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Editor’s Cuts: Collectors on the Radio

2015 October 27
by Sheila

As I enter into the final (crossing fingers) revisions of Stamping American Memory, I’ll be trimming and revising. Some sections have to go, because they don’t totally fit. Below is one of them. I’ll save a few sentences for “Who Collected Stamps?” but the rest is gone. So, I’m posting it here for your reading pleasure:

 

With the emergence of commercial broadcasting in the U.S. in the 1920s, listeners not only tuned in to hear musicians and comedy acts, but also listened to stamp collecting programs. E.B. Powers from Stanley Gibbons’s New York office hosted a program that broadcast on WJY and WJZ in New York, WOR in Newark, and WNAC in Boston. Newspapers listed daily programming from their home city and from other regions that reveal shows running from fifteen minutes to one half hour. Mekeel’s tracked philatelic radio programming and listed nine regular shows in 1932 broadcast from stations in Illinois, Georgia, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, New York, and New Jersey. By 1936, more than 60 stations broadcasted philatelic shows. Those who listened regularly were exposed to stamp collecting practices and “the drama of the postage stamp.” 1

As radio emerged as a medium to advertise as well as to provide entertainment and news, it is not surprising that professional stamp dealers like Powers hosted the program and served as the philatelic expert. His presence on American radio not only spread the word about philately, but may have also encouraged the commercial side of collecting and investing. It is unclear whether Gibbons officially sponsored these programs, but it is easy to see how Powers could promote his company as the place to shop or consult for philatelic advice.

Radio not only broadcasted stamp collecting programming, but it also connected collectors and helped them obtain new specimens. When listening to KDKA in Pittsburgh, one collector learned that the station received a letter from the United States Shipping Board vessel Cathlamet, detailing that the ship picked up the station’s signal on the radio while sailing near what is now Ghana on the west coast of Africa. While the station was thrilled that their wireless waves carried that far, the collector contacted the station and asked for the envelope bearing the letter read on air. To his delight, the director saved the envelope and the collector went to the station to pick up the envelope affixed with a stamp from the Gold Coast British colony (now the nation of Ghana). According to this individual, “stamp collecting and radio were working in harmony at last!” First published in the New York Times, this story was reprinted for philatelic audiences in the Philatelic West. 2

Other collectors combined an interest in short-waved radio with philately. Part of the thrill for George Mathewson and other amateur radio enthusiasts was communicating with hobbyists in other countries. To create a written record of such communication, each operator sent a letter or postcard from their hometown and country that the other would sign and postmark. For Mathewson, the act of receiving many foreign-stamped letters turned him into a stamp collector. Once he established contacts in other nations, he then actively requested stamps from those with whom he communicated. Additionally, as radio listeners tuned into as many stations across the country as possible, they then mailed out postcards to those stations who returned the cards with a unique (non-postage) stamp verifying contact. Radio hobbyists collected those cards and pasted them, with unique station stamps, into albums produced for this purpose, creating a type of “radio philately.” 3 Stamp collecting meshed well with radio enthusiasts’ interest in seeing how far their signals traveled and in connecting with others with similar interests.

As philatelic information spread in different media, stamp collecting attracted new practitioners and appealed to the interests of different people. Magazines, newspapers, and radio programs brought some activities that had been exclusive to philatelic clubs and publications out into a public realm. For collectors who did not belong to a club, this exposure increased their philatelic knowledge or allowed them to connect with the philatelic community through the media. This media presence also exposed non-collectors to the hobby and taught them that many people saw something special in stamps and spent time collecting them.

  1. I have not been able to locate any transcripts or recordings of these stamp programs. Powers’s programs were broadcast in different stations and markets. It is possible that the programs began because radio stations needed to fill air time and daytime programming lacked competition in the early days of broadcasting. “Today’s Radio Program,” New York Times, January 15, 1924, 21; “Today’s Radio Program,” New York Times, February 5, 1924, 17; “Today’s Radio Programs,” Chicago Daily Tribune, January 3, 1924, 6; “Radio Programs,” Washington Post, March 25, 1924, 16; “Broadcasts Booked for Latter Half of the Week,” New York Times, August 12, 1928, sec. XX, 16.; “Chicago Radio Talks,” Mekeel’s Weekly Stamp News 46, no. 39 (September 26, 1932): 476; “Radio Philately,” Mekeel’s Weekly Stamp News 46, no. 41 (October 10, 1932): 504.; and Frank L Wilson, The Philatelic Almanac: The Stamp Collector’s Handbook (New York: H.L. Lindquist, 1936), 110–11. For a few sources on the history of commercial radio, see Alice Goldfarb Marquis, “Written on the Wind: The Impact of Radio During the 1930s,” Journal of Contemporary History 19, no. 3 (July 1984): 385–415; Susan Smulyan, Selling Radio: The Commercialization of American Broadcasting, 1920-1934 (Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1994); Susan J. Douglas, Inventing American Broadcasting, 1899-1922, Johns Hopkins Studies in the History of Technology (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1987).
  2. “Stamp Collector Finds Radio Useful in Locating Specimens,” New York Times, January 23, 1927, sec. X; and “Stamp Collector Finds Radio Useful in Locating Specimens,” Philatelic West 85, no. 3 (May 1927): n.p.
  3. Kristen Haring, Ham Radio’s Technical Culture (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2007); “Stamp Collector Finds Radio Useful in Locating Specimens,” New York Times, January 23, 1927, sec. X, 16; “Stamp Collector Finds Radio Useful in Locating Specimens,” Philatelic West 85, no. 3 (May 1927): np; “Amateurs Becoming Radio Philatelists,” Christian Science Monitor, November 4, 1924, 6; George M. Mathewson, “Radio Philately,” Mekeel’s Weekly Stamp News 43, no. 41 (October 14, 1929): 616.
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