[See also by Joe Guzzardi: An Italian American Says Basta! To Hispanic Heritage Month]
When I was a boy, I collected baseball cards and stamps.
Baseball consumed me. Collecting cards was a logical extension of my passion. Moreover, buying the bubblegum packs had a social element to it since it allowed me to trade and flip cards with my friends.
Who cared, as the 1953 Tony Bartirome card asked: "Until what year was the batter out when the ball was caught on the first bounce?" (Answer: 1858)
Unlike baseball cards, stamps opened up a new world to me: American history. And since October is National Stamp Collecting Month, I'm reminded of what a valuable role stamps played in my early education.
For reasons I still cannot fathom, when I got involved in stamps over five decades ago my attention was immediately drawn to the 1938 U.S Presidential series, called the "Prexies" with engravings of the presidents from George Washington to Calvin Coolidge.
The early presidents' stamps had a face value the same as the order in which they served, e.g., the seven-cent stamp, Andrew Jackson, the eleven-cent, James K. Polk and the nineteen-cent, Rutherford B. Hayes.
Those stamps, and all the presidential series that followed it, sparked my interest in presidential politics that has followed me into adulthood. Lots of kids knew Mickey Mantle's batting average. But I was the only one in my school–teachers included–who could name, in order, the U.S. presidents.
Searching the Internet for likenesses of these stamps, I cannot imagine what drew me to them. They had a simple bust of the president and their colors were dull and drab.
But once introduced to them, the stamps engrossed me. Luckily for me, a retail stamp collectors' store was just a few blocks from my home. I would wander down to it and the kindly owner let me gaze at his inventory, gave me tips about how to care for my collection and answered the questions that I posed to him.
The owner's generosity paid off for him. One day my father, for no particular reason, bought me a huge magnifying glass. Of all the wonderful gifts my parents gave me throughout the years, the magnifying glass is the one I most fondly remember.
As I look back, I can see myself perusing my collection–holding a stamp in a pair of tweezers and examining it for possible flaws with a magnifying glass as big as my head.
The hobby has changed over the years. I spoke with Ken Martin, the American Philatelic Society's Deputy Executive Director who told me that there are fewer than 400 retail stores left across the country.
The American Philatelic Society is the largest nonprofit collectors society in the world. In its special "For Kids" section, the APS offers up funny facts about stamps' history: in Belgium in 1879, cats were used (unsuccessfully) to deliver mail; from 1840-1900, Queen Victoria was the only subject allowed on British stamps and early American stamps without gum on the back were sewed to envelopes.
Like everything else, the Internet is a boom for collectors. The worldwide web allows you to visit the Smithsonian National Postal Museum in Washington DC where you can see, among other things, John Lennon's childhood stamp album and read a history of the U.S. Postal Inspection Service.
Even if you do nothing with stamps except put them on envelopes, the U.S. Postal Store can make your life easier and more fun. Why wait in line at the post office if you can go to its website, choose the latest issues–Jimmy Stewart, Pacific lighthouses and Marvel comic heroes—and have them mailed to your home for $1.00 shipping.
The stamp sold out immediately at all the Lodi post offices and the USPS store.
So my hunt was on–and I had fun tracking down the elusive stamp that I will never put on a letter.
Finding the Jamestown stamp marks the beginning of my new collection.