Confessions of a Philatelist

By Michael Kearl
Professor and Chair of Sociology and Anthropology

I am a philatelist.  It is a confession that I make on first days of classes.  With the announcement, students share stares and shift uneasily in their seats.  This reinforces me to share the fact that I am registered with authorities (my dues are paid to the First Day Cover society) – partially in hopes that some parent will receive the news, become irate, and communicate his or her discontent to my University’s administration that such predators should never be allowed in the classroom. 

Among stamp collectors, part of the incentive involves conserving something easily discarded. To preserve in such a highly disposable society such as ours – without tearing, folding, staining, fading, or mildewing – a stamped piece of paper mailed many decades ago is a victory against time, a triumph of the preservation motive. 

One of the highlights of my career with this “poor man’s art” was coming in second in the Brookman/Barrett and Worthen’s “Best United States Stamp Issued in the 20th Century.”  Competition was tough for this wordy academician:  there was a 100-word limit.  Recognition of my entry produced every satisfaction of having an article accepted in one of my discipline’s leading journals.

As eBay sellers know, “bexarclaws” is a sucker for stamps and cachets (artistically embellished envelopes) rich with sociological and historical themes.  Unlike many other collectors, my interest is in the sociocultural context that yielded the design of the stamp and its cover.  What were the themes of the Great Depression?  How do those WW I differ from WW II?

One of my professional interests is in collective memory.  Memories, I have found, were particularly rich during the Great Depression.  Take, for instance, the year 1935.  In my collection are cachets marking the 75th birthday of William Jennings Bryan (deceased 1925), the 90th birth anniversary of Buffalo Bill (deceased in 1917) and the centennial of Mark Twain’s, and of the 130th anniversary of the Lewis and Clark expedition (and the birth of a son to Sacajawea).  Anniversary dates needn't be divisible by 5 or 10 years.  Also in 1935 appeared several observances of Lincoln's 126th and Washington's 203rd birthdays.  I became hooked. 

Let’s begin with the stamps themselves.  Exhibit 1, the Wyoming 50th anniversary of statehood, needs little comment.  This PowerPoint embedded gem is incorporated in my lecture on gender inequality, immediately after the Guttentag-Secord thesis of how skews in male-female populations are related to such phenomena as divorce rates, female representation in state legislatures, and why Wyoming was the first state to grant women the right to vote.  There she is, virginally draped, on a pedestal being looked up to by cowboy and miner. 

One must be dead in the U.S. before qualifying for philatelic recognition.  Putting a deceased individual's likeness on a stamp is one way by which political immortality is conferred. Of the hundreds of Americans so immortalized, only a handful are women: 16, to be precise, through 1960; 19 through 1970; and 29 through 1980 (any connection between this 50% increase with the ERA movement of the seventies?)  Minorities have similarly suffered such under-representation.  It was not until 1940, 93 years after the first postage stamp was issued, that the first African American, Booker T. Washington, appeared.  (His was a ten-cent stamp in an era when average postage was three-cents.)  The second, George Washington Carver, appeared in 1948, followed by Frederick Douglas (a 25-cent stamp, when 5-cents was the norm) in 1967.  In 1979 the first of the annually issued Black Heritage series stamps appeared, honoring Martin Luther King Jr.

My hobby is creating commemorative combos, where one affixes a number of stamps related to the event being recognized and then having the envelope canceled at an appropriate time and place.  Some of my cachets were inspired by my sociology of death and dying class, such as the one below.  Here, on the fifteenth anniversary from the place of her death, is a cover observing the first poster child of the right-to-die debates.  On the left is Franz Glaubacker’s 1923 “The Physician,” featuring a young woman clutching the arm of a doctor in his scientific lab garment, who holds out his hand to stop death on the horizon.  Kevorkian’s image was mandatory inclusion. Two of the stamps observe medicine’s battles against death.  The 1947 Doctors stamp on the bottom captures the time when the profession was largely helpless before the Grim Reaper.

We sociologists have often been accused of dealing with the commonsensical and commonplace.  Personally, I enjoy giving focus and a storyline to those things literally right under our noses.

AlumNet note: Professor Kearl began teaching at Trinity in 1977. He has no doubt informed more than one generation of Trinitonians about the sociological relevance of philately.