Monday, September 20, 2010

The Mother Theresa Stamp and the Cultural Legacy of Postage

Unveiling of the Mother Theresa postage stamp Sept. 5th, 2010 at the National Shrine. Postmaster General Jack Potter was in attendance (immediately to the left of the stamp).

Over the recent Labor Day weekend, S and I visited Washington D.C. where purely by chance we stumbled on a stamp unveiling. We were touring the National Shrine—the mosaics are breathtaking—when we realized the ceremony occurring at the front had little to do with normal services.  The United States Post Office had a covered display at the front, so we wound our way up the side aisle and came across a placard announcing that a stamp for Mother Theresa was being issued. (This actually explained the large number of nuns present wearing her traditional white and blue sari.) So we found a spot along the wall and settled into to watch.

While the primary purpose of stamps has been to pre-pay for the transportation and delivery of mail, postage icons have marked histories around the world. The world's first postage stamp was the Penny Black invented by Sir Rowland Hill, founder of the Penny Post. It was issued in 1840 by the United Kingdom, and depicted a young Queen Victoria. Seven years later, in an effort to modernize the American postal system, the Benjamin Franklin, 5-cent stamp was issued. Franklin, the first American postmaster, was selected for the image over the recently deceased Andrew Jackson—in part, because he would be recognized as a unifying figure between the conflicted states.

Kristi Evans (1992) has a really nice study that demonstrates using this type of cultural record with regard to Poland. She discusses unofficial stamps that were created by the outlawed Solidarity union. The images used for these stamps present a particular view of history and provide a snapshot of Poland in the 1980s.

Solidarity positioned itself as representing the desire of the Polish nation (the people) to oppose the state (recognized as "Eastern, alien, despotic—as in a word, Russian") (Evans 1992: 751). The stamps often included imagery suggesting sacrifice on the part of the nation in enduring the state. They highlighted events that could take on huge symbolic import for the nation and become integral to identity—a shared national memory remembered through the printing and use of stamps.

For example, in Poland in 1940 Soviet secret police murdered Polish nationals in the Katyn Forest. The order was based on a proposal to execute the Polish Officer Corps, and some 22,000 people were killed. This event came to be known as the Katyn massacre. Evans describes some of the Katyn stamps in her research (1992: 754):
    A. The word "Katyn" alone, constructed from crosses. 
    B. "Katyn," with a forest and the emblem of the Soviet Union. 
    C. "Matka Boska Katynska" (Madonna of Katyn) with crosses in a clearing. A box in the upper lefthand corner of the stamp frames the picture of a weeping mother and child. 
    D. "Katyn," with a stylized drawing of a person standing like a cross and weeping. 
    E. "Katyn," with a gun pointed at the head of a blindfolded man. 
    F. "Katyn," with white candles (against a black background flickering in a triangular formation. 
    G. "Katyn 1940," with a prominent red star, a skill wearing a Polish military cap, and the exclamation "[We remember!!!]" written in red and stylized graffiti.
The images evoke a sense of "betrayal and sacrifice," and in connection with Polish history create a very specific point of identity:
By grounding Poland's defining events in a particular space, representations by place creates a geographically situated consciousness of history and "Poland." Poland is defined in opposition to Russia, to the Soviets, and to the Communists, and all three are collapsed into the Katyn image (Evans 1992: 756).
Stamps helped transmit these ideas via circulation, and ensured their longevity as collectors preserved them for posterity. In owning stamps, people claimed a certain connection to the nation and to a shared history. This is a particularly salient point given that the majority of Solidarity stamps were unofficial and not used to circulate mail:
In collecting underground stamps, individuals can appropriate for themselves the subversive images of the imagined community and locate themselves within a community partially defined by the circulation of these images (Evans 1992: 750).
This sense of sharedness, this connection, can help us understand the significance of certain events as experienced by nations and the ways in which they choose to represent themselves.

This is evident in our own postal stamp history. Unfortunately, I cannot copy US stamp images here because they are protected under copyright law, but a survey of the stamps displayed demonstrate that commemorative stamps through the ages highlight advances in transportation, communication, and industry, as well as achievements in the arts and sciences, and much more. The American Art collection provides a clear example of marking these sorts of achievements. 

The Mother Theresa stamp celebrates this amazing woman, but it also claims a portion of her legacy as our own. In commemorating her in this way, we recognize and support the work she has done, and align ourselves with her ideas:
Stamps, which are the basis for the circulation of correspondence, facilitate communication while simultaneously expressing certain ideas and emotions through their own imagery (Evans 1992: 750).
Stamps may face an uncertain future as we move increasingly toward digital means of communication. I don't know that snail mail will even be entirely eradicated, but there may be less of a need for decorative postage as time goes by. It will be interesting to see whether stamps take on purely a symbolic role, or if they are destined to be removed as cultural currency entirely.

ResearchBlogging.orgEvans, K. (1992). The Argument of Images: Historical Representation In Solidarity Underground Postage, 1981-87 American Ethnologist, 19 (4), 749-767 DOI: 10.1525/ae.1992.19.4.02a00070


  1. In commemorating her in this way, we recognize and support the work she has done, and align ourselves with her ideas:

    Such an inclusive "we"! Because the U.S. Postal Service puts her face on a stamp, "we" "align ourselves" with Mother "abortion is the greatest destroyer of peace in the world" Theresa? Mother "friend of Papa Doc Duvalier" Theresa? Do "we" similarly "recognize and support" and "align ourselves" with the "work" and "ideas" of Agnes Gonxhe Bojaxhiu's fellow stampees Greta Garbo, Rachel Carson and Mickey Mouse? All that by putting them on stamps?

  2. Yes! That's exactly right. The pronoun was chosen intentionally. We--meaning you and I--don't choose the images chosen for stamps; neither did the Polish people, but the images do speak for us whether or not we want them .to and whether or not we purchase and use those stamps. When a historian finds them years from now, she's not going to say, "Well, Daniel and Krystal never used the Mother Theresa stamp, so they much not have supported her." No, the stamps imply that "we" as a nation do align ourselves with her. If they're all the record that's left one day, this is the message they send. At least that was my reading of Evans - and I'm glad you poked me about it.

  3. I love stamp and loved this articel. When I was a boy I inherited a large collegection for a great uncle. It opened my eyes to the world and made me curious about the people and places on these little works of art. Thanks!

  4. That's a fantastic story, Mark. Thanks for sharing.

  5. I swear I was not drinking when I typed that comment. No explanation for those misspellings. Wow. That journalism degree sure paid off.

  6. I chalked it up to jet lag. ;) BTW, what happened to that stamp collection?