By Eva Prabhakar
At the juncture of history, art and culture is… a stamp. More precisely, a postage stamp. It’s quite possibly the tiniest point of convergence of substantial ideas; its adhesive holding together our collective conscious. Every once in a while, in the midst of our electronic highways, we come across this keeper of untarnished history. When commemorative stamps were announced for the platinum wedding anniversary of Britain’s Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip, I wondered, “Who’s using stamps today?”As children, my cousin (in Canada) and I (in the UAE) became the very best kind of pen pals. Every month, we’d exchange letters along with stickers, photographs, and carefully selected postage stamps. She’d get a little of the desert at her snowy end of the world, and I’d come to expect brilliant French architecture and landscapes with horses (her obsession at the time). The stamps changed with our moods and interests. While our letters gave us the chance to connect as a family, it was the stamps that provided context as we were being raised in such different environments. Without ever stepping foot in Dubai, she knew that the clock tower in Deira was important, the falcon revered, and about the concept of wind towers.
Apart from our simple pictorial conversation (in stamps, then, and on social media, now), powerful communications have taken place at the international level with how countries choose to represent themselves. While Switzerland uses ‘Helvetia’ as its name to avoid any miscommunication due to language, Great Britain doesn’t use any name (postage stamps originated in Britain without a country name, and in agreement with post masters around the world, the tradition has continued).
Besides marking events, places, and people of historical importance, stamps have evolved with significant cultural moments. One of the best-selling stamps has been the 1993 Elvis. Harry Potter, Mickey Mouse, and The Simpsons have also featured in the world of stamps. We’ve come to expect that if something is important enough, it’ll “go viral” and we’ll definitely hear about it. But, the imperative here is: is it really significant?
Stamps, on the other hand, lend a sense of poignancy if something truly significant takes place. They make for great cultural commentary, and they do it in the way the country actually sees itself. There is no ambiguity about what’s important to the population. As such, any philatelist (person who studies stamps) will tell you that stamps hold the illustrated stories of a shared history and culture.
In response to my question, the Internet has only enhanced the value of stamps. We may not be writing as many letters or sending hard copies for official work, but stamp collectors around the world are definitely using the Internet to acquire those elusive stamps that will complete their collections. They’re learning about the origin and lineage of stamps they’ve wondered about for years.
Digital archives of stamps have become a sight for sore eyes and brilliant miniature art galleries. Today, we can browse these galleries by subjects as varied as birds from every country, portraits of a royal family, and even Warholesque hues of the same stamp. What began with monetary value as the payment for postage has today truly transformed into valuable art in and of itself.
Besides being a piece of history and an art form, the value of stamps is twofold. On the one hand, paying for a stamp in money and time makes us pause. It must be important if it isn’t part of our instant communication mediums — messages gone as quickly as they’re created. It must be significant if it needs to be in tangible form — from the drive to the post office to signing for a message in person. Wedding cards in the mail with RSVP envelopes add this heartfelt touch in the middle of not-completely-formed thoughts via, say, WhatsApp. University acceptance letters that come in hard envelopes with confetti to celebrate a new phase of life have a completely different vibe than an email from the admissions office.
On the other hand, old-school communication that requires a postage stamp entails a pause of a different kind, too — an emotional one. Whether the news being shared is happy, angry or even distressing, the words seem to carry a weight much heavier than shooting off an instant text. We have to actually slow down. We have to think about the right words. In the fast lane, it’s the stamp that delivers history in the making — whether it’s a personal one or one that shapes the course of our world.
Eva is a bibliophile on a mission to promote the pause… before hitting send