Stamp Essay

My father was born in 1909, the son of a South Dakota ditch-digger. Somehow he made it to college and ironically enough his first job after graduating was constructing the sewage system in a CCC camp somewhere in Wyoming. He taught math and shop, got trained as a machinist and ended up making prototypes for Lockheed in Los Angeles during the second world war. He rode a big Indian motorcycle and almost lost a leg in an accident, after which he moved to Oregon, got a Masters and went back to teaching. He was active in the teachers union and didn’t stay in one district very long, for some reason. In 1954 he became a parole and probation officer for the state of Oregon. His district comprised the north-eastern quarter of the state so he was really isolated from his boss and got to spend his time hanging out with rural guys who were mainly in trouble for non-support or game violations. He kept a couple of cows on five acres outside of town, hunted, built a cabin in the woods (he fell off and broke his back when I was in high-school) did a lot of woodworking, and aged unapologetically. I don’t know whether he got senile first, or if it was the strokes that left him unable to talk and depressed, but by the early 90’s he was in bad shape and he died in 1996.

Somewhere in the mix he collected stamps for a couple of decades. I never really talked to him about it, but he must have started while he was in California in the late 40’s and faded out during the late 60’s. At one point he managed a round-robin approval club. For some obscure reason he collected Hungarian stamps. He had a big US album that was primarily used stamps, and a couple more that were primarily mint. He had a big foreign album and separate albums for Hungary and Germany. His style was to soak off stamps from all of the mail that came his way and he evidently traded for lots of things with the guys in that approval club. His used albums look disorganized and messy. He inserted extra pages for stamps that weren’t included on the pre-printed pages and when he got too many pages for a particular country he would pull them out and set them up as a separate album. (He taught drafting and the lettering on those extra pages is right out of world war II.) He mounted lots of stamps in the margins because they weren’t listed on the pre-printed pages, and he left lots of loose stamps tipped in under the hinges. He generally indicated the catalogue number in pencil either under the stamp or on its reverse side. His big US and international albums are more like an inventory than showpieces – but in his Hungarian album it is obvious that he took a lot of trouble with the presentation. When the approval club wound down he ended up with all of the residual approval pages – and he had lots and lots of duplicates of his own. He stored the duplicates in envelopes (many in little church donation envelopes!) and pouches home-made from cellophane taped to 3X5 index cards. He also had various shoeboxes and even a paper bag with over a thousand 1938 3C Jeffersons inexplicably labeled "do not open before 1992".

During the later part of this time my Mom had a Canadian album, a UN album, and made a habit of buying a sheet of each commemorative as it came out. Her style was to buy mint sets but to leave stuff in the envelopes rather than mounting it. She also had a topical scouting collection, mainly purchased from dealers, part of which was carefully mounted and part of which was not. I don’t remember ever seeing it as a kid, but the album was set up to look as if it was mine. (I remember that my older brother had set of some kind of stamps framed and hung on the wall, probably done for a boy scout merit badge. My Mom must have expected me to follow suit.)

After my Dad died my Mom stayed in their house for several years but she got less and less able to care for herself and a few years ago she moved to the Alzheimer’s unit of an assisted living facility and we cleaned out the house. I agreed to take the stamps and see if I couldn’t figure out how to sell them. The advice I got from the friends I consulted was that the first step was to catalogue the collection, so I set out to identify and list all of my fathers’ stamps.

It helped that I was unemployed at the time because it was a much bigger job that I imagined. First I had to organize stamps by country since in the intervening years the shoeboxes and envelopes had gotten scrambled. I sorted out the US stamps and got a software program called "StampKeeper" (a Microsoft FoxPro application from CompuQuote with a database of US stamps and catalogue values) so that all I had to do was figure out how many of each type of stamp I had. I bought a six-volume 1996 Scott catalogue in a Friends of the Seattle Public Library discard sale to replace the two volume 1953 and 1955 Scott catalogues I found in my fathers’ stuff.

I quickly decided that I wasn’t going to worry about mounting anything because the effort to make the albums pretty was too much to even consider. (There were a lot of crystal stamp protectors in one of the shoeboxes, so when I found single stamps that weren’t in the album I put them in using a mount rather than a hinge.) If I only had one duplicate of a stamp I decided to tip it into the album. If I had more than one duplicate I put it in a zip-lock bag (eschewing those homemade pouches with fifty-year old tape) and I bundled the bags together in batches of ten or fifteen. I experimented with several ways to bundle the bags and settled on two-prong paper fasteners and 3X5 index cards. I bought a two-hole punch and punched the top margin of the zip-locks so that they still zipped properly but I got a nice secure bundle that lays flat. I started numbering the batches of bags as ZL-1, ZL-2, etc. and discovered that StampKeeper couldn’t sort on numbers with hyphens or spaces in them. For subsequent albums I put a prefix or suffix on the ZL and tried to do without hyphens and spaces. I also decided that I couldn’t necessarily take my fathers’ word for the Scott number of a given stamp since his numbering was not always the same as in the 1996 catalogue.

My first challenge with the US collection was the early American Washingtons and Franklins. I figured out how to identify the differences in scrollwork and detail and I figured out how to use a perforation gauge, but I decided that I didn’t want to learn how to distinguish by watermarks. If I couldn’t tell which of two stamps I was looking at I assumed it was the one with the lower value. I also decided that I wasn’t qualified to rate a stamp "very fine", as opposed to "fine." I listed anything without a postmark as "Mint" and anything cancelled as "Used." Most of the older mint singles don’t have any gum and almost all of them have been hinged. (Pretty much everything in the albums is on hinges.) I tried to comment on everything that struck me as significant about a stamp – usually indicating if there were any blocks included, if there was anything about the stamp that differed from the catalogue description, or the distinguishing features if it was an overprint or somehow related to an earlier issue.

The mint sheets were in page protectors and I left them that way. The annual mint sets were in USPS envelopes and I left them that way. There was a fair quantity of postal ephemera (duck stamps on hunting licenses, first day covers, old post cards, postal letters, cut squares, etc.) which I organized as best I could either in zip-lock bags or manila envelopes. I didn’t remove anything from the paper it was on, so the bag of stuff that my father didn’t get around to soaking off is still on paper.

The Canadian and UN collections were smaller and easier than the US collection. Those albums were my Mom’s and are somewhat prettier than my Dad’s, too. I bought the CompuQuote databases for those sets as well, and numbered the zip-lock bags separately. I left the mint sets in the original envelopes from the respective postal agencies. By this time I had returned to work and I realized that I had about 600 hours and about $300 into the project. I didn’t do much more with it for almost a year and then decided that I needed to finish it up.

The international stamps were in a big album and a huge scrambled pile. There was also a second album that was almost entirely empty and a couple-dozen approval sheets from the early 50s. Idismantled the second album and the approval pages and organized everything by country. I spent another couple hundred dollars and bought the CompuQuote databases for Great Britain and Germany and some more zip-lock bags. I entered the British stamps and then added the British colonies in the same file. For this reason the catalogue numbers I’ve recorded for Australia start with "AU", for New Zealand with "NZ", etc. There were a lot of stamps from the British Commonwealth. There were also a lot of German stamps – including quite a few from East Germany. I decided not to buy the CompuQuote database for East Germany and entered them in the German file as I had done with the British colonies.

CompuQuote also makes a program called "StampWorld" that gives you a blank database for topical collections and for countries where they don’t sell the catalogue information. I bought that program and entered my Mothers’ "Scouts on Stamps" album. (I stuck her unmounted Scouting stamps onto the blank pages in the album using old crystal mounts, so the back part of the album looks pretty ugly.) My next step was to catalogue the Hungarian album and the loose Hungarian stamps. Then I worked through the rest of the countries one by one. For whatever reason there are a lot of Eastern European stamps – especially Austria, Czechoslovakia, Poland and Romania. There are a lot of stamps from the European colonial powers (France, Italy, and Netherlands) and some from their colonies. There are fairly large batches from Norway, Denmark, Finland, Sweden and Switzerland and quite a few Chinese stamps. Then there are small collections from lots of Latin American and European states. I figured I was up to 1,000 hours by the time I got the international stamps organized and listed. I stored the albums and the bundles of zip-lock bags in flat clear plastic boxes (like you’d store sweaters in) in a cold closet. I ended up with twelve boxes.

Once I had everything in the data base (except for a handful of weird stamps that I chased for months afterwards, most of which ended up labled "not in Scott") I needed a way to pull seven files together to print a complete list of the collection. I started to buy FoxPro with the idea of merging the files into a single database, but then decided that it would be cooler to port it to a SQL database available over the web instead of printing reports or mailing CDs. Since my son, Will, had a webserver running under Linux the obvious course was to install MySQL and convert the proprietary CompuQuote stuff to a SQL format. I agreed to let him have the better computer if he would get MySQL up and I bought him a copy of WebObjects in exchange for a promise to use it to make the web front end for the stamp database.

The US, US plate block, Canada, Great Britain and German files were relatively easy to convert to SQL since StampKeeper produced an inventory report that showed the comments and allowed a "print-to-file" option. I imported those inventory reports into Excel and then used a utility to turn the Excel files into SQL tables. There was a glitch in that while importing into Excel the column width for the catalogue number was set too small and anything with a three-digit country prefix and a catalogue number over three digits long overflowed into the denomination column. Once I figured out what had happened I had to look at every record to see if a correction to the catalogue number and denomination was required. SQL also didn’t like commas or quotation marks, so I had to look at each record to see which comments and descriptions had problems and edit them one at a time. Finally, Excel didn’t include any trailing zeros so while I was editing records I fixed the missing stuff to the right of the decimal point – impacting most of the records for the US, Canada and the UN. I edited these files with a legacy version of a Linux utility called Webmin – meaning that I could only see twenty-five records at a time, that I had to select each record I wanted to edit, wait while it unlocked those records, make my changes in a field showing only five or ten characters of a text string, and then save that screen.

The StampWorld files were another story. That program didn’t produce an inventory report for the full collection, only country by country. Its inventory report also didn’t display the comments if they were more than about fifteen characters long. Their technical support was distinctly unhelpful. To make a long story short I ended up opening the main .dbf file in Excel and retyping all of the long comments. When I imported it into SQL I had the same problems with commas and quotations so that I had to review all of the descriptions and comments and fix those problems. In addition, somewhere in the process I set the catalogue number as a numeric field with a width of five, and one of the programs inserted zeros to give me five numbers. This meant that something that should have been C102 became C00102 and something that should have been 9NO3 became 9NO0003. Needless to say all of this editing was done in Webmin.

About halfway through editing the international file I hit save and nothing happened. One thing led to another and eventually Will dropped the table and told me I’d have to redo the work on the international file. The issue turned out to be that Linux was installed wrong (in someone’s haste to claim a new computer) and I’d run out of space in the directory where the MySQL tables were located. It took a couple of weeks and a couple of different Linux distributions before the Meany Lodge webserver was back up and I could go back to editing. I went through the international file record by record with the reports from StampWorld and to make sure that the data was correct – touching every record at least once more in the process. I also learned how to backup the database for myself.

Once we had all of the tables set up I realized that the StampKeeper files didn’t have "country" fields so I added them. This wasn’t trivial for Great Britain with thirty or so colonies or for Germany with occupied territories, occupation zones, predecessor states, the DDR, etc. The process of setting up those fields made me think through the definition of "country" and the country / colony relationship. In StampWorld I hadn’t wanted to set up any more country files than necessary so I’d put a lot of colonies where I only had a few stamps in with the mother country indicating the colony issue in a comment. Now I had the ability to select a country and show all of the related colonies individually – but only if they were identified in the country field. So I went back into the international and Great Britain files and edited the countries and comments for all of the colonial powers. (There is still a limitation – originally I had Australia as a comment in stamps with Great Britain in the country field. Now Australia is in the country field and is shown as a sub of Great Britain in a countries table – but New South Wales and Victoria are still shown as comments in stamps with Australia in the country field.)

I also added a "type" field to the plate block file (and checked to make sure that all of the blocks without plate numbers weren’t designated as "PB". In setting up the StampKeeper and StampWorld files I had been inconsistent with the type specified for non-plateblock blocks of stamps. I commented every block, but sometimes I entered the type as "B2", "B4", etc. Sometimes I entered the type as "MS" or "US". After going through the plate block file I decided to go through the other files and remove the "B" types. While doing that I tried to make sure that all of the cut squares and material on envelopes was identified with a type ST (for "stationary") and I tried to eliminate all of the other non-standard type designations.

Meanwhile, Will got disillusioned with Web Objects because of Java issues and shifted to CGI / PERL scripts. We had a lot of fun discussions about why he needed to write and debug CGI instead of just learning MySQL functions. He did a complicated search and sub-search function in CGI and then discovered that the new version of Dreamweaver made the next step distinctly easier. He converted the CGI script to PHP and redid the whole stamp page in Dreamweaver. I figure that between the two of us we’re approaching a full man-year now and still need to refine the search and printing capabilities.

Despite having invested a huge amount of time in a bunch of stamps with uncertain value I’m pleased with the project for the following reasons:

  • Will and I both learned some history.
  • We both learned a lot about open source software.
  • Will learned some things about SQL databases and dynamic HTML.
  • I really enjoyed the intellectual challenge of identifying stamps and figuring out where particular issues fit into the historical record.
  • I discovered that the mindless part of the process (data entry and editing) was a good escape.

I’m basically not a collector and I still want to sell off this batch of stamps. One thing that I learned from this is that I don’t want to saddle Will with anything that he would have to deal with when I can’t. However, during the time I’ve spent on these things I have in fact grown attached to them. The whole time I was sorting stamps and pouring through albums and envelopes and stuff I kept thinking that I’d come across a note or some kind of communication intended for the next person who looked at this stuff. There wasn’t any message – and I was sad about that. It did give me some insight into my parents, though, since I’d never seen (or at least never appreciated) the collector side of them. (Come to think of it as a kid I remember family projects based on collecting twine from hay bales, apricot pits, wild mushrooms, and many other things even more obscure than postage stamps!) They both grew up in the depression so it makes sense that they wouldn’t want to throw out things with value – even the miniscule value of a used stamp. They didn’t have much, so it makes sense that their collection would be high quantity with low individual values. (I can’t imagine my father paying $50 for a rare stamp but I know that he would spend hours sorting through loose "kilo-ware" in case there was something valuable there.) I suspect that he (they) got into stamps at least in part as something to do with the kids – and when the kids weren’t very interested it took on a life of it’s own. This may be something intrinsic to the act of collecting because it has certainly recapitulated itself for Will and me.