No More Meaningful Than a Postage Stamp?

One can’t seem to give a paper at a conference about coin designs without someone asking, if they’re really any more meaningful than a modern postage stamp [usually in a really special tone of voice].  Because of this ever present question and the resulting need to justify oneself, an apologetic reference to the metaphor is found in most modern books on ancient coin types (examples here and here and here).

The old trope comes from a 1950s debate between Jones and Sutherland.  Jones in Essays Mattingly 1956 and Sutherland’s rebuttal in the widely read 1959 JRS article.  [The latter some kind soul has put up on the web.]

Here’s the thing that gets me.  Who are coin geeks to disparage stamps?!?!  You’ve got to be kidding me that academics and enthusiasts alike can’t see the problem with this analogy as a negative analogy.  There is good, fascinating work out there about the importance of stamp imagery as a vehicle for studying national identity, social norms, cultural trends over time…  Why aren’t we reading this work?

Here’s a good place to start:

The next time someone brings up postage stamps, I’m going to congratulate them on their great positive analogy showing the power of studying coin imagery.
[And if you’ve said this to me or in my hearing in the last two weeks, don’t worry I’m not actually insulted, I just like a good rant. ;-)]
Bye-the-bye.  Just to prove there is an enthusiast for everything here’s a great website that specializes just in images of coins on stamps!


1 thought on “No More Meaningful Than a Postage Stamp?”

  1. A most interesting post. Not sure if anyone else has raised it (it isn’t covered, for example, in Sutherland’s rebuttal), but the functions of stamps and coins also have a place in this discussion. Both, intrinsically, are demonstrations/projections of the state’s power. Stamps reflect the state’s ability to provide for the (purportedly) reliable transmission of information and/or parcels through and across its territory; a demonstration of its control not only over the land itself and its inhabitants, but also over communication. Coins, in their acceptance as a medium of exchange, not only enable commerce but are a demonstration of the state’s involvement in, and perhaps control over trade (at least internally and sometimes internationally). The (or at least one) distinction is that stamps are mere scraps of paper of no intrinsic and very little fiduciary/token value, generally only useful one time. On the other hand, gold and silver coins have intrinsic value and coins serve not only as a means of transmitting/exchanging wealth (= power) that is used repeatedly (until lost or horded), but as a means of storing wealth and indeed even making wealth more easily transportable.

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