The virtues and rewards of a hobby for all ages
This article by APS member Douglas Friedman is the first in a three-part series adapted from his column "My Hobby Became a Life Saver!" This week, Friedman remembers his introduction to stamps at his grandfather's Redondo Beach home and ponders a potential purchase.
In 1929, Vatican City started issuing its first postage stamps. Being a very small piece of land in the middle of Rome, you’d wonder why they’d ever need postage stamps to begin with. But stamp collecting had grown to become a widespread hobby and it was a lucrative business for small countries to print postage stamps knowing most would be sold to collectors, offering a great profit to these tiny countries and principalities.
My grandfather Joseph Friedman was one of those collectors. From my youngest days in the early 1960s visiting Grandpa Joe at his apartment in Redondo Beach, California, I was fascinated by watching him add postage stamps from around the world to his collection. Whether ripped off envelopes from far-off places and soaked in water to remove them from the paper, or new issues purchased at the U.S. Post Office or philatelic offices in Israel, the Vatican, and the United Nations, the stamps told a veritable wealth of stories from their places of origin.
Friedman's Grandpa Joe, pictured in Sausolito, California in 1954.
Grandpa Joe started me with my own children’s beginner album when I was about 10 years old, the kind where you can place the real stamps over the pictures when you find them on mail. I’d visit on weekends sitting at the dining room table with my beginner album, stamps, tweezers and hinges while he’d place his new issues in the bright red Elbe springback albums I aspired to use one day.
The feeling I had every time I’d go to his home and watch him open the coat closet to pull a small suitcase from the high shelf excited me to no end! Inside there were envelopes with stamps from hundreds of places around the world, and I would be able to sort through those to find what I’d want to put in my album that day.
I’d eagerly scan his latest copy of Linn’s Stamp News, reading the articles, the ads, and one particular favorite feature, Apfelbaum’s Corner, an ad in which stamp dealer and author Earl Apfelbaum would wax poetic about the virtues of stamp collecting and other thoughts on life.
A clipping of Apfelbaum's Corner, from Friedman's collection.
By 16, I was adding stamps occasionally to Grandpa Joe's album, which involved placing the new stamp issues on blank pages, “framing them” with blue and red lines from a ballpoint pen, and writing a brief description of the subject portrayed on the stamp, whether it be a famous person, geographical location, animal or historical event. I was so passionate about stamp collecting that I wrote this on only my second day of keeping a journal at the age of 16 on September 18, 1973:
I have been there many times. A meeting place where members of every nation come together. Representatives of different lands, travelers, reaching the farthest corners of the earth, all gather and are received with great admiration.
Where else can such a wide variety of different tastes, different types, different personalities meet? I visit this place almost daily.
The history of the past and the world of today meet here. Where unrelated subjects come, every one with its own story. A certain conciseness, yet a vagueness in the same room. So much to question, so much to be told. A meeting place for every nation, they all come together and tell their stories here…my stamp album.
My brilliant Grandpa Joe understood my fascination. He had been a collector since the late 1920s, and had in his United States albums an unbroken string of new issues dating back to then, plus even older issues he picked up off envelopes or at stamp dealers going back to the late 1800s.
He also had an enviable Vatican City collection, which he'd started by getting the new issues from a dealer in Brooklyn at slightly over face value. In 1934, however, a new series of high value stamps was issued, where the face value was significantly higher than the postage for a simple envelope. My grandfather's dealer told him that if he couldn’t afford the high price of $35 (just north of $800 in today's dollars) for the set, he would happily accept payments of five dollars a month (about $115 today). “You don’t want this set to be the only hole in your collection,” the dealer told Grandpa Joe. But the price was too steep in the middle of the Great Depression, so he passed.
By my mid-twenties, Grandpa Joe was into his 90s and unable to add new issues to the albums himself. I had taken over the purchasing and placing into albums all of the new issues from the United States, United Nations, Israel, the Vatican, and another country I began myself, Great Britain. And then, in the mid-1970s, I realized Grandpa Joe's dealer had been right — that set was indeed the only hole in his Vatican City collection. The price of the once $35 set was at that time was…$3500. Even then, I was asking myself if I should bite the bullet and spend THAT much, lest it be double that by the time I was passing the collection on to my own grandchildren. But, like Grandpa Joe, I passed on the purchase.
Grandpa Joe's suitcase of stamps, today part of Friedman's collection.
Sixty some odd years after I began my stamp collecting journey, I still have Grandpa Joe's suitcase with the stamps in envelopes, alphabetically ordered with his handwritten labels. I pull it out every now and then just to feel his presence. A few years ago I found something I’d not seen before…tucked away in a corner, a clipping of an article from Linn’s Stamp News about that Vatican set he passed up in the 1930s. Above the article was this handwritten note:
Doug, you may want to get this one day. Grandpa
Those Vatican stamps my grandfather couldn’t afford in 1934 and I passed on buying for $3500 fifty years later is now available on eBay for about $1000 (or best offer). It’s still out of my price range, but I ask myself, “should I or shouldn’t I?”
Next week, join Friedman as he explores his adulthood collecting journey and revisits his experience bringing stamp collecting into the computer age.