Richard Ralston Collects Culture Through Stamps

April 28, 1997

Should the discovery of a world in a grain of sand elude you, Richard Ralston suggests you continue the search in a postage stamp.

It's only a shade larger, yet Ralston maintains that stamps are much more revealing than practically any other cultural indicator, including sand.

Ralston, professor of Afro-American Studies, is an avocational stamp historian. "It's different from being a collector," he says. "Collectors are the folks who buy or subscribe to every new United States stamp and want first day cancellations of all of them. They also have books and books of stamp albums, stamp hinges, glassine envelops, tongs and loose issues. I don't collect for rarity. I don't collect for errors. I'm interested in stamps as history."

And there is a good deal of that to be gleaned from stamps, he says. For example, the Panama canal is where it is (in Panama, not the preferred site in Nicaragua) because a Panama-backer supplied every U.S. senator with a Nicaraguan stamp depicting a volcano there erupting enthusiastically, albeit fictitiously: The volcano was extinct.

Ralston wrote an essay on the subtext of stamps earlier this year for a Wisconsin Humanities Council's 25th anniversary series. In the article, he notes that American postal history seems to have reflected many prevailing attitudes toward African Americans; it wasn't until 1940 that the postal service issued its first stamp featuring an African-American subject (the abolition of slavery).

Later that year, Tuskegee educator Booker T. Washington became the first black individual depicted on a stamp. Following his appearance were stamps depicting scientist George Washington Carver (1948), a second Booker T. Washington stamp (marking the centennial of his birth in 1956), "St. Louis Blues" composer W.C. Handy (1969), artist Henry O. Tanner (1973) and poet Paul Laurence Dunbar (1975). They were the sole examples of African Americans on postal service stamps until the Black Heritage stamp series, initiated in the 1980s.

By scholarly profession an Africanist with a special interest in the relationship between the U.S. and Africa, Ralston has accrued stamps from all over the world. Some of the most interesting, he says, are from Guyana. He even has managed to sneak mention of a stamp into his Caribbean History course.

It is possible for students to explore the social, economic and natural history of the Caribbean basin through its stamps, he says, via "depictions of flora and fauna on Trinidadian stamps, the domestic economy of Haiti from stamps showing market women, the arrival of the English featured on Barbadian stamps and the Columbus story told through a joint Italian-Spanish stamp issued in the Virgin Islands."

Ralston adds that stamps afford some Caribbean countries -- many of them seeming almost postage-stamp small -- an important means of interaction with other nations. "Countries such as Trinidad, St. Vincent and the Turks are the most philatelically active in the world, constantly issuing collectibles of interest to hobbyists in North America and Europe," he says.

Although not a collector of postal rarities, Ralston does own one such curiosity: an O.J. Simpson stamp "issued in Guyana about a year before the unpleasantness in California," he says. "The stamp is not a very good likeness. It serves to remind us that sometimes stamps get it wrong, sometimes by non-inclusion altogether but other times by capturing and freezing an image that simply isn't so.