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Nostalgia Attack – Of Stamps and Post Offices

I was putting away the Christmas things when my gaze fell upon an envelope which still had a stamp. They, like greeting cards have become rather rare which is of course much better for trees, emissions and the like, and also much faster, but I was on the point of putting it into the recycling bin when I remembered how Dad and his father before him, had so carefully removed each and every stamp for their precious collections. Even my children did a bit of stamp collecting in our pre -TV and Internet days, though none were as passionate about it as my Dad.

When everything came by mail and travel to exotic places depicted in stamps was also rare, those small squares of brightly coloured paper gave glimpses of a colourful and fascinating world beyond, memories of distant friends and the hope that one day in the distant future, those stamps might yield a small return.

People queued for hours in anticipation of a new issue so that they could get those prized First Day Covers. These sometimes became very valuable and anyone with an interest in stamps, made sure that all letters were carefully hand -stamped so that important details weren’t lost under blobs of automatically applied ink. For them the Post Office published a regular Stamp Bulletin advising of new issues. 

I was pleased to discover that this still exists and is still free, though these days it’s digital and much smaller in scale. See the first one for this year here. Royal Watchers and Philatelists - people who collect stamps, will no doubt have picked up their First Day Covers commemorating the Coronation of King Charles or the new set of Definitive Stamps - the basic everyday stamps which used to bear Queen Elizabeth's portrait, and were issued in April last year. Perhaps they've even acquired Australia Post's King Charles' Birthday commemorative stamp issued on November 1, 2023.

A new issue

You can probably guess how old this one is by the price of postage

In the 60s Dad worked in the Art Department at what was then the Post Master General’s Office and may well have designed some of those self - same stamps. Not long after, in my first real job at a large insurance company, the first task in the morning was opening the mail - something in which the whole office took part. We too removed every stamp with utmost care and scrutinised it for possible misprints or rarity. Great was the excitement when someone found one. These were even more valuable than First Day Covers. I don’t know what happened to those – perhaps the proceeds were used for the office Christmas party, but I do know that the rest were bundled up for a charity that benefited the Pacific Islands. It in turn repackaged them and sold them to collectors.

Some small nations such as Liberia produced particularly beautiful stamps and relied almost entirely on revenue from stamp sales for foreign exchange. Who would have heard of Liberia had it not been for those stamps? With colour printing still in its infancy, Australia was notable for its colourful special edition stamps. They look a bit faded now. I'm not sure if it's because - like the early colour photographs, their colours weren't as fast or because we are now so saturated with colour, they no longer look as impressive.  Germany and Belgium were among countries which issued especially lovely and slightly more expensive stamps at Christmas so that the extra money could go to charities. Commemorative stamps were also interesting, because they highlighted important issues, people or events.

First Day Cover from 1992 - It's a bit messy because it's from one of my sons' childhood collections, as are the stamps below

Christmas cards, letters and stamps are among the many things which have largely disappeared from our lives in a very short time. While it’s true that I have been active in their demise. I now send cards only to those who can’t be contacted otherwise or for whom cards still hold precious memories, because it means fewer trees must fall, but handwritten greetings reflect a different and more leisurely time. Gone are the days when I used to pay all the bills with handwritten cheques and got handwritten receipts in the mail. Multiply that by the entire population and it's little wonder that letter delivery in Australia has fallen by 3 billion items a year since their peak in 2008. Now Post Offices themselves have become an endangered species. Deliveries are less frequent and mail is reserved for important documents. 

Not everyone is happy about this of course. Some distrust or are unable the use electronic banking or social media and 900,000 Australian families still don't have the internet. For them and the benefit of many of our Post Offices in Australia, making them bank branches as well has been a great boon, which means that at least some Post Offices can continue to provide a public service as well as remain financially viable. Many of the remaining post offices have been integrated with newsagencies or other businesses and have become something of a community hub for public notices and the like. Thanks to online shopping, parcel deliveries have also taken up some of the slack, but many fine old Post Offices have ended up looking more like the one below.  

The passing of an era? Alas, this is the fate of many a former Post Office. If you saw it you would notice that the small shops around it have also closed down

The USA  and no doubt many other countries are currently facing the same dilemma, yet those who think that Postal Services should be turning a profit are missing the point. Do parks need to make a profit? No, because everyone recognises the amenity they provide and they may even enhance property values nearby, without generating one cent in revenue. Public Services should not be judged on their cost, but on the benefits they yield. Just as Public Transport greases the wheels of commerce by bringing people in out of the cities, and whose unit costs fall, the more people use it, Postal Services also enable other forms of commerce to thrive. 

I am thinking here of how cheap postal rates allowed a great variety of small rural enterprises to flourish all over the USA, such as the ‘diaper cakes’ a friend’s wife used to make [A Diaper Cake for Aussie readers and others, is what you might have at what we call a Baby Shower for a girlfriend’s baby] or the heart -shaped rag rugs I used to sell in my shop. The margins in such businesses are most likely so small that any increase in mailing costs would probably finish them off, yet they add to their local economies in various ways. The Postal Service itself also employs a lot of people whose wages contribute in small ways and large. They have children. They buy homes and furnishings, groceries, clothes and shoes, and perhaps even go to church. They also pay taxes.

While I am quite happy to be doing business electronically, and if there is less mail, then fewer deliveries are OK by me too, it makes me sad to see the passing of a once great institution - 500 hundred years in the making, and which seemed such a solid and permanent fixture to us and previous generations. I also mourn the loss of some of the stories and traditions around the Postal Service, but we'll leave those for another day and don't get me started on the evils of privatisation!

This Post office in South Hobart still hand stamps

As far as Philately goes, interest may have waned somewhat since it's heyday in the 1950s and 1960s when there were around 20 million collectors in the USA alone, but it still has its aficionados and Stamp Week continues to be held in the last week in November each year, as it has been since 1934. There has also been a bit of a resurgence during the pandemic and among Millennials who love the retro vibe of stamps.

So what do I do? Do I save this stamp for the new wave or put it in with the recycling? Now you know why it takes me so long to finish anything.