Collecting Stamps in a Networked Era
The last time I saw a postage stamp, the summer of 2015 was coming to its end. It was on a postcard featuring a picture of an Italian coast. A friend travelling there had sent it to me. On it he had written teasingly that I could have been there too, if I did not spend so much on gear.
I received the postcard after my friend had come back. The stamp was from Canada. International stamps were too expensive; especially for communication so trivial it could have been dealt with by email, Facebook, or even Instagram.
Today, encountering a stamp is a rare thing: most of what we get through the post is either bills, government communications, or advertising. And most, if not all of it, is sent in pre-paid postage enveloppes.
But certain people are in constant contact with stamps: philatelists, the stamp collectors. To them, one could say stamps are a not a rare thing. After all, they have whole binders full of them. Still, they can also be extremely rare items: some are worth hundreds, if not thousands of dollars, depending on the global offer and demand for scarcer stamps.
What makes some people collect stamps in the digital, networked age? Is it nostalgia for a simpler, slower time? Is it a way to preserve history? Or a certain form of art? Or is it an obsessional, compulsion-driven hobby?
Norman Caron has been twice president of the Union des philatélistes de Montréal, a Montreal-based stamp collector association: from 2006 to 2008, and from 2010 to 2012.
The first time he bought stamps with the mindset of collecting them was in the late 50s at a corner store.
"I do not know why I bought them. They came in small pouches, and I took three of them," Caron says. "Some people buy chocolate bars on a whim, I bought some stamps. They cost something like five cents."
He joined the Union in 1982, after being a member of other clubs.
The history of the Union des philatélistes de Montréal goes back to 1933, when its headquarters were based in a room inside the Café Saint-Jacques on 455 Sainte-Catherine Street.
"It is, maybe, the first, and the last philatelist club there will be in Montreal," Caron says.
The first club in the province opened in 1931 in Quebec City, and an anglophone one had opened around the same time called the Westmount Stamp Club.
In the 80s, there was a large number of stamp collectors clubs. There were even some reserved to kids. They are all closed by now, except the Union.
Today, the Union presents stamps expositions every year in Montreal. "They used to be elitist event," Caron says. "There were medals and a trophy for the best expositions."
Now, they gather record-breaking attendances, with easily 350 to 400 people visiting the yearly EXUP (EXposition Union Philatéliste), and they are a lot less competitive then they were: they gather vendors and collectors, and the Union offers workshops and meetings for members and visitors alike.
"Other expositions gather less then 100 people," Caron says. "I even saw once a stamp exposition with only eight visitors. We make sure to publicize our expositions to everyday people; sometimes they already have a very small collection, and they learn here that there are other people like them."
On every meeting, the association brings in around 100 people, and there are new members each time. "As other clubs close, some of their members join us," he says. The median age of the Union members is around 65 years old, and it used to much older than that.
"Most of them are baby-boomers who just retired and are looking for a hobby," Caron says. "Millenials do not collect things, and I mean by that anything. It is just not something they do."
Mr Caron says that on 100 younger people who inherit a stamp collection, 99 of them will usually sell it, while only one will join the association and preserve the collection.
"We should not put our hopes on younger people to take stamp collecting further in the future," Caron says.
He is dumbfounded on why stamp collectors collect stamps. "Years ago, stamps were one of the only ways to open yourself to the rest of the world. But today, with the Internet, we can see the Eiffel Tower in 3D."
"Some people tried to make money with it," he says. "But no one makes money in this."
He makes a comparison with people who collect paintings, even though they do not have wall space available anymore. "It might be a desire for possessing, accumulating, manage," he says. "Often, once someone's collection is complete, they lose their interest in it. They lose the thrill of finding a new collection piece."
"But it is truly incomprehensible," Caron says. "I have a friend who is a psychologist. He wrote a book about it. He never found the reason why people do it."
The 42nd exposition of the Union des philatélistes de Montréal, EXUP42, will take place on April 21 and 22, 2017, at the Maison du citoyen, 7501 François-Perreaul.