Australia’s national treasure Black Caviar has been immortalised in a set of stamps designed to commemorate her twentieth consecutive win. And stamp enthusiasts are quietly confident that the superstar mare’s high profile will reinvigorate the flagging hobby, which has understandably faded in popularity since the post-depression era.
The history of stamp collecting in Australia stretches all the way back to the 1850s; however, our first commemorative stamp was issued in 1927 to mark to opening of Canberra’ first parliament house. In the interwar years, seminal cricketer Don Bradman was celebrated in a range of iconic stamps, while the first Australian multicoloured stamps appeared in 1956 as part of a Melbourne Olympic Games commemorative issue. Indeed, stamps of sporting icons have proven to be the most popular ticket items for keen philatists – with an orginal 1948 Bradman stamp now estimated to fetch some A$5,000 in today’s currency.
However, since the internet burst onto the scene in the 1990s, the institution of the Post Office has faded in relevance – and, as a result, the antiquated hobby has taken a dive in popularity. Emails, texting and tweeting have almost completely usurped snail mail, with the old fashioned handwritten letter now only employed by tech-illiterate pensioners and the occasional ironic hipster.
But the Black Caviar tribute stamp is looming as a saviour for the embattled stamp industry. In fact, leading philatist Ernie MacArthur predicts that Australia’s Great Brown Hope will propel the hobby back into the mainstream and pique the interest of a new generation of children.
MacArthur boasts an impressive stamp collection, in anyone’s language. Fingering through his enviable stamp album, he points proudly to his 1927 original of US aviator Charles A. Lindbergh as “my all-time favourite;” with the throughly modern, limited edition 2012 Diamond Jubilee minature set (marking 60 years since Queen Elizabeth II’s accession to the throne) “a close second.” However, he is clearly besotted by Australia Post’s new range of Black Caviar stamps, describing them as “a collector’s wet dream.”
“The exceptional detail in this stamp truly captures the majesticness of the beast – it manages to simultaneously articulate its brutal, primal muscularity with a soft femininity, the pride of Australia and a true winner,” he says.
“I think this is what [philatists] have been waiting for. This could really kickstart the hobby again.”
MacArthur points to the Shane Warne stamp collection, ‘The Artistry’ – four specially commissioned oil paintings by Australian artist Phillip Howe for the West Indies Government of Grenada – as evidence that commemorative sports stamps retain a place in the collective hearts of modern society.
“From what I’ve been told, the Grenadians flocked to their local Post Office to get their hands on the Warney set. Sure, Grenada is yet to have any form of broadband infrastructure and they’ve got two TV channels – so there’s obivously fuck all else to do there all day – but the fact is they sold out of ‘The Artistry’ range in about two hours. I mean, shit, they went faster than Splendour tickets this year!”
But despite MacArthur’s high hopes, University of Sydney sociology professor Gary Potter says that children these days – with attention deficit diagnoses skyrocketing over the past three decades – simply lack the patience and attention to detail required for stamp collecting.
“It was probably the end of the 1940s when stamp collecting began to lose its status as the number one hobby in Australia and the US. The 1950s brought with it a street-based youth culture, with social activities like dancing – as evidenced in the film Grease – and the rise in punk kids loitering on street corners also beginning to gain traction,” he explains.
“As the twentieth century progressed, there was greater emphasis on home-based leisure and recreation, with radio, television, video-players, hi-fi sound systems and personal computers all taking their place in society. As a result, kids flocked from the more cerebral activities [like stamp collecting] towards immediate gratification: collecting was seen as a long-term investment, and therefore uncool.”
In 2012, the idea that stamp collecting could take off again appears absurd at first glance, but Potter says it could emerge once more – if it sheds its antiquated image. “There’s actually an app that allows you to collect stamps; if we can get kids involved that way, maybe it will take off. I hear that the 1930 Phar Lap stamp comes up really well on the new iPad’s HD Retina screen.”
It’s yet to be seen whether Australia’s stamp collecting scene can again reach the dizzying heights of the interwar period. For the hopes of an industry rest simultaneously on the sturdy shoulders of tabloid darling Black Caviar and those of the Apple fanboi generation.
By Dave Edwards