When the United States Postal Service finally expires, what will you remember? When the last ornate post office is sold off for “mixed-used development” and all postage is reduced to digital printouts, what will you tell future generations about the way it was? If all philately disappeared into private collections, what would you want your grandkids to know about the strange pockets of paper we called letters and the tiny stick-on paintings we used to send them?
Bill Gross—one of America’s wealthiest bond traders and the only stamp collector with a net worth of two billion dollars—hopes you’ll make a visit to the new William H. Gross Stamp Gallery in Washington, D.C., which he funded with a portion of his fortune. The grand opening of the gallery, on September 22, was intended as a celebration of the depth and splendor of philatelic culture at a time when the postal service is facing certain extinction. It was probably the biggest party anyone has ever thrown for the American postage stamp. It was also, undoubtedly, its first memorial.
A few days after the opening of the Gross Gallery, Mickey Barnett, the chairman of the United States Postal Service Board of Governors, announced that in 2014 the price of a first-class stamp would be raised from forty-six to forty-nine cents. Barnett called the price hike a “last resort” when in fact it has become an annual tradition: the cost of sending a letter has gone up every year since 2006. The USPS continues to put a stamp-size Band-Aid on what has obviously become a fiscal hemorrhage.
Though its strategies have proven ineffectual, no one can blame the USPS for trying to save itself partly with stamps. After all, the first stamps were created in 1847 to rescue the postal service from financial ruin. In the words of Michael Laurence (the editor of Linn’s Stamp News, the philatelist’s bible), “paying for a letter was like receiving a collect call from China.” Every recipient was required to pay the postman upon delivery, an onus that was frequently refused, thereby leaving the Post Office accountable for volumes of unpaid mail. The first prepaid stamps featured Benjamin Franklin (five cents) and George Washington (ten cents). Together they sold close to five million copies. With their handsome design and adhesive backs, the new stamps made the post office so profitable that by 1851 Congress was able to reduce the common rate to three cents, a price that remained unchanged for more than thirty years.
From 1894 to 2005, American stamp design was overseen by the Bureau of Engraving and Printing, the agency under the Department of the Treasury that also designed the national currency. Prior to World War II, most stamp designs were collaborations between a graphic artist and an engraver, which is why early American stamps have more in common with etchings, medals, and banknotes than with what we recognize as modern graphic design. If nothing else, the Gross Gallery may help to restore the legacy of some of stamp design’s lost heroes, like Ervine Metzl, a Chicagoan who helped to move the bureau away from engraved portraiture with designs like the 1960 “Communications for Peace” stamp, which rendered the Echo 1 satellite in deepest violet. Or Elaine Rawlinson, who became the first female stamp designer when her esteemed George Washington design won an open competition in 1938. Over the next twenty years the Post Office issued billions of her one-cent Washingtons. Few knew Rawlinson’s name, but anyone who mailed a postcard during the postwar era purchased her work.
The old-world craftsmanship of philately bottomed out in the 1970s and eighties, when commemorative issues often resembled rejected illustrations from Boys’ Life. As they continued to rehash tableaux of the American Revolution, the USPS bungled efforts to enliven historical subjects and adopt social causes. An unfortunate 1974 issue featured a soft pencil drawing of a shy girl, below which was written “The Retarded Can Be Helped.” Misguided attempts to appeal to a generic customer base resulted in stamps like 1982’s “Kitten & Puppy,” a Hallmark-style illustration of two animals hugging in fresh snow. A new era was born in 1993 with the infamous “Young Elvis” stamp. The USPS issued five hundred and seventeen million copies of the twenty-nine cent stamp, making it the most profitable release in history. Mark Stutzman’s pink-hued, airbrushed portrait of Presley was about as artistic as something you’d see for sale on the Venice boardwalk, but when reduced in size to a one-inch frame, it became a glowing pushbutton that enlivened any envelope to which it was affixed.
With twenty thousand artifacts spread across ten thousand square feet, the Gross Gallery is the world’s largest collection of philatelic material. It has the Elvis stamp, of course, and much more. There are relics that symbolize intrepid delivery service: a pair of battered aviation goggles belonging to Eddie Gardner, one of the first airmail pilots; a stamped envelope inscribed with an annotation from the Pony Express: “Recovered from a mail stolen by the Indians in 1860.” And then there’s the collection’s crown jewel, a pristine four-block of the Inverted Jenny, a 1918 misprint that shows an early airmail biplane flying upside down. Collectors like Gross love the Jenny because there are only a hundred in existence, but what makes it compelling is that it’s an inadvertent artwork: shown in a sheet of multiples, it looks like an Andy Warhol print. Best of all, the anomalous graphic becomes a punch line about the distorted image the USPS has of itself, and its history.
Because stamps have long been used as a historical record of American culture, the philatelist emphasizes his role as historian, partly because it legitimizes a pastime most people still view as the world’s feeblest hobby. (During the recent government shutdown, The Onion ran a headline of mock incredulity: “Greatest Country in World Unable to Keep William H. Gross Stamp Gallery Open.”) The USPS likes to highlight its record of steadfastness and civic duty because those qualities align it with the purpose and indispensability of the armed forces at a time when many view mail as irrelevant, if not nonexistent. (Postal insiders foresaw their doom as early as 1998, with the widespread dissemination of the term snail mail.) It is true that postage design remains the Post Office’s most vital legacy, and—aside from its vast architectural holdings, which are now being sold off—its greatest asset, though not for reasons that the philatelists at the Gross Gallery would have you believe.
While the USPS has gradually adopted a more inclusive view of the national culture, the public no longer needs stamps to teach it American history. The inscription on the facade of the James A. Farley Post Office Building in Manhattan—a loose paraphrasing of Herodotus that reads “Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds”—endures as an adage, but, despite the Postal Service’s long history of valor, privatized companies like UPS and FedEx employ brigades of delivery people that are just as intrepid. At this point, stamps matter only because they are the last, best form of public art.
At the Gross Gallery, handsome stamps are housed in Plexiglas dioramas, softly lit and floating, like gemstones in a Swiss vault. From the ceiling hang poster-board blowups of famous issues, as if enlargement will make them seem more important. But stamps never needed to be bigger, and they don’t require the protection of priceless canvases. That’s their beauty—they are the only artwork that everyone is free to handle and anyone can afford to own.
The display further misapprehends a fundamental truth of the stamp: the quality that makes stamps important also precludes them from being enshrined. They are artworks, true, but they are artworks that can only be completed by utility. Like all obsessive collectors, philatelists overvalue pristine, unused specimens, but stamps are unfinished until they are pressed onto the corner of an envelope and sullied by a postmark. They become perfect only when they are scarred by the journey that they were invented to facilitate. The Gross collection may attract millions of visitors, but in a world without letters, that’s something the people of the future might never understand.
Sam Sweet lives and works in northeast Los Angeles. His first book, Hadley, Lee, Lightcap, will be published next year.