Inside the Spellman Museum, the world’s first stamp is on display, an 1840 1-cent stamp with the image of Queen Victoria. Also on display is the first American stamp, an 1847 5-cent image of Benjamin Franklin.
Many people pay attention to stamps only when the postage cost increases.
That’s too bad, according to stamp lovers, who say these tiny graphic designs chronicle what’s important: individuals, history, the arts, nature, science, sport, even abstractions like love.
“We take them for granted, but they’re miniature works of art and give people a glimpse into the past and the present,” said George Norton, curator of the Spellman Museum of Stamps and Postal History at Regis College in Weston, Mass.
There’s no better proof of that than the museum, which has rotating stamp displays about love, snow sports, the 150th anniversary of the Civil War and even owls, inspired by the release of the final “Harry Potter” film.
“There is virtually no topic or theme that I can’t create an exhibit around,” Norton said. “Name your interest, and we can show you stamps.”
What’s in a stamp?
The wide range of interests is one reason why the old-fashioned pleasure of stamp collecting has not gone the way of the Pony Express. While stamp collecting is not as popular as it was, an estimated 22 million people collect U.S. stamps as a hobby and/or investment, according to the Postal Service.
President Dwight Eisenhower collected, and his stamps are part of the Spellman collection. An estimated 200 million people worldwide collect stamps. And there’s plenty to collect. About 7,000 new stamps are released each year from around the world, Norton said.
Getting your face on a stamp affirms that you are a national treasure. In the Postal Service 2012 Stamp Program, baseball star Ted Williams, film director John Huston, dancer Isadora Duncan and poet E.E. Cummings are all honored. So, too, are significant moments in American history. Two of the prettiest stamps are the Cherry Blossom Festival Centennial and the Love stamp, a yearly release since 1973. Other 2012 issues recognize a cause, such as heart health, or an art, such as bonsai.
Things to see at Spellman
Inside the Spellman Museum, the world’s first stamp is on display, an 1840 1-cent stamp with the image of Queen Victoria. Also on display is the first American stamp, an 1847 5-cent image of Benjamin Franklin. The Civil War exhibit features stamps created by the Confederacy, as well as letters from soldiers. The Love by Design exhibit showcases 39 years of Love stamps, as well as letters from John and Abigail Adams and stamps with their images.
These stamps come from the extensive collection of Francis Cardinal Spellman, who created the museum in 1963. Spellman, who became the archbishop of New York, called stamps “miniature documents of human history.” The Spellman Museum and the National Postal Museum of the Smithsonian Institution are the only two in the country solely devoted to stamps and postal history.
Fun for the family
Compared with video and computer games and all the activities available to kids today, stamps can be a hard sell. That’s why the museum has beefed up its outreach to families, such as the upcoming events on Medieval knights and U.S. presidents.
And on any day, kids can rummage through boxes that contain a huge variety of stamps about animals, athletes, space, Disney characters and other topics of interest. They can select as many as they want, for 2 cents each, to use for art projects in the activity room or to collect. As kids go through the exhibits, scavenger hunts help them focus their attention.
“A lot of young people come here thinking, ‘This is boring. Do we have to be here?’” Norton said. “But then they get their hands on the stamps, and they get engaged.”
Museum exhibits and displays
About 6,000 people visited last year, and the museum is a site for birthday parties, Scout meetings and visits from stamp clubs. History buffs will be interested in mail transport displays about the Pony Express, Concord Coach, Dog Teams and Rural Free Delivery.
There’s an unusual collection of children’s games with postal themes, including an 1893 game with a board that shows all the U.S. rail routes that carried mail. One curiosity is a linen dress affixed with 7,000 stamps from 400 countries.
In the museum store, people can buy stamps valued from 5 cents to $500, peruse stamps by theme and purchase stamp-collecting supplies. A large philatelic library holds more than 15,000 items.
Norton has dozens of ideas for future exhibits, such as one that takes advantages of the museum’s 1,000-plus stamps related to the telephone. From Alexander Graham Bell’s first phone to today’s cellphones, they’re a history of technological advance.
“I was talking to someone who had never seen a rotary phone,” Norton said. “I thought, I should make an exhibit.”
Jody Feinberg may be reached at email@example.com.