Stamps and Civics

Once upon a time, stamps were miniature civics lessons, especially for collectors

Lots of people bemoan the demise of civics. They argue that recovering civics might be a first step in recovering civility, a friendlier if not shared political discourse versus our contemporary polarization.

There have even been government efforts — state and federal — to introduce mandatory civics education. Some critics have warned against this, noting that civics — like U.S. history — has changed. Instead of a supportive view of the American system of government (like a generally pro-American take on American history), contemporary civics has acquired a “critical” view, celebrating “dissent” and focusing more on “political organization” (i.e., marching for liberal causes) than education. Those critics warn: it ain’t your father’s civics!

I’d like to suggest, however, that there’s another place where we have forfeited civics education: the U.S. postage stamp.

Once upon a time, stamps were miniature civics lessons. They were for me, as a kid who collected stamps. I suspect they also were for other Americans, even for those whose relationships to stamps were more utilitarian — paying for postage.

Back then, getting your face on a stamp meant you were important. Some of those faces were well-known: a president, for example. Others were less known. My teachers knew who “Thoreau” was, though as a kid I didn’t. I’m guessing even they didn’t know who Alberto Giannini was, or why he was put on an international airmail stamp. (He founded the Bank of America and the Bank of Italy and was an American with international significance that also honored Italian-American contributions.)

Sometimes the Post Office kindly gave a hint to what might not otherwise be a household name, e.g., “Eugene O’Neill, Playwright” or “George Marshall, Statesman.” Sometimes they celebrated institutions you might not have heard of, e.g., the National Grange. And they often enriched your vocabulary. Thanks to the “Indiana Sesquicentennial,” I learned what a 150th anniversary is called.

Take a look at U.S. stamps in recent years. I’d argue they’ve gone downhill.

First, the civics is downplayed. Instead of celebrating what is important in American history, contemporary stamps are now targeted to match consumer whim. Sending a Valentine’s card? You need a “Love” stamp! Birthday card? A “Happy Birthday” stamp! Want to celebrate your ethnicity? Pick from the piñata or mariachi collection. “Holiday” stamps? Once upon a time, there were two variants: the Christmas religious stamp (some piece of Nativity art, usually in some American museum) and the Christmas secular stamp (Santa, Rudolph, or a Christmas ornament). Today, it’s holiday-coordinated: Christmas, Hanukkah, Diwali, Chinese Lunar New Year, Eid, Kwanzaa. Now, I’m not necessarily criticizing marking many different holidays, though I note that only one of them also happens to be a federal holiday (albeit the one whose name is increasingly rarely spoken).

Second, history is downplayed in favor of popular culture. American stamps now feature cartoon characters. Last year it was Buzz Lightyear. The year before it was Peanuts. (Okay, maybe Charlie Brown is an American icon, but does Marcie really merit a U.S. postage stamp?) And did we really need stamp series on coffee, popsicles, and snow globes? Is this America today? (And, if it is, what does that say about contemporary America?)

Third, history is subordinated to contemporaneity. Of the 28 issues in 2023, only five honor individuals: John Lewis, Tomie de Paola, Ernest Gaines, Toni Morrison, and Chief Standing Bear. Most of them died recently. The only one whose historical contribution predates our era is Chief Standing Bear. That is skewed history.

Fourth, what’s not mentioned is as important as what is. Consider events from 1973 that might be worthy of remembering on their 50th anniversary but weren’t: the Paris Peace Treaty that ended American participation in the Vietnam War; the dedication of the World Trade Center, a fitting memorial to that iconic site; the launch of Pioneer 11; the launch of Skylab, the first American space station; Education of the Handicapped Act, the first law providing a federal mandate to educate handicapped students; Gerald Ford becomes the first unelected Vice President under the 25th Amendment. This year is the 50th anniversary of the deaths of Lyndon Johnson, Pearl Buck, and Jeanette Rankin (first woman elected to Congress).

We could go back to 1923 and what marks its centennial: the inauguration of Calvin Coolidge (by his father, by kerosene lamp); the first issue of Time magazine; the opening of Yankee Stadium; the establishment of the famous HOLLYWOOD sign; the births of Paddy Chayevsky, Chuck Yeager, Hershel Williams (the last Medal of Honor recipient from World War II — Iwo Jima — to die), Charlton Heston, Jim Reeves, George Patton, and Alan Shepherd. As of now, the one 1923 baby honored in stamps is pop artist Roy Lichtenstein.

We can complain about American civics amnesia and historical ignorance, but one of the key vehicles that used to teach both — U.S. stamps — has largely been stopped. It seems the one sop to that function is keeping in circulation some depiction of a U.S. flag.

 

John M. Grondelski (Ph.D., Fordham) was former associate dean of the School of Theology, Seton Hall University, South Orange, New Jersey. All views expressed herein are exclusively his.

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