My first introduction to philately came through my grandmother, who took stamp collecting to new heights, even for her. Whenever my brother and I would visit her as children, we were fascinated by her collection of stamps stuffed in drawers, piled on top of her dressers, in paper bags behind her bed and under the sofa cushions. It took us forever to decide what exactly she was planning to do with all of those stamps.
What We Didn't Know about S&H Green Stamps
To be honest, my grandmother was not the only one who collected these stamps. Everyone in my family had their own collection of stamps as well. They seemed to be much better at philately than my grandmother, since their stamps were in photo albums or books, neatly licked and held in place. In some people's houses, touching the stamps was like calling a minister out of his name. We were subject to be thrashed with words or spanked for even looking at the stamps too hard.
Many of the shop owners in our town gave S&H Green Stamps to shoppers as rewards for making purchases. These were the first trading stamps in the United States, and they fueled a national frenzy of stamp collecting. Most people who owned a stamp collection did not realize that the S&H in S&H Green Stamps stood for Sperry & Hutchinson Co, the company that made and distributed the rare stamps starting in 1896.
The company built excitement for philately by giving the stamps away in booklets. Once collectors had accumulated enough stamps, they could shop from S&H's catalog and get any item that they would normally purchase at a department store. I remember my aunt once saved enough stamps to get a china set that her granddaughter received as a wedding gift. My father and uncles like to buy hunting guns and camping equipment with their collection of stamps.
What the world did not understand was how much this notion of stamp collecting meant to families that had moderate to low income. They always knew their income would be limited, but the S&H stamps gave them hope that they could gain access to nice things. Their stamps were as good as dollar bills, in their eyes.
Why My Grandmother Went Over the Edge With It
When everyone else was busy collecting stamps, my grandmother initially wrote it off as foolish. She said that her children were wasting time chasing something they would never really be able to afford anyway. She maintained this position against having a collection of stamps until a life event changed the way she thought about it.
My grandfather died and left her almost broke. She had allowed him to handle all the bills and finances because that was customary during that time. A husband's job as provider was to make sure that all outstanding obligations had been satisfied. Because my grandmother had grown so accustomed to using real money that she received from her husband, she thought philately a frivolous pursuit.
After my grandfather died, we discovered that we were not his only family. He had another "wife," though he was not legally married to her. She lived four streets over from my grandmother, and the two never seemed to cross paths. We were all devastated to find out about my grandfather's other life, but we sank even deeper once we discovered that his will left everything to the other woman.
The day after the funeral, my grandmother started her own collection of stamps. It seemed she would need to have bit dreams like everyone else, after all. She had no idea about how to paste the stamps into the books that S&H offered or how to redeem merchandise. She was just convinced, like many people her age, that what she had was valuable and she didn't trust anyone with it.
She Always Knew How Much Was There
My grandmother would not put anything in a bank. She believed that the best way to save anything you had was to place it near you while you were still alive. One day, my brother decided to test my grandmother's will. He kept telling me he was going to take some stamps and he didn't believe she would ever notice. He discovered how wrong she was really quickly.
He had put the stamps in his pants to hide them, just in case she checked his pockets. This of course meant that he could do little moving until he figured out what he wanted to do with the stamps. Both of us were afraid his usual rapid movements would make them fall through his pant legs.
After about three hours, our grandmother entered the room where we were, and she was yelling. Mostly, her rant was about how everyone thought she was stupid. She put everything in her house in a specific place so that she would know if someone messed with it. In her mind, the stamps had their own unique shapes and he had memorized them. It was our first lesson that you just don't mess with someone who is dedicated to philately.
My brother got two spankings that day, one verbal from our grandmother, and the other physical from our father. Stamp collecting was serious in this family, so it was almost as if someone had hit her in the head and grabbed her money. At the time, we could not understand why it was such a huge offense. It wasn't until I was an adult that the pieces really started to come together for me.
The S&H Green Stamps, my grandmother's initiation into philately, were her redemption for the wrong that my grandfather had done to her. It was her way of having something of her own that nobody could ever snatch away from her. She had been in that position and would do anything in her power not to feel that way again.
Our offense was deeper than a mere change or loss. It was a loss of power. In the world of stamp collecting, it meant that someone had smiled in your face and walked off with your entire fortune.