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Their histories stick with us

The world’s first postage stamp (left), issued in Britain in 1840, and the first US stamp, from 1847. The world’s first postage stamp (left), issued in Britain in 1840, and the first US stamp, from 1847. (Photos By Bill Greene/Globe Staff)
By Christopher Klein
Globe Correspondent / February 20, 2011

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WESTON - In this era of e-mail, text messaging, and online bill paying, postage stamps might seem as relevant to modern communications as the Pony Express. Far from being anachronisms, however, stamps continue to fascinate children and adults alike. Stamp collecting remains a popular pastime, with an estimated 20 million Americans engaged in the hobby, according to the US Postal Service.

Just as a handwritten letter stands out amid our modern digital cacophony, so does a local shrine to “snail mail.’’ The Spellman Museum of Stamps & Postal History on the campus of Regis College is one of only two such museums in the country. (The Smithsonian’s National Postal Museum in Washington is the other.) Rotating exhibits in the museum’s galleries showcase postage stamps and postal memorabilia from around the world.

The museum, which opened in 1963, features the collections of Cardinal Francis Spellman, a Boston-area native and avid philatelist who served as archbishop of New York for nearly 30 years, and the former National Philatelic Museum of Philadelphia. Through private donations, including those from notables such as President Eisenhower and Matthew Ridgway, the museum’s collection has expanded to more than 2 million items.

While it is surely Cliff Clavin’s idea of heaven, the Spellman Museum appeals to more than just stamp hobbyists. Perhaps surprisingly, it’s also a hit with a generation more familiar with abbreviations such as LOL and OMG than RFD and ZIP.

The pint-size set seems to have a natural affinity for the miniature pieces of paper, which is particularly good news for parents seeking a remedy for this winter’s particularly virulent strain of cabin fever. Children under 16 are always free, and this school vacation week the museum will expand its hours and host its annual Happy Birthday Presidents Family Day on Thursday. The museum galleries will feature an exhibition of presidential stamps, and there will be hands-on activities, scavenger hunts, and games to teach children about our pantheon of presidents. Kids will also be able to design their own presidential stamps. “We want to get kids to look at as many stamps as possible, ask questions about who’s on them, and get them interested in stamps and the presidents,’’ says Henry Lukas, the museum’s education director.

All year long, the museum caters to children with monthly family days, special scavenger hunts to locate particular stamps among the galleries, and an activity room where kids can rummage through bins of canceled stamps for art projects and educational games. Children are also given free packets of American and international stamps to take home, starter seeds that may blossom into a robust collection.

Inspiration could strike from viewing the British 1840 Penny Black, the world’s first postage stamp, and the first American stamp, which dates from 1847 and bears a likeness of Benjamin Franklin. But what makes stamps so enticing is that they are gateways to exploring history, foreign cultures, politics, science, and the arts. Wander the museum galleries and you are taken on a journey around the world and back in time. As Cardinal Spellman wrote, “Stamps are miniature documents of human history. They are the means by which a country gives sensible expression to its hopes and needs; its beliefs and ideals. They mirror the past and presage the future.’’

“This is not just a stamp museum. This is a history museum as well,’’ Lukas affirms. History buffs will be particularly interested in the colorful Civil War covers that feature elaborate battle scenes, patriotic icons, and images that demonize the Confederacy. One striking caricature depicts the traitor Benedict Arnold giving Jefferson Davis a warm welcome to the underworld as the devil waits with a raised pitchfork.

Another unique historical exhibit displays postmarks and commemorative last-day-of-mailing envelopes from the defunct Massachusetts towns that were submerged to build the Quabbin Reservoir in the 1930s. The collection of stamps and commemorative covers related to the days when Zeppelins pioneered airmail service across the Atlantic is just as intriguing. (One envelope features the image of the Hindenburg in flames and a special cancellation mark: “Hindenburg Explodes!’’)

A current exhibition celebrates the golden anniversary of John F. Kennedy’s inauguration. Along with foreign stamps and souvenir cancellations commemorating Kennedy’s visits abroad are memorial stamps from Yemen to Cyprus to Togo that were issued after his assassination. Sheets of the memorial stamp issued by the US Postal Service signed by Jacqueline Kennedy and the president’s brothers, Bobby and Teddy, are also on display.

Another current exhibit highlights the Theodore E. Steinway collection of stamps with a musical connection. You will find stamps commemorating musical greats from Duke Ellington to Enrico Caruso to Frederic Chopin; stamps featuring enough instruments to make a full orchestra; and playful postmarks from musical-sounding destinations such as Harmony, Maine, and Fiddletown, Calif. (The musical theme continues with a display of philatelic sheet music that includes, naturally, “Please Mr. Postman.’’)

After browsing the museum’s collection, it is apparent that stamps are tiny works of art, and in some instances they can be just as valuable. Lukas points out that some stamps sell for up to $2 million. “In terms of their size, they are probably worth more than a Rembrandt or a Picasso,’’ he says. In case you are wondering if your dusty collection happens to be worth a small fortune, the museum facilitates professional evaluations.

Display cases also feature postal-themed memorabilia. There are vintage board games, including the 1893 “Game of Uncle Sam’s Mail,’’ and a “Tiny Town’’ post office play set complete with miniature stamps, stationery, and postal orders. Visitors can also view celluloid, leather, and pewter cases, some more than a century old, that were used to store postage stamps. One case, designed by author Lewis Carroll and with a “Wonderland’’ theme, sits next to his pamphlet “Eight or Nine Wise Words about Letter Writing.’’

Appropriately, the museum has a post office where you can buy stamps and get letters postmarked — even on Sundays. The old-school post office was moved here from Medfield, although with its wooden façade and brass postal boxes, it feels as if it has stepped out of a Norman Rockwell painting. Close your eyes and you can smell the coffee as townspeople swap gossip with the postmaster behind the window and customers twist the combination wheels to unlock their postal boxes. It’s an enduring connection that makes you realize that, even in a digital age, stamps may truly be “forever.’’

Christopher Klein can be reached at chris@christopherklein.com.

If You Go

Spellman Museum of Stamps & Postal History
Regis College
235 Wellesley St., Weston
781-768-8367
www.spellman.org
Thu-Sun noon-5 p.m. (opening at 10 a.m. on Feb. 23 and 25). Closed major holidays. Adults $8, students and seniors $5, children under age 16 free.
Happy Birthday Presidents Family Day
Feb. 24 noon-4.