Thursday, August 31, 2017

Where Worlds Meet or Perhaps Collide

Several years ago on a whim, I purchased a packet of 100 worldwide stamps that mostly feature dinosaurs.  The Mystic Stamp Company originally assembled and sold this packet.  For reasons not relevant to this post, my philatelic interest from my early teen years has robustly revived and that dinosaur packet (found under a bed after a dusty search) now sits on my desk, the object of some study, offering a sense of two worlds – paleontology and philately – meeting.

Here are a few examples of these stamps.

I’ve concluded that this collection, regardless of how it was brought together, actually constitutes a fairly representative sample of how dinosaurs, and by extension, things paleontological, have been treated on postage stamps.

There are several sites on the web that allow me to make this kind of generalization beyond just my small sample of 100 stamps.  For instance, I consulted with Stamps2Go, a great marketplace for folks selling and those buying postage stamps, which currently has 750 stamps for sale that are nestled under the topic “Animals:  Extinct:  Dinosaurs.”  Admittedly, not all of them are dinosaurs, but most are.  (Later edit:  To be sure, among the 750 stamps are duplicates of the same issue being offered by different sellers.)

Then there’s another website that proves once again that if you can imagine it, it’s probably already on the web.  The Paleophilatelie site is the brainchild of Paleophilatelist in Munich, Germany, who married his interest in fossils with his stamp collecting, creating in the process a beautiful virtual collection of worldwide postage stamps (and related postal items such as first day covers and cancellations) with some relationship to paleontology.  It’s a source of endless fascination (though perhaps that may be true for me just because I’ve been sucked into the black holes of these two interests).  Anyway, I have found it great fun to go through his collection of stamps; one can either browse the full gallery or select stamps from specific countries.

So, based on my sample and what I see at sites like the two just described, I’ve reached the two following conclusions:

  • The artwork and details in these stamps are mostly second rate.  No other way to say it (unless third rate is more appropriate).  Details often seem wrong.  Among the offending aspects are the proportions of various body parts of the animals, the structure of appendages, the animals’ posture, and their general environment.  Even if the details are right, the artwork mostly fails to bring these creatures to life.  Sad stuff.
  • Fossils are missing from the vast majority of these stamps.  In general, postage stamps don’t depict the fossils that underlie our understanding of how extinct ancient animals (and plants) looked and lived.  In my sample of 100 stamps, only one shows a fossil skeleton of a dinosaur.  (I certainly won’t extrapolate from that and suggest that only one percent of postage stamps with dinosaurs or other things paleontological shows fossils.)  The one in my collection was the lowest denomination issue that was part of a five-stamp set released in 1991 to honor that nasty, ill-tempered British paleontologist Sir Richard Owen, a doyen of paleontology in the mid 19th century who coined the word dinosaur.  The stamps feature somewhat stylized portions of skeletons of various dinosaurs, including Iguanodon, the only one of the dinosaurs depicted on these stamps whose fossils Owen actually knew.  (The discussion about these stamps on the Paleophilatelie site is helpful.)

Although some countries do quite nicely with fossils on their stamps, such as Germany, the question remains why fossils are the general exception.  Are fossils harder to illustrate?  Are we (the general public, postage stamp users, or collectors) assumed to be more attracted to depictions of the living creatures or, perhaps, considered likely to be put off by fossilized bones on our stamps?  Maybe fossils are thought to be too static, failing to convey action very well.  Frankly, I don’t think that’s true of fossils, and the inferior artwork used for many dinosaur stamps certainly puts a lie to the notion that illustrating the living animals is necessarily the avenue to attractive, action-filled stamps.

How do U.S. stamps fare in this kind of discussion?  Most of the stamps in my dinosaur packet come from African and Asian nations.  None come from the U.S. though the U.S. has featured illustrations of living dinosaurs on a number of occasions.  For instance, here is a stamp issued in 1970 titled The Age of Reptiles.  (It is in the public domain and downloaded from Wikimedia Commons.)

The artwork on the U.S. stamps I’ve looked at is certainly passable, if generally not memorable.

What of fossils on U.S. stamps?  My search of Arago database of all U.S. stamps on the Smithsonian’s National Postal Museum website turned up exactly one stamp with fossils, featuring a fairly abstract illustration of a trilobite and some ferns.  It was issued in conjunction with the Knoxville World’s Fair in 1982, and bears the title Fossil fuels, one of four stamps in a block with an energy theme (another of the stamps was titled Breeder reactor).  It's telling that that's how fossils came to be on a stamp.  But is that it?  It’s what I could find though I’d be happy to be corrected.

One final note which may relate to a place where the worlds of paleontology and philately do collide, at least in this country.  As I looked at many hundreds of paleontologically oriented postage stamps from across the globe, it was fairly easy to note when the bicentennial of Charles Darwin’s birth occurred (2009) because at roughly that point there was an explosion of Darwin-related stamps from many countries.  The Darwin OnLine website offers a selection of worldwide stamps featuring the great naturalist.  Conspicuously, though not unexpectedly, missing, is the U.S. where I conclude that, even though the published criteria for selection of individuals to be honored on U.S. stamps pose no particular barrier to the British Charles Darwin, the U.S. Postal Service appears to have shied away from offending the religious right.

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