Postage Stamps & Airmail Letters

Air Mail
Air Mail

Updated August 01st, 2018

I'm from a family of writers. Its how my parents conducted their early romance - airmail letters on thin blue paper, exotic postage stamps from the bases my dad was stationed at. The same for my grandparents. For a lot of countries, my only real knowledge of them comes from whatever the pictures were featured on the postage stamps.

It wasn't something that I fully realized until I was older. How so much of my world was constructed on the pale blue of thin paper, and the bleed of ink into it. This wasn't just how I got news, either. I learned to write on these pages, writing to my dad. I learned how pleased he was with me when he'd write back, and I learned to read from those pages.

Sealed With A Loving Kiss (And The Correct Postage Stamp)

US postage stamps

My parents met in 1968, in swinging London. My mother was working in a library, and my father was on leave, visiting friends of his. The house my mother lived in was close to Baker Street underground station, and she lived with a schoolfriend of my dad's. For the longest time, my dad was just handwriting to her - letters that came with exotic postage stamps.

The way my dad tells it, it was love at first sight. If you saw what my mom looked like then, you'd understand. Long dark hair and the thick kohl eyes of a young Cher, she was regularly scouted to see if she'd consider being a model. She wasn't interested though - a little too shy, a little too bookish.

The way my mom tells it, there was this man and he was loud. She wasn't averse but she wasn't interested. Instead, she wanted to know what he was doing in these foreign places with the beautiful postage stamps. She had moved to London from a small town in the middle of nowhere, and she dreamed of adventure.

When my dad had to go back to whichever hot country he lived in at the time, he asked her if he could write to her. She said yes, and before he left he bought her a book of postage stamps so that she'd have to write back.

The rest, as they say, is history.

My dad took my mom to all of those places that she'd seen only on the drawings of the postage stamps. Before wars ravaged the Middle East, he showed off the beautiful countries of the Yemen, Lebanon, Iran, and Iraq. This was when my mother wrote letters to her family and was the one sending the exotic postage stamps home.

The accidental stamp collector

As a kid, the act of collecting stamps had a kind of ritual to it. By now, my family was based in England but my dad still had to take long trips to foreign countries to do his work. Every time he was there, he promised, he'd send me a letter. Every time he was there, true to his word, he did.

There's a difference between philately and stamp collecting. A philatelist studies the stamps, and will often try to get a pristine version of a stamp. The stamp is worthwhile because of itself and is studied because of it.

A stamp collector will collect a stamp for the love of it. Often it'll have the thick ink of the postal service stamp, that tells you the day or date or office that the letter has come through.

We knew when a letter came from my dad. The airmail paper is thinner, so that it has a lower postage stamp cost, and looks exactly like something from the 60's. More exciting, the postage stamps were often covered in other rubber stamps that let us know where it had come from and when.

Looking at the letters was like looking through a moment of history and seeing something beautiful. It was familiar and strange at the same time - a reminder that the world is bigger than it has ever been but also smaller. Also somehow more reachable.

The Power of the Postage Stamp

For a lot of small countries, the power of postage stamp collectors is such an important revenue that it's the whole reason they print stamps in the first place. They create limited runs of fancy stamps that are mostly meant to be bought by collectors. Funnily enough, they make the postage stamps like their art - they don't really have anything to do with letters.

On average, there are about 10,000 types of postage stamp produced in the world each year. By the year 2000, there were about 400,000 types of stamps in existence. They're not just a great look at how important letters are, though. They're also a funny little look at the state of the world and how human we have always been.

The most famous, most sought-after stamp probably in the whole of the world is the Inverted Jenny.

The Inverted Jenny is also known as the Upside Down Jenny. It was a US postage stamp that was first issued in 1918. On it, there's the image of an airplane called the Curtiss JN-4, which was meant to show the fact that the US Postal Service now offered mail delivery by air (now you can order stamps online).

It's called the Inverted Jenny because rather than being the right way round, the plane on the postage stamp is upside down! This is probably the most famous error in American philately, and it was caught so quickly that only one pane of 100 of the invert stamps was ever found.

Inverted Jenny Stamp

A famous collector, HR Green, paid $20,000 for a sheet of them. He had one copy placed in a locket for his wife. This gold and glass locket displayed the inverted Jenny on one side, and a "regular" Jenny stamp on the other. This locket was offered for sale for the first time by the Siegel Auction Galleries Rarity Sale, held on May 18, 2002.

It did not sell in the stamp auction, but the philatelic press reported that a Private Treaty sale was arranged later for an unknown price.

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