Stamps That Gave the Nation Hope

Posted June 12, 2009 at 4:19pm

“I owe my life to my hobbies — especially stamp collecting.—

These words, spoken by Franklin Delano Roosevelt, may at first seem to belie the scale of our 32nd president’s accomplishments. But a new exhibition at the National Postal Museum reveals how stamp collecting was, for FDR, not so much a diversion as a means of stylizing the spirit of the times.

“Delivering Hope: FDR & Stamps of the Great Depression— details FDR’s deep personal involvement in approving the design of new stamps as a way to anchor himself in a time of tremendous uncertainty.

Cheryl Ganz, chief curator of philately, points to the deep symbolic importance of a photo in which Roosevelt can be seen diligently organizing his collection of stamps from around the globe, an activity to which he devoted half an hour daily.

“He is putting the world in order in a time of total chaos,— she said.

The first stamp approved by Roosevelt and Postmaster General James Farley in 1933 depicts George Washington signing the treaty that ended the American Revolution, and Ganz said this is no coincidence.

“This continent was in chaos. We were at war, and along comes a strong personality to restore order and sign a peace treaty,— she said. “The symbolism is so strong here.—

The exhibition features a selection of FDR’s stamp-collecting paraphernalia, on loan from the FDR library and museum in Hyde Park, N.Y., including his magnifying glass and an album presented to him by the USSR, complete with images of Soviet buildings and warplanes.

But the most interesting parts of the exhibition are the sheets of stamps whose imagery sends pointed messages to the American people. For example, there are several sheets bearing images of New Deal projects, such as freshly opened national parks.

“This symbolizes that he was putting people back to work, plus the natural beauty of America,— Ganz said.

Similarly, the exhibition displays stamps commemorating the world’s fairs in which America was able to showcase its industrial might.

FDR’s stamp fixation was also a source of scandal. Farley, a longtime friend who had served as FDR’s campaign manager, would buy the first sheets of new stamps — made more valuable because they were not gummed or perforated — sign them and give them to friends and family members. Critics cried foul, accusing him of patronage and nepotism.

Farley survived the accusations, and Ganz described the nongummed, nonperforated sheets affixed with Farley and FDR’s signatures, now on display at the Postal Museum, as “a great rarity.—

“Almost no stamp collectors have ever seen the original sheets,— she said. “I believe stamp collectors will fly in from all over the country to see these stamps.—

Also on display are six stamps that FDR personally designed. In one instance, he was presented with three different designs for a stamp celebrating the Antarctic explorer Adm. Richard Evelyn Byrd. Roosevelt promptly rejected all three and sketched from memory a map with dotted lines marking the routes that Byrd took in a lifetime of charting the unknown.

Much has changed since FDR’s stamp-collecting days, when people had little means of communicating with each other beyond buying a 3-cent stamp and mailing a letter. Ganz said mass production has made modern stamps less ornate and personalized, though there is a greater breadth of subject matter.

Still, Ganz said visual representation — as in the case of stamps intended to remind Depression-era Americans of the country’s resilience — still plays a role in our lives. She noted the Obama campaign’s use of strong colors paired with a simple slogan of hope.

“While we may not see as many stamps coming into our postal box, the graphics in our life — whether on the Internet or on television — tremendous care goes into designing these so that they continue to connect to our life,— she said.