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Country Views: History of America, on a stamp

My grandmother came to the United States from Luxembourg aboard a ship powered by wind and sail. She said she was 4 years old at the time.

I imagine that somewhere in that ship were bags of mail. The shipping company was paid to carry it. The mail, no doubt, had postage stamps affixed to the various envelopes and packets. On those stamps, just tiny scraps of paper, were beautifully engraved images. I’m just imagining this, of course. I never saw the mail and neither did my then little-girl-grandma. But I imagine that some of those stamps looked somewhat like the lovely 1927 Danish Caravel 25 krone stamp. This stamp has a slightly stylized sailing ship on a bluish green sea. Above it fly two Danish flags. In the water is a playful dolphin.

That Danish stamp is a wonder of anonymous art and design in miniature. By purchasing it, licking it, and putting it on an envelope or package somebody was participating in one of the most remarkable of human contracts. How many hands did that scrap of paper pass through from Copenhagen to Philadelphia to Chicago to St. Paul to some small prairie post office in Minnesota to the hands of an immigrant Danish farmer. What news of major or minor import did it carry? All for 25 krone.

By the time my grandma, Mary Welter was her name, was in her 70s my brothers and I were among her many grandchildren. In true old-world style Mary lived in our home for years. She told us stories, fried pancakes for us, traveled to Rome and what was then called the Holy Land in an airplane – not a sailing ship, and gave my brother and I postage stamps from around the world.

She had a cousin in the merchant marine. He would send her postage stamps from Asia, Australia and Europe. She gave these scraps of colored history, geography and art to us. We pored over them in awe. We learned who Sun Yat-sen was. We discovered the Maldive Islands in the Indian Ocean, and we learned what the Magyar Republic was. All this, and more, with only a merchant seaman, a globetrotting grandma, and a child’s curiosity. No classroom was required!

Our world geography and history lessons eventually led us to U.S. postage stamps. The United States has a wonderful history of stamp design and art. I enjoyed the air mail stamps in particular because of the idea that for 10¢ you could put a piece of parchment paper into a special air mail envelope and give it a ride in an airplane. How cool can you get – your message in an airplane for a dime.

The early U.S. airmail stamps were intricately engraved renderings of the early craft that carried the mail. The first of them is an especially pretty rose and blue image of the Curtis Jenny biplane used to carry the first pieces of airmail in 1918.

The study of U.S. postage stamps can still provide a child, or adult, with a history and art lesson. In most cases of its long history the USPS has sought to make its tiny scraps of paper attractive and interesting. I am no longer a stamp collector, but I continue to enjoy buying, using, and looking at attractively designed postage stamps.

I have two on envelopes that were sent to me recently. The Snow Leopard Conservancy sent me a first class mailing from Oakland. The stamp they chose has the image of a Siberian tiger. It’s part of the USPS’s Saving Vanishing Species series. It cost less than 50 cents to send it to me. What a bargain! Next is a letter from my friend Blanca from nearby Sauk Centre. She used a stamp with an attractive gold and purple image of a 1966 Pontiac GTO. If you liked 1960s and ‘70s muscle cars you might enjoy this stamp.

In January 2013 the USPS issued the unique round Global forever stamp. For only $1.10 you can send a 1-ounce letter from a town on the plains of Minnesota to Minneapolis to New York to Copenhagen. It’s an incredible bargain that my grandma would appreciate. Imagine an airplane ride for only a buck-ten. Yes, I know you can email, Skype, or text for perhaps less, but there are some things you can do better with a postage stamp. Besides, unlike an email, your letter won’t become part of a massive collection of metadata being sifted through by some petty spy.

Author’s note: In September 2013 the USPS issued a $2 version of its infamous but highly valuable upside down Curtiss Jenny biplane stamp.

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