Free Market Metaphor: The Historical Dynamics of Stamp Collecting

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Cambridge University Press for Society for the Comparative Study of Society and History


Stamp collecting and industrial capitalism in the United States emerged simultaneously in the mid-nineteenth century. England issued the first government postage stamp in 1840, and other nations quickly adopted the idea. The United States printed its first official stamp in 1847, although it was preceded by the provisionals issued by local postmasters. Postage stamps were a product of the industrial revolution. The adoption of the prepaid penny post in England, while opposed by the General Post Office, was widely supported by large merchants who understood that a low-cost, single-rate system was vital to the communication demanded by an increasingly national market. The adhesive label was originally conceived by the English postal reformer, Rowland Hill, as a convenience for illiterates who would not be able to write addresses on the official envelopes that he preferred as proof of prepayment. Within a decade, almost every major nation in the world had borrowed this device, which became a symbol of the economic transformation of the nineteenth century. I would argue that the collecting of these tokens was a microcosmic performance of the system that created them. Stamp collectors took on many of the key roles of actors in the market economy and played out various conflicts embodied in the larger society in the philatelic arena.