third of a century as one-stop shopping was not yet appreciated.

The number of chain stores was relatively small prior to World War I with the best estimates suggesting about 5,000 units in 1910.  The count rose to somewhat over 10,000 stores by 1920, a minute percent of the retail store population.  However, between 1920 and 1925, the 27 largest chains opened some 16,000 new stores, contributing to the ebullience of the jazz era.  By the time of the first retail Census in 1929, the store count of the leading chains had reached 37,600.  The counts then began to drop as larger volume units replace a number of smaller ones.  This was due to the increase use of the automobile and widespread ‘anti-chain’ legislation imposing taxes upon the operations.  Some 366 tax bills were introduced between 1925 and 1932, most of which never passed or were declared unconstitutional.  By 1940, there were only about 18,000 chain stores, with this total dropping to 19,000 by 1950.  The drops were almost exclusively in grocery store numbers.

Chain stores were an insignificant percent of the total retail store population (9.8% in 1929 and 6.5% at the close of the depression).  However, they accounted for about a fifth or more of total dollar retail sales, and played an even larger role in American society.  Inasmuch as food is one of the major basic consumer expenditures, a reduction in the share of average monthly income spent on food for urban families meant more money to spend elsewhere, including the stamp hobby.



Urban Family Consumption Expenditures


Money Income Food Food Percentage
1874-5 $763 $427 56.0%
1888-91 573 219 30.0
1901 651 166 41.0
1917-9 1,505 549 36.0
1934-6` 1,518 508 33.0
1950 3,923 3,205 30.7


Source: Historic Statistics of the United States

These American figures compare with the 60% or better spent upon food abroad even as late as the post World War II era.  William Applebaum, former research director of Kroger and lecturer at Harvard Business School, estimated that in 1956 there were about 10,000 self-service food stores outside the U.S. and Canada, of which 7,302 were in Europe. About half of these were operated by consumer cooperatives.  He noted there were practically none prior to 1947!

There were two basic advantages chain stores had over other stores.  The first was that they could spread their advertising costs over large numbers of units or large dollar sales volume.  By the turn of the century, newspaper advertising was commonplace and newspapers began to rely very heavily upon the chain advertising to survive and prosper. By 1927, retail food advertising began on a large scale and usually featured several loss-leader specials.  By 1930, art work had been incorporated into the advertisements and advertising and used to design layouts.  Figure 100 shows a typical food ad of 1910 while figure 101 shows the new approach in 1925 by the same food chain.  To meet the chain store retail competition, independent grocers began to organize themselves into independent grocery alliances beginning in 1926.  These changes were not operative overseas and contributed to the growing discretionary income disparity in American with its consequent impact upon the American century of stamp collecting.

Clarence Saunders (8/9/81-10/14/53), figure 102, inaugurated a second major retail revolution. Born in Virginia, Saunders left school at 14 to clerk in a general store.  He then became a traveling ‘drummer’ for a wholesale grocer in 1900 and in 1904 a city salesman for a wholesaler.  Through his experiences he became convinced that many small grocers failed because of heavy credit losses and high overhead.  Consequently in 1915 he organized the Saunders-Blackburn Co., which sold for cash only and encouraged its retail customers to do the same.

In 1916, Saunders launched the self-service revolution in America by opening the first self-service Piggly Wiggly store with its characteristic turnstile at the entrance, figure 103. Customers paid cash and selected their own goods from the shelves.  He built the revolutionary self-service idea into a chain of 2,660 stores doing over $180-million annually, but in early 1923, ‘bear’ interests on Wall Street tried to hammer down the price of Piggly Wiggly stock.  It is alleged, Saunders took a train to New York with one million dollars in cash in a small bag and bought and bought Piggly Wiggly stock until he had orders for 196,000 of the 200,000 outstanding shares.  Pressured by the ‘bears’ the New York Stock Exchange declared a ‘corner’ existed, and gave the ‘bears’ five days rather than 24 hours to deliver the stock Saunders had bought. Saunders’ bank and his friends were pressured and the price was driven back down; Saunders was forced into bankruptcy having to sell his stock at a loss.  In a move reminiscent of that of J. Walter Scott’s in 1889, he went on to create the ‘Clarence Saunders sole-owner-of-my-name’ chain, which was also then forced into bankruptcy. Saunders went on to attempt mechanized selling with his ‘Keedoozle’ stores in 1945 and a ‘Foodelectric’ store in 1953, just months prior to his death.  However, he never again gained a significant place in the industry.

Saunders inaugurated self-service in the same year that H. E. Harris (1902-1977) created his major mail order and approval stamp company.  Harris developed the packet trade in 1933 for use in retail chain outlets such as variety stores and also made the coup of using stamps as premiums.  Both were retailing revolutionaries.

The concept of self-service was more than just a new method of retail distribution.  It also had significant political implications.  With self-service, both the retailer and manufacturer or goods-supplier had to consider why and how consumers bought.  It required an understanding of consumer desires such as might be obtained through focus groups or polls and reorients goods production away from what is easier to create to what is easiest to sell.  It is antithetical, if not directly hostile, to centralized decisions such as practiced in a number of socialist countries.

Although there were difficulties in concept, there were no major practical problems in introducing self-service into the dry grocery section of American food stores.  There were problems with perishables.  Brooklyn, N.Y. was the site of the first centrally cut and packaged mean in 1927 when H. C. Bohack introduced it, figure 104.  Indeed, shrink-wrapping was still considered revolutionary over a quarter century later in the record industry. Further, the Bohack idea did not generate a full self-service meat department.  The first installation of such a self service meat case had to wait until 1939 when A&P introduced one into its Uniontown, Pa. store, figure 105. Even the ubiquitous basket cart was not introduced until 1936, although provisional arrangements were made earlier by putting baskets or cartons on a moving trolley. Even in this century, self-service has not penetrated all types of retailing; it is most prevalent in the food and drug fields.

The third, possibly final, revolution was the introduction of the supermarket. The name itself appears to come from Hollywood, for the movie moguls used the ‘super’, ‘colossal’, ‘stupendous’ designation in describing their products and the openings by which they introduced them. As there were a number of Western operations of the supermarket type that did not use the word, such as Ralph’s and Von’s, T. A. Von der Ahe of Von’s stated he did not consider a supermarket strictly a large size grocery or one in excess of a given volume, but rather one that introduced a new style of merchandising on,

“the theory of ‘Pile it High and Sell it Cheap’ plus the elimination of service and introducing self-service techniques.”

Mr. Von der Ahe added the term supermarket was most generally applied tin the late 1920s to those markets using the new selling procedures and featuring ‘hot’ ads with loss leaders, figure 107.  M. M. Zimmerman, author of The Supermarket states that all evidence indicates that the first use of the word in a corporate name or title was in November 1933, when the Albers Super Markets opened.  North Jersey and southern California were the hot beds of this new type of merchandising which quickly swept the food retail field.  Profits per dollar of sales were pushed down to 1-2% of sales and sometimes even lower so that scrap fat alone was sold for more than one supermarket chain’s net profit.

The combination of these three retail revolutions, with their concentration in the food field meant that America’s food bills were considerably lower than anywhere else in the world and that consumers had a larger proportion of their disposable dollar to apply to other things such as recreation and stamp collecting.  When combined with the rising professional and middle class with increased incomes, these causes created the American century in stamps.  Abroad, only the wealthy had similar disposable incomes that could be devoted to stamp collecting.  Here, the wealthy, the professionals and even parts of the mass middle class could do so. This disparity between American income and that elsewhere in the world was the true cause of the American century in stamps.

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