Hotchner: Put Fun Back In Philately

Didja hear the one about the stamp collector who…?
by John M. Hotchner

hotchnerWhen I wear a name badge showing I am a member of the Errors, Freaks and Oddities Collectors’ Club, my wife has been known to chide me with “Which one are you?” And it is undeniable that there is a perception that some, if not all stamp collectors are a bit “off”. As a group we are possessed of a demon that demands we acquire ever more little colored pieces of paper, and often the envelopes on which they have been used. In doing so, we set ourselves apart from most other people and inhabit a mostly solitary world of cancellations, catalogue values, perforation measurements, and other trivia where stamps become a passion that is barely comprehensible to family, friends, colleagues at work, and casual acquaintances. And what others do not understand, they often denigrate or, worse, assign a personality warp to those who practice the unimagined art.

Enough for that meaning of “funny.” It struck me recently as I chuckled my way through a Carol Burnett rerun, that the world is full of comedy, and yet we see little of it in our hobby. It is possible that this is because the practitioners of the hobby in a public setting are involved in serious pursuits; running clubs and societies, studying the endless questions our material raises and writing articles proposing answers, or exhibiting our stamps and covers in competition. These things can be fun, but are rarely treated as being in any sense funny.

Extend this to the questions that are a constant in letters to the editor: How many stamps per year is the right number? What is attractive and effective stamp design? Is there a good way to separate self-stick stamps from paper? What is the latest outrage in postal service policy? Monologue and even dialogue on these subjects is passionate, but distinctly unfunny.

carriers1In fact, when an opportunity comes up to address humor, such as cartoon or other representational art used as stamp designs, the overwhelming response is that this is not serious art, or a serious way to treat a serious subject!

And yet, stamp collecting is supposed to be fun, a respite from the serious matters that make up our normal day-to-day. Part of that fun is humor. We are hard-wired as human beings to enjoy a good laugh. Is there any list of qualities for a possible mate that does not include “a good sense of humor?” Certainly laughing together is an essential glue of any relationship. But I digress…

The fact is that Humorless equals Unattractive. So, is it any wonder that stamp collecting is having an increasingly hard time competing for new adherents when our image is often that of serious clinicians rather than people having fun and sharing smiles?

OK, it is a fact that we are probably dealing with a leopard that is not going to change its spots, but is there any way to increase the humor quotient in philately … to make the hobby more appealing to those who enjoy a good laugh?

I think there is. Our hobby’s public face is multifaceted. It includes our publications, our websites, our exhibits and exhibitions, and ourselves as collectors in how we present ourselves to the unwashed. In the good old days of philately when I was getting involved, there were humor-based columns in our publications, cartoons, an emphasis on the fun in philately. That is much less seen these days, replaced by what to an outsider would be as dull and useless as an insider’s understanding of the workings of the stock market to a non-investor. Make no mistake: Much of this is fascinating to the insider — the serious collector. But it does not sit well with another audience: those we want to bring into the hobby, or even many of those who are beginners and considering whether to devote more time and effort to the hobby.

Part of this problem lies with writers, and part of it lies with editors. When I began my series of cartoon contests in Linn’s many moons ago, the editor at the time was not in favor of the idea. His take was the concept would fail because “Stamp collectors have no sense of humor.” I’m glad I persisted, as 20+ years later, I think the monthly Cartoon Caption Contest has proved otherwise. Everyone has a sense of humor, but as any successful comedian will tell you, it is hard and serious work to make people laugh.

Our hobby’s websites are unfortunately tracking with our print publications. In fact they are often just our print publications. I’m not an expert here, as (showing my age) I don’t have as detailed a sense of what is going on in cyberspace as I do in the print realm. But the Internet is an increasingly important recruiting tool for appealing to younger folks, and it needs to have a humor component every bit as much as the print media does.

Our exhibits and exhibitions — Competition is a good thing. It encourages our best effort, and in philately, it is responsible for much of the geometric growth of knowledge that makes philately a rich and inviting place for specialists. But there is a down side. Despite the fact that it is the exhibit being judged, it can be hard to separate the self from the exhibit; leading to a feeling of being personally judged. Combine this with the scholarship required to attain a Gold medal, and we have seen a trend toward the scientific approach to building competitive exhibits, with the result that many (including some of mine) are dull and boring. It may not be possible to fix this, but again, it is possible to bring more fun into the frames.

How? I’d like to see much more in the way of non-competitive exhibits at our shows; exhibits that are maybe not explicitly funny, but are at least FUN, and present that side of the hobby. Examples? The late Clyde Jennings’ exhibit on outhouses. The late John Briggs’ exhibit on “How to win a gold medal: craftiness in philatelic exhibiting.” The late Jo Bleakley’s “Frog and Toad Trivia.” The late Vernon Moore’s multiframe on music; and other entertaining exhibits… Are you seeing a pattern here? We need a new generation of exhibitors who are not devoted to just the search for Gold medals, but are motivated to present the fun of philately.

And the people, ah, the people. Get any two stamp collectors together talking about their hobby, their dealer experiences, other collectors, and their search for material, and there will be plenty of laughs. But put a stamp collector and a non-collector together, and the discussion will quickly default to values, the benefits of the hobby, and similar serious issues. The fun part does not sparkle in these interchanges.

And speaking of sparkling, if the public face of the hobby is its people, then we need more people like the earlier mentioned Clyde Jennings; not just for his wonderful exhibits (both Gold winners and fun exhibits), but for his wardrobe. Clyde owned a wide range of matching sport coats and slacks (and underwear!) in just about all hues of the rainbow. He always stood out in a crowd, and he always provoked and enjoyed the humorous comments on his newest garb. Just by being there, he made any philatelic event a fun place to be. And while he took his exhibiting pursuits seriously, his object was to bring joy to the faces of those with whom he came in contact. In doing so he made the hobby attractive. We need many more people so motivated.

Fun and humor are not the same thing, but they are first cousins. We need much more of both in our public face. Readers are invited to drop me a line with your ideas on how we can promote those aspects of our hobby; especially among those who are not now collectors.

Should you wish to comment on this column, or have questions or ideas you would like to have explored in a future column, please write to John Hotchner, VSC Contributor, P.O. Box 1125, Falls Church, VA 22041-0125, or email, putting “VSC” in the subject line.

Or comment right here.

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