- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Peer closely enough at the biplane depicted on the old 1918 stamp, and you’ll notice something the original technician who ran the sheet didn’t. It’s upside down.

“When you have two colors you have to run it through twice,” says David Failor, executive director of stamp services for the U.S. Postal Service. “Planes were so new then, it’s likely the operator didn’t even notice the image was inverted.”

The world famous “Inverted Jenny,” now valued in the millions of dollars, is just one of the images that will be displayed this weekend at the Washington Convention Center as part of the World Philatelic Exhibition, the largest show of stamps and other postal paraphernalia ever held in the United States.

And stamps are just part of the expo.

“It’s not just about little pieces of paper,” says Cheryl Ganz, curator of philately at the Smithsonian’s National Postal Museum and one of the organizers of the event. “It’s about history and culture and art.”

Not your father’s hobby

If you thought stamp collecting was a moribund activity ranked somewhere between banging away on an old Smith-Corona and dialing some shiny black contraption from Ma Bell, think again.

And think computers. The Postal Museum is using the World Philatelic Exhibition as the occasion to open its new Web site, Arago, which will eventually feature millions of digitized images and allow visitors to zoom in on any particular aspect of a stamp. The system will also feature online exhibitions, browse and storytelling modes, and a search function.

In fact philately, or stamp collecting, is a hobby with fans all over the world. China alone boasts several million stamp collectors. The queen of England boasts her own collection. John Lennon and Freddy Mercury collected stamps. So does former world chess champion Anatoly Karpov.

And there’s a lot more to this weekend’s exhibition than a couple of hundred thousand pieces of paper. You can chat with stamp dealers and artists like Lonnie Busch and David Pacheco, or even meet a NASCAR driver. (NASCAR is one of the sponsors of the event.)

Ranger Rick will be there, along with Mr. Zip and Postman Pat, the British postal service’s special mascot. You can even have an expert give the once-over to that old collection of stamps from Uncle so-and-so that you’ve been keeping up in your attic.

Among the stamp series to be featured at the show are the catchy and colorful “Wonders of America” series. These commemorative stamps about to be issued by the Postal Service feature 40 of the most remarkable places, structures, plants, and animals in the United States. The series will be dedicated on Saturday.

There’s a bit of a ‘50s flair to these stamp designs, bringing to mind souvenirs from summer vacations gone by: Among them is one honoring the Chesapeake Bay, one of the world’s largest estuaries.

Many stamp sets like “Wonders” come with their own spinoff products, from postcards to full-color books, complete with the back story.

“We hope to get both kids and adults interested,” Mr. Failor says. “The power in postage stamps is that they have wonderful stories and they’re great educational tools.”

Stamp lovers point to the benefits of stamp collecting for the younger set. The obvious history and geography enrichment aside, stamp collecting allows youngsters to develop organizational skills and practice working with spatial relationships, all while experiencing the enthusiasm that’s unique to the hobby.

The personal touch

That enthusiasm is the one thing that bonds today’s collectors, who are a diverse bunch ranging from old-fashioned squirrel-away-everything-with -a-gummed- back types to those who treasure only those stamps issued along a particular theme, like wildflowers, subjects focused on black Americans, or even computers.

“It’s a hobby that can be as big or as small as you want it to be,” says Allison Galloway, public affairs officer for the National Postal Museum and a stamp collector in her own right.

“You can really personalize it. Whatever topic interests you, you can probably find a postage stamp for it.”

Topical, or “subject” stamps, are the fastest growing part of philately. Mr. Failor himself collects golf-themed stamps. There’s even an American Topical Association that specializes in subject-themed stamps.

Standouts in the topical category are the Disney-related stamps, which are always a popular draw and have their own small link to postal history: Walt Disney himself sorted and delivered mail in the Chicago post office in 1918.

This year, the theme of the Disney stamps is “Romance,” starring Cinderella and Prince Charming, of course, as well as other characters, including a canine couple. Next year’s theme will be unveiled at the exhibition.

Most popular of all the topical stamps? Elvis Presley, issued in 1993 with a run of 500 million, far greater than the usual run of 80 million to 100 million common to a theme like “Wildflowers.”

But don’t forget the historical piece. There’s an 1845 stamp of Benjamin Franklin that was actually released before the creation of the U.S. Postal Service as we know it. This one was part of a run commissioned by the postmaster of New York City.

And just eight years ago, two uncut panes of stamps from 1847 were discovered in a book of engraver’s proofs. That’s the year when the Postal Service came into being. Before that, mail service was iffy at best, and recipients frequently had to pay postage themselves.

What’s a “pane” of stamps? For the layman, it’s a small sheet of stamps, just about the size that can fit in a postal clerk’s drawer. Philatelists usually use the term “sheet” to denote much larger sets as they come off the press.

By design

What goes into the making of a stamp? A bit of public input, a lot of creativity, and a strict set of rules about who and what can be depicted. For example, the USPS only features individuals who have been dead for at least 10 years.

The process usually begins with a flood of suggestions from the public.

“We’ve got in the neighborhood of 50,000 people who share their ideas in America’s stamp program,” Mr. Failor says. “We get everything from e-mail, to petitions, to banners from schoolchildren.”

From there, the suggestions are vetted by a cadre of volunteers, the 15 or so members of the Citizen Stamp Advisory Committee. After careful consideration, the committee makes recommendations to the postmaster general.

Just don’t plan on sending in the actual designs for the stamps yourself. The USPS does not entertain unsolicited artwork and contracts out the actual design scheme to a corps of recognized artists.

“We know that there are a lot of great artists out there, but we are looking for something that fits the special size of a postage stamp,” Mr. Failor says.

For the 2005 spring flowers commemorative series, the U.S. Postal Service commissioned Boston artist Christopher Pullman to depict an iris, a hyacinth, a daffodil and a tulip. Mr. Pullman used photographs and images from garden catalogs to inspire his final watercolor designs.

.Since the 1980s, printing of 35 billion to 40 billion stamps every year has been contracted to three private printers. Before then, it was the responsibility of the Bureau of Engraving and Printing to produce the nation’s stamps, at least from 1894 on. Prior to that, stamps were printed by private contractors.

One man’s passion

But right now, the place to see real postal treasures is the Smithsonian’s National Postal Museum, just a short walk or subway ride from the Washington Convention Center.

Among the museum shows opening in time for this weekend’s expo is “Rarity Revealed,” an exhibit devoted to the collection of Benjamin K. Miller (1857-1938), a Milwaukee lawyer who bequeathed his substantial and significant collection to the New York Public Library in 1925. The first part of the exhibit contains materials dating from 1847 to 1894, the year the Bureau of Engraving and Printing took over the printing duty.

Because of a 1977 burglary, the Miller collection, considered the “crown jewel” of American stamp collecting, was removed from public exhibit. So this will be the first chance that stamp lovers and others will have to see these rare examples of early Americana in nearly 30 years.

Step into a room that has been refitted with some of the accouterments of a gentlemen’s study, and you’ll see far more than simply one man’s collection of stamps. You’ll get a glimpse of the style and substance of the past.

Beyond the old vault door at the museum, the Miller collection is a trove of American history in the form of stamps. An imperforate set from the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago gives mute testimony to the fact that stamp collecting had become a mania around that time, Ms. Ganz says. The stamps in the set depict the voyages of Columbus and his arrival in the New World.

“It’s the first time ever that stamps told the full story in a set,” she says.

Pride of place in one Miller gallery goes to a collection of colorful oversized stamps that never saw an envelope. These are newspaper stamps, made back in the days when stacks of newspapers bore the same stamps as packs of cards and tops of liquor bottles.

Then there’s the Z-Grill, the rarest of all U.S. stamps. This is the one that has hard-core collectors salivating and even mild-mannered academic types get that special gleam in the eyes. There are only two existing copies, and they both will be on display beginning June 8.

“It’s the Hope Diamond of postage stamps,” Ms. Ganz says. (The “grill” refers to the small indented pattern that is intended to soak in cancellation ink. Different grill patterns, which can only be viewed from the back of a stamp, were assigned different letters by an early-20th-century philatelist.)

Leave the Miller collection and in another room, rows upon rows of pullout frames house examples of philately from around the world. The U.S. section alone boasts extremely rare pieces from printing companies before the days of the Bureau of Engraving and Printing.

Mail and revolution

The Postal Museum also contains exhibits related to the Postal Service itself, so it turns out to be a place where you can learn a good deal of American history. And much of it is hands-on. You can climb into a truck cab, ride in a stagecoach, and peek into the old Dillsburg, Pa., post office.

Still earlier material points to the nation’s origins, when the Committees of Correspondence fanned the flames of dissent in the 1760s and ‘70s — by mail.

“The post office was crucial in the development of a national identity and the decision to revolt,” Ms. Ganz says.

“Before the Stamp Act Congress,” she says of the crucial 1765 gathering that drew up the Declaration of Rights and Grievances and helped define the issues that led to the American Revolution, “people from the different Colonies really didn’t talk together.”

An exhibit titled “In the Line of Duty: Dangers, Disasters and Good Deeds” highlights the contributions of ordinary folk who did extraordinary things while simply doing their job, like the alert postal worker who spotted 36 mail bombs during the “Red scare” in 1919 and seized them before they detonated.

“This is irreplaceable stuff,” Mr. Failor says. “I don’t know if there’s ever been a show of this magnitude. And you don’t have to be a stamp collector to enjoy it all.”

Because it’s not just about the stamps. It’s about the stories.

WHAT: The World Philatelic Exhibition

WHERE: The Washington Convention Center, 801 Mount Vernon Place NW

WHEN: 10 a.m.-6 p.m. May 27 to June 3

EVENTS: NASCAR Busch Series champion David Green will autograph souvenirs 10 a.m.-noon and 1-3 p.m. May 30. Former NASA astronaut Henry (Hank) Harsfield Jr. will appear 1-2 p.m. in the Kids Zone on May 31, Technology Day.

TICKETS: Admission free

INFORMATION: www.washington2006.org

Visiting postal museum, joining a club

Looking for stamps? Once the World Philatelic Exhibition closes June 3, the place to go is the National Postal Museum. To hobnob with other collectors, check out a local stamp club; many are listed on the Web site of the American Philatelic Society (www.stamps.org). Here are selected resources:


• The National Postal Museum: 2 Massachusetts Ave. NE, in the historic Old City Post Office Building across from Union Station. Special programs and activities are planned to accompany the World Philatelic Exhibition, including instructions on how to start your own stamp collection and a chance to meet Owney, the canine mascot of the Railway Mail Service. 10 a.m.-5:30 p.m. daily. See www.postalmuseum.si.edu.

District clubs

• Palisades Stamp Club: Meets 7:30 p.m. on the third Tuesday of the month, Palisades Branch Library, 49th and V streets NW.

• Washington Stamp Collectors Club: Meets 7 p.m. first and third Wednesdays, Christ Methodist Church, 300 I St. SW.

Maryland clubs

• Bowie Stamp Club: Meets 6:30 p.m. every Thursday except legal holidays, Bowie City Hall, 2614 Kenhill Drive.

• Howard County Stamp Club: Meets 7:30 p.m. first and third Wednesdays, Harpers Choice Middle School, or in members’ homes.

• Rockville-Gaithersburg Stamp Club: Meets 7:30 p.m. second and fourth Thursdays except November and December, Gaithersburg Senior High School, 314 S. Frederick Ave. www.rgstampclub.org

Virginia clubs

• Ayrhill Stamp Club: Meets 7 p.m. first and third Thursdays, Patrick Henry Library, Maple Avenue and Center Street, Vienna. www.angelfire.com/va2/ayrhill

• Dolley Madison Stamp Club: Meets 7:30 p.m. first Friday at McLean Government Center, 1437 Balls Hill Road; and third Friday, The Lewinsville, 1515 Great Falls St.

• Eastern Prince William Stamp Club: Meets 7:30 p.m. first and third Mondays, Potomac Library, Opitz Boulevard, Woodbridge.

• Robert C. Graebner Chapter 17 AFDCS: Meets 10 a.m. second Saturday, Central United Methodist Church, 4301 N. Fairfax, Arlington.

• Springfield Stamp Club: Meets 7:30 p.m. every Wednesday during school year, Lynbrook Elementary School, 5801 Backlick Road. www.springfieldstampclub.org

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