Interview by Pauline Turner Strong
Pauline Strong: Congratulations on the publication of your book! I very much enjoyed reading it and I look forward to sharing it with students. To begin our conversation, I’d like to hear what drew each of you to the topic of the cultural history and iconography of US postage stamps.
Richard Handler: Like many children of my era (b. 1950), I collected stamps as a child, and like some of those people, I returned to stamps in my 40s, working on my collection more or less seriously since then. It’s easy to immerse oneself in various obsessions of collecting that do not require a lot of creative analysis. I certainly did that (it’s a hobby, after all!), but also, as an anthropologist who studies nationalism, I thought some over the years about the iconographic content of US stamps. (I also collect French and French colonial stamps, but that’s another story.)
There is a particularly striking US stamp, featuring the Sicangu (Brulé) Lakota chief, Hollow Horn Bear and issued in 1923, that has always held my attention.
That stamp gave me ideas for a more extended analysis of Native Americans on US stamps, but I felt I didn’t have the necessary expertise in American studies or Indigenous studies to carry out such a project on my own.
As we explain in the acknowledgments section of our book, Laura and I met when she was finishing her dissertation (in the English department) on Manifest Destiny, conquest narratives, and the closing of the American putative frontier. As we got to know one another (talking about how her work intersected with mine, on nationalism), I got to talking with her about my idea for a paper about Hollow Horn Bear and Indians more generally on US postage stamps.
Laura Goldblatt: I found this topic very interesting for the reasons Richard mentions, but also because I continue to be drawn to questions of state messaging or propaganda. In this regard, postage stamps seemed so ripe for exploration: tiny pictorial messages, designed to travel broadly in their delivery of other messages, that end up in the intimate spaces of the home. And, while senders can control what they send and to some degree what stamps they choose, receivers don’t get to reject delivery because they don’t like the image on their parcel. And neither has any control of what happens as their missives move through the mail. It made me think about government messaging in new ways, as far more multifaceted than the term propaganda implies, but also as completely banal and woven into the fabric of the quotidian.
With that in mind, I also became interested in collectors because I wanted to know how people interacted with stamps, what they did with them, and how these instrumentalized objects could be used for non-instrumental purposes. Stamp collecting is more Richard’s ken, but I nonetheless became intrigued by how different collecting communities—Confederate collectors, Third Reich collectors, and so—described their interests, how they responded to changing political climates, and how they understood stamps’ meanings. Though the casual stamp user is different from these specialist groups, they, too, express opinions about stamps’ designs, have stamp preferences, see the images on their letters, and so on. In fact, the COVID pandemic really underscored how crucial the USPS–and home delivery in particular–remains to the US body politic.
These interests eventually superseded the reservations we both felt about diving into a topic with very little existing academic scholarship on it.
Richard Handler: So we took the plunge, starting with some shorter pieces and then committing ourselves to the book about five years ago.
Polly Strong: One of the main themes of The American Stamp is how the creation, circulation, and collecting of postage stamps contributed to the construction of citizenship during the second half of the 19th century and the entire 20th century. This is a very long timespan to consider! Would you each give an example of a notable change in the social use of stamps over this century and a half?
Laura Goldblatt: For me, I think the most notable change is from the idea of postage stamps as representing the nation, to postage stamps being indicative of various consumer preferences. For instance, prior to 1893, when you wanted to mail a parcel, you had very limited options of imagery. You either selected the stamp with the exact postage for the item you wanted to send, or some combination of stamps to equal the correct postage—though again, you didn’t have multiple choices for one-cent, two-cent, half-cent stamps: there was just one of those varieties.
But then, in 1893, the Post Office released a set of stamps alongside the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. The stamps were sold at the fair itself, where you could also have them postmarked and then keep them as souvenirs. These stamps depicted a variety of images from the narratives of Columbus’s voyages to the Americas.
These were the first commemorative stamps: stamps produced to mark a particular occasion or person and available only for limited time. With the Columbian series, the Post Office realized there was money to be made from such commemorative issues, and more and more were produced over time.
People don’t mail letters as much as they once did, but when they do, they have a wide variety of stamps to choose from, all in the same denomination. The last time I went to the post office, I was able to buy stamps commemorating the 50th anniversary of Title IX, two sheets of stamps from the Black Heritage series—Edmonia Lewis and August Wilson
—and a sheet of stamps dedicated to Shel Silverstein. That is to say, I was able to choose which stamps best represented my values and priorities, rather than solely national values or priorities. I think that’s a really big change in how we understand citizenship and the government’s relationship to citizens.
Richard: Piggybacking on what Laura said, before the Columbian commemorative stamps, most US stamps feature what we called “dead heads”: the great men (and they were men) of American history. These supposedly definitive stamps were, unlike commemoratives, meant to stay in circulation for many years. For example, most people mailing a letter in the 1940s would have used the three-cent Thomas Jefferson stamp from the Presidential definitive series of 1938.
This type of stamp remained dominant until the post-WW-II period, when commemorative stamps really took off, with more and more new stamps being released, placed on sale, and then withdrawn every year.
As Laura said, commemorative stamps became a vehicle of consumer choice. But something else was happening: as various kinds of multiculturalism became politically more salient in the last third of the 20th century, the post office found it ever more difficult to produce sets of dead-head stamps that represented the nation in all its diversity. A consequence of this, we argue, is that a different iconography came to the fore for the representation of the nation in definitive stamp series. Instead of featuring representative persons, these stamps featured iconic objects like flags, scenic views, and nostalgic items of material culture. It’s as if on the eve of the 21st century, the post office stalled out on the iconographic recognition of a truly diverse America.
Polly Strong: This brings us to another major theme of the book: collecting. Richard, how was your research on stamp collecting influenced by your previous research on collecting and display at Colonial Williamsburg? Laura, could you comment more on how consumer demand and economic imperatives have shaped postal iconography? What do you make of the marketing of stamps for national, religious, and secular holidays?
Richard Handler: Your question suggests another chapter to be written, comparing genres of collecting. We focused on two aspects of stamp collecting: the creation (over time) of a system that defines collectible objects and assigns values to them; and the ways in which individual collectors interact with that system. One of the striking things about stamp collecting that is not true of all genres of collecting is the high degree to which the average collector, with very little financial investment, can interact with the larger system to create collectible objects—for example, by sending letters to oneself, stamped with interesting stamps, which will be returned, postmarked. I’m not sure what the analogue to this would be in the art or museum worlds. That’s the next paper to write!
Laura Goldblatt: Richard mentioned the post-WW II explosion of commemorative stamps. Looking at the pattern of new commemorative issues since then, it seems clear that the post office has responded to the increasing number of requests for stamps coming from various demographic and interest groups not by articulating a new or revised model of ideal citizenship but simply by producing stamps for each group. I mentioned the Black Heritage Series, which is a response to those who want Black culture celebrated on US stamps. But what are we to make of the 1995 Civil War commemorative series, which honors both Abraham Lincoln and Jefferson Davis, Frederick Douglass and “Stonewall” Jackson?
Rather than make a political decision about how to commemorate the Civil War—a decision that might lead to the depiction of only Union actors, and thereby offend Lost Cause warriors—the post office treated both Confederate and Union figures as equals. Similarly, the advent of special stamps for Christmas in 1962 was not hindered by critics who worried about the separation of church and state, but led instead, over time, to stamps for Hanukkah (1996), Kwanzaa (1997), and Eid (2001).
This is the kind of consumer logic we see at the grocery store: do you like one brand of milk or another? But the fact is that Confederates are not the same as Union soldiers, nor is honoring various religious holidays the same as refusing in principle to honor any. In sum, the US stamps program has come to instantiate a consumer logic: letting the market decide instead of deciding that some political positions ought not to be celebrated by the state.
Polly Strong: I really appreciate hearing about the new directions your research could take now that the book is published. I’d like to close by asking each of you about the collaboration that gave rise to this book. Richard, in addition to your single-authored books and edited volumes, you have co-authored an unusual number of publications for an anthropologist, including The Fiction of Culture (with Daniel Segal); Schneider on Schneider (with David Schneider); The New History in an Old Museum (with Eric Gable); and now The American Stamp. Why has collaborative work been so compelling to you? Laura, in addition to The American Stamp you have been working on a single-authored monograph, After Destiny: Propaganda, Settler Colonialism, and Community, and you have published both single authored and co-authored articles. What do you see as the rewards and risks of collaborative work as an early career scholar?
Richard Handler: The simplest and in some sense truest answer I can give is that writing with a co-author is more fun than writing alone! Perhaps fun isn’t quite the right word; to put it slightly differently, co-authoring is a social experience in a way that solo writing (which is also, of course, a social experience) is not. Co-authoring means you have someone to talk to about the work that is important to you; and co-authoring only works well if you enjoy talking to your co-author about your shared project.
Beyond fun, I am a person who is conscious of my scholarly limitations: what I’m good at and not so good at, what I know and what I don’t know. Co-authoring is a sensible response to one’s limitations; it allows writers to share in each other’s expertise. It also allows for quick and engaged feedback, as when you call up your co-author and say, “I can’t figure this out, can you help me,” or “I can’t make this paragraph come out right; will you see what you can do with it.”
A final thought: egalitarian co-authoring requires both a strong ego (you have to be willing to write your fair share) and a lack of ego, in the sense of allowing the other person’s ideas and writing to change yours.
Laura Goldblatt: I’d echo Richard in the list of rewards. I often think of all writing and thought as collaborative. Even my single-authored publications and research grew out of a series of rich conversations with others, and aid that included reading and commenting on drafts. Co-authorship makes those collaborations visible. I also just really like co-writing. I largely decided to go to graduate school because of how thrilling—really!—I found class discussions about rich and complicated ideas as an undergraduate. Co-writing takes that process beyond the classroom.
In terms of risks, co-authorship often isn’t legible to others as legitimate scholarly work, which is a problem as an early-career academic. It can also make it difficult for peers and search committees to glean what my expertise is separate from that of my co-authors. But still, the benefits for me far outweigh those risks. I’ve learned as much about scholarly and professional praxis from Richard as I have about stamps, which is a kind of mentorship I think we could all gain from.
Laura Goldblatt is Assistant Professor of English at the University of Virginia, where Richard Handler is Professor of Anthropology and Global Studies.
List of Illustrations
- Cover, The American Stamp, 2023, https://cup.columbia.edu/book/the-american-stamp/9780231208246
- Hollow Horn Bear, 1923, https://postalmuseum.si.edu/exhibition/the-american-indian-in-postage-stamps-profiles-in-leadership-the-paths-of-great-sioux-2
- Columbian Exposition issue: Landing of Columbus, 1893, https://postalmuseum.si.edu/object/npm_1980.2493.1609
- Black Heritage series: August Wilson, 2021, https://uspsblog.com/celebrating-black-heritage/
- Presidential series: Thomas Jefferson, 1938, https://postalmuseum.si.edu/exhibition/about-us-stamps-bureau-period-1894-1939-definitive-issues/presidential-series-1938
- Civil War commemorative series, 1995, https://www.amazon.com/Civil-Sheet-Twenty-Different-Stamps/dp/B008G3G2RI