The Faraway Joys of Collecting Stamps

By Robert A. Lanier

I’m working from memory here, 65 years later, so please forgive any misspellings or incorrect names. I think I began collecting stamps because a friend did, and he made it sound fascinating. It proved to be. I later learned that such famous men as President Franklin Roosevelt and Britain’s King George V were avid stamp collectors, too.

The first step was to buy a stamp album, a place to put any stamps you bought. The album helpfully had illustrations of some of the stamps you were encouraged to insert. The next step, of course, was to actually buy some stamps. One way to do it was to answer ads in magazines or comic books from the two companies I remember: Mystic Stamp Company and Littleton Stamp Company. The former had nothing supernatural about it, but was named for its location, in Mystic, Connecticut. These companies were useful for a beginner like me, since they offered a random grab bag of stamps from around the world either for free, or for some nominal sum, like a dime. I forget which. In return, you would receive about 50 cancelled stamps from all parts of the world, none of any real value. They would often be attached to a piece of the envelope from which they had been torn painstakingly, I presume, by some wage slave in a New England garret.

The next step was to soak the stamps loose from the paper to which they were attached. Normally, this would have destroyed any real value the stamp had, but since they were simply cancelled stamps of no real value anyway, this was not a problem. The next step was to “mount” them in your album. The proper way to do this was with a stamp “hinge,” so that they could be removed if necessary A hinge was a small, translucent cellophane (do they still have cellophane?) bit which was bent in two. The hinge was then moistened and affixed to the stamp and to the album, in the correct outlined spot, either over an illustration of the stamp, or in an outlined blank spot. Where did you get the hinges? Locally, it was from the Herron-Hill Stamp Company, which I believe still exists in a shopping center on Poplar.

When I began collecting, the Herron-Hill Stamp Company was in a now long-gone 19th Century building on Main at Beale, called the “M&M Building” (photo below). It was an interesting building as it was reputed to be the last multi-story building in Memphis built without a steel skeleton. It was brick-on-brick. Red brick. It housed not only the stamp company but the Selective Service offices, where every young man had to register for the draft at age 18. After the building was demolished in 1968, it was replaced by the present MLGW Building. 

As I was about 13 when I began collecting stamps, my only purpose in the M&M Building was to buy some hinges. I believe there was a rickety elevator which took me up to the stamp company, which was located in a tiny office almost entirely filled with glass cases. These cases contained all sorts of stamps and stamp equipment for sale, and from behind them emerged a tiny old gentleman, who may have been Mr. Herron or Mr. Hill. I’m not sure I knew. Among the things other than hinges which one could buy there were crystal clear glassine strips into which multiple attached stamps or envelopes could be inserted and cut to fit. There were also, of course, stamps of various types and values. Some could be very expensive. They were handled with great care, using tweezers if they were not in little clear envelopes. 

Stamp collecting was a wonderful lesson in geography. Those of us who collected knew where (or what) St. Kitts and Nevis was/were, the names and locations of Rumania, Albania, the Moluccas, Acension Island, the Sechelles, Ste. Pierre & Miquelon, and many more. The job of looking up the location of these places was encouraged for me by the fact that I began to specialize somewhat in the British Empire. They had such beautiful, intaglio, engraved stamps, often with multi-colors, and always with the profile of the king or queen of the issue period. Although India and Burma had foolishly broken their ties with Britain, a sizeable empire remained, circling the globe and inspiring wonderful stamps of “faraway places with strange sounding names.” Learning about the stamp locations naturally encouraged further investigation of their history and characteristics.

To try to find out the value of any stamp that might come into your possession one way or another, there was at least one reference book. I think it was called Scott’s Stamp Catalog, and it was divided by countries, and had illustrations of many stamps and their probable values (in the opinion of the authors). I never found one of mine worth more than a dollar. I presume that I didn’t collect stamps long enough to need a new catalog with prices reflecting inflation. 

I soon learned of commemorative stamps. These are stamps which the country producing them considers worthy of bearing a picture or design commemorating a person or event in that country’s history. One of the most famous (and valuable) ones was (and is) the U.S. stamp commemorating early air mail. Somehow one of the printers managed to print the airplane it illustrated upside down within its borders. Mistakes like that make some stamps extremely valuable, while others, like the first British stamp, are so rare as to cost millions. As an adjunct to commemorative stamps, there is the practice of issuing “first day covers.” These are envelopes bearing new commemorative stamps, which are sent through the mail on the first day of issuance of the new stamp. They usually have an illustration on the envelope. There is nothing in the envelope. In fact, I suspect that its only purpose is to sell the covers to avid collectors like myself. It is considered even better to collect “blocks” of new commemorative stamps. That is to say, a square of four connected stamps.

After a few years of this, I suddenly realized that I could never keep up with all the new stamps, and that it was just a plot to keep suckers like me addicted. I’m all in favor of the poor old post office making money any way they can, so I don’t begrudge them their little enterprise. While I am not in the game anymore, I still had my stamp album, end even looked at it admiringly from time to time. 

n.b. Since the above was written, influenced by my wife’s urge to “downsize,” I set out to either sell or donate my stamp collection. To my surprise, I could find no one interested in buying it at any price, and almost no one who would take it as a gift. Apparently nobody collects stamps any more. A casualty of the Internet? Finally, a friend said that his grandson was interested, and I gave it to him. I have heard nothing since. Sic transit Gloria mundi.

Robert A. Lanier was born in Memphis in 1938, and has spent most of his life in the city as an attorney, with stints serving as a Circuit Court judge from 1982 until his retirement in 2004. Lanier also served as an Adjunct Professor at the Memphis State University School of Law (U of M) in 1981. He was a member of the Tennessee Historical Commission from 1977 to 1982, and was a founder of Memphis Heritage Inc., the historical preservation group still active today. He is the author of several books about Memphis history, including In the Courts (1969), Memphis in the Twenties (1979), and The History of the Memphis & Shelby County Bar (1981), and his most recent, Memphis in the Jazz Age (2021). He is proudest of his book The Prisoner of Durazzo (2010), about the king who postponed World War I for a year. Lanier also donated hundreds of his personal historic Memphis photographs to the Memphis Room of the Memphis Public Library – part of Lanier’s personal interest with Memphis history and historic preservation – and they can be viewed on the library’s digital archive and collection (DIG Memphis) under the Robert Lanier Collection

Beale and S. Main looking east. On the left is Weinman’s. The sign reads “Clothes Jewelry on Credit.” Beyond Weinman’s is Bursk Dept. Store. On the right (at the ground floor of the M&M Building) is Pantaze’s on the corner, the Stork Shop and Men’s Sample Shoes. Jan 3 1956. Full original, courtesy of DIG Memphis & the Memphis and Shelby County Room, Memphis Public Library

One Reply to “The Faraway Joys of Collecting Stamps”

  1. Hello, ol’ timer. My name is Myles and was given my stamp collection from a dear friend who has been collecting for 30+ years about a year ago because in her words it’s too much to keep up with. I don’t really know how much stamp collecting has gone to the birds and the internet. I do know that what you say about the interesting things that stamps have to offer not just in the visual aspect but in the history too. Such as stamps from a country that has changed rulers and names and the hunt for errors. I hope that you are wrong in that people just are not interested. It may be a lot to take in however I am so grateful for the collection I now have and am in love with the nostalgia of the whole thing and will hold on till it makes a comeback or am too old to be involved and give to my children to love. With that thank you Sir for your input which makes me for one more excited and interested in Philately

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