From prig to bohemian in just five short decades

I have a confession to make. I used to be a stamp prig.

That’s because deep inside I’m a bit of a traditionalist. Growing up with the mail was royal, complete with the national coat of arms, posties wore military-style uniforms, and stamps from the government had the imprint “On Her Majesty’s Service.” Stamps were similarly staid and solid. With the exception of Christmas stamps, which were a little more colourful, most were printed in just one or two colours and it was rare to see anything but a Queen Elizabeth II definitive on letter.

As a result I grew up seeing stamps as sort of government calling cards, and I expected the government to be boring and without surprises. It wasn’t just Canadian stamps, my world album was stuffed full of definitive stamps. My monthly purchase of a bag of 500 stamps for a dollar invariably contained about 450 Spanish stamps featuring General Franco in various colours and values. The remaining 50 were mostly boring monochrome definitives. After the first couple of bags, it took a lot of hunting to find a new stamp.

Pretty much the sole exception was Switzerland, which often featured rural and urban scenes.

Over the years, Canadian stamps became more attractive, but still somewhat unexciting. Flora and fauna competed with provincial symbols and dead politicians on most stamps I saw, along with the Queen.

Even into the 1970s, the only politicians I knew by sight were Sir John A Macdonald, Lester Pearson, John Diefenbaker and Pierre Trudeau, and only one of them was dead and eligible for a stamp.

So stamps were boring, repetitive, and designed to teach me a lesson about the land of my birth. No wonder I wasn’t particularly interested.

I came to Trajan Publishing in 1990, to work on the coin and collectible art magazines, joining the stamp team more than 10 years later. During that time, I saw a bunch of stamps that just didn’t fit in with my perceptions. I saw stamps with monsters and superheroes, or even cut out in balloon shapes. Deep down inside I was offended. I wanted my stamps to be like my government, dignified and without any nasty shocks. I looked at Canada Post’s annual stamp program and assumed that things were totally out of control. I was even kind of glad I was the coin guy.

Then stamps became part of my day-to-day world.

It was obvious to me that I came in at a low point in Canadian stamp history. Canada Post was dumping dozens of issues, including those horrendous prestige booklets that looked like nothing more than a corporate sellout. To make matters worse, average Canadians were allowed to send in their own pictures and have them printed on stamps. Surely this was a sign that the barbarians were at the gate and the dark ages of philately were about to descend upon us all.

Then something happened. I realized that some of the weird stamps made me smile. Yes a few made me cringe, but I realized that some appealed to my irreverent side. I like to call it my puckish side; most people simply find it annoying.

If these stamps had an appeal for me, I reasoned, perhaps they had an appeal to others. Besides, I sort of noticed that I was turning into one of those hidebound individuals.

So I embraced the new direction in stamps. Haunted hotels? Scuba divers cavorting with whales? Bring them on as they look great beside the parade of beasts and flags that adorn the rest of our stamp world.

My first choice remains military mail and postcards because they have a story to tell; after that bring on a stamp that brings a smile to my daily routine.

The funny thing is, back in the days when I was a youngster I was always excited to see one of those Swiss stamps, just because they were different.

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