Attending the Postal History Symposium

Jack Trammell
Jack Trammell presenting at the Postal History Symposium

Last Thursday, I completed an eleven-day philatelic road trip that included the fifth annual Postal History Symposium and a stop in Bellefonte to prepare for next year’s Summer Seminar. This will be the first of several postings related to the trip. 

Rather than various aspects of postal operations and reform that have occupied previous symposia, the speakers this year examined stamps from the perspective of “Imagery, Icons, & Identity.” To answer the frequently asked question of how the USPS selects stamp designs, John Hotchner led off the symposium with a history of the Citizens Stamp Advisory Committee (CSAC), on which he served for 12 years. Most interesting to me was to learn that when Postmaster General Arthur E. Summerfield established CSAC in 1957 the committee included a representative from the U.S. Information Agency to advise on stamp designs for Cold War propaganda. This probably accounts for the Champions of Liberty and Credo issues. 

Perennial favorites Diane DeBlois and Robert Dalton Harris, who have presented at all five symposia, opened Friday with an examination of Hermes, the Greek messenger god, as an international icon and symbol for postal services. The first seal of the United States Post Office was not the striding horse, introduced with the reorganization in 1836, but was in fact Hermes. This original seal, along with many of the objects in their presentation, are currently displayed in an exhibit, which opened in April and will close in November, at the Danish Post & Tele Museum

While many presenters took historical or philatelic approaches to their topics, Jack Trammell, professor at Randolph-Macon College, showed how stamps are utilized in popular culture. His presentation, “Postage Stamps as Cultural Markers,” examined the use of stamps and cancellations, or even stamp-like images in the realms of advertising and popular media. Jack discussed how marketers convey messages of connectivity, dependability, and ordinariness with stamps. 

Many of this year’s papers and presentations are available on the symposium website. Also, selected papers from the symposium will be published by the Smithsonian Scholarly Press in a volume similar to the one I discussed in an earlier post. 

Like all philatelic events, the social interactions, on breaks and over breakfast or lunch, are just as important as the planned program. From the beginning, we conceived the Symposia, as places to foster postal history conversations open to academic as well as philatelic postal historians – a place where scholars who are passionate about stamps and post offices can gather, whether or not they have become collectors. So, I renewed old conversations, made new acquaintances, and gathered news about philatelic books nearing publication, which I will share as they are released.