Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Relax with Stamps

“So many compensations reward the stamp collector that it is difficult to decide which is the greatest benefit to accrue from his avocation. After all, the sheer delight which it affords justifies our interest, and brings ample returns to our effort.” US President Franklin Delano Roosevelt

It seems a paradox that philately, which offers such tremendous mental stimulation and challenge, should at the same time be a hobby which is noted for its powers to relax and calm its adherents.

Of course, not everyone can find both stimulation and relaxation in stamp collecting: for some the stimulation of the hobby is so powerful that very little relaxation enters their philatelic activities; for others the restful aspects of the hobby are its most important attraction, and these people are not interested in the mental challenges which philately can provide. A surprising number of collectors, however, are able to combine the two apparently contradictory objectives, thus obtaining stimulation and relaxation from the hobby. This important aspect of philately was perhaps best summed up by the late Harry Lindquist, founder and for many years editor of Stamps, a leading American weekly publication, when he wrote:

“There is something peculiarly soothing to the mind and calming to the nerves in stamp collecting. No matter how inescapable may be the trouble that is weighing him down, the collector will find temporary forgetfulness in his stamp albums. Then, after an hour or two with his stamps, when he returns to his problem, it is with a refreshed mind and outlook; he often finds that the old enigma has a solution after all, which his tired mind, running in circles, had not been able to discover. The hobby of stamp collecting not only heals and refreshes the tired mind, but it becomes a healthy stimulant to the idle mind. The reason that the burdened mind is rested during a session with stamps is that the brain is quickened into other avenues of thought by many fascinating subjects they suggest. These same qualities stir the mind that has been dulled by inaction, as sometimes happens to our retired folk, or guide into worthwhile activity the eager mind of youth.”

Csar Nicholas II & King George V

Csar Nicholas II & King George V

Czar Nicholas II of Russia and King George V of England. Their portraits appear on many postage stamps and it is difficult to distinguish between the two men. Can you pick who’s who from this photo? The man on the left is the Czar: the uniforms may have fooled you but the royal cousins swapped them for the occasion!

Among the many monarchs who have found pleasure and relaxation in the hobby of stamp collecting was King George V of England, who began collecting when a young man in the Navy, and who adhered to the hobby with tremendous enthusiasm throughout his life, amassing the finest collection of British Empire stamps ever assembled. This is the famous Royal Collection now owned by the King’s granddaughter, Queen Elizabeth II. In his autobiography of the great art dealer, Lord Duveen, S.W. Behrman tells how Duveen’s Uncle Henry (also a Duveen, and a noted London art dealer) early in life formed a close friendship with King George V, as a result of their mutual interest in stamps. The author relates how at ten in the evening Uncle Henry Duveen would go along to Buckingham Palace and sit with the King to study their stamps for hours, while Queen Mary embroidered. On some occasions they were joined by the King’s cousin, Czar Nicholas, another keen philatelist who later was to lose both his life and his stamps in the Russian revolution.

1927 Egypt stamp featuring King Fuad

1927 Egypt stamp featuring King Fuad

1913 Russia stamp featuring Czar Nicholas II

1913 Russia stamp featuring Czar Nicholas II

1912 Great Britain stamp featuring King George V

1912 Great Britain stamp featuring King George V

From top to bottom: King Fuad of Egypt, Czar Nicholas II of Russia, King George V of England.

Queen Elizabeth

Queen Elizabeth

The world’s most valuable collection of British Commonwealth stamps is the Royal Collection owned by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II. Although the Queen herself is not a stamp collector, she takes a keen interest in the collection formed over a period of three-quarters of a century by her grandfather, King George V, and her father, King George VI.

The best documented example of the therapeutic value of stamp collecting for ulcer prone executives and administrators concerns the late President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who turned to his stamp albums to ‘unwind’ from the cares of office and to take his mind from the pain that racked his body as a result of the bout of infantile paralysis he suffered as a young man. The importance of stamp collecting to President Roosevelt has been recorded by Harley Williams in his book The Conquest of Fear:

“He had a remarkable faculty of relaxation. His stamp collection, a hobby begun at the age of eight, was now carried on, and no U.S. issue went out lacking his personal approval. Indeed, the President carried books of stamps to all his international conferences, and loved to bargain for specimens, ten dollars being his upper limit.

“As he used to watch his patient, sitting perfectly carefree, while he examined his blues and greens, it came to Dr Mclntyre (Roosevelt’s physician) that a whole treatise could be written about the healing effect of such hobbies.

Around this man in the White House, who was absorbed in philately each night before going to bed, the storm raged as it had never done even around Woodrow Wilson … dignified Americans declared that their President should be certified insane … he faced his enemies with the same outward composure as he moved his paralysed legs. Upon such a regimen of severe mental labour, diet, massage, swimming and stamp collecting, the President took his first four-year term in his stride.”

US President Roosevelt inspecting his stamps

US President Roosevelt inspecting his stamps

Franklin Delano Roosevelt was an enthusiastic stamp collector who found peace and relaxation working on his stamp albums. This hobby gave him respite from the cares of office during his long term as President of the United States.

The therapeutic value of stamp collecting for President Roosevelt has also been attested to by his son, James Roosevelt, in the foreword he wrote for the book Eleanor and Franklin D. Roosevelt Stamps of the World, by Philip Silver and Jan Bart and published in 1965 by the American Topical Association. These are the recollections Mr Roosevelt had of the philatelic activities of his famous father:

“I am delighted with the fine effort of Phil Silver and Jan Bart in their book, and I am sure it will bring great joy to many stamp collectors. Further, I hope that it will be a reminder of how stamp collecting as a hobby can be turned into not only a part-time occupation - as it was in the case of my father - but therapy as well, better than any doctor could have prescribed.

“I have vivid memories of Father sitting at his desk, when he had a half hour or an hour with no appointments, and with the hope that the telephone would not ring, with his stamp books and an expression of complete relaxation and enjoyment on his face. Of course, in his early life the stamps had given him an interest in the geography of the world which visitors, at a later day were to comment on with amazement. He knew countries, rivers, mountains, cities and their characteristics in a detail which, even though he (in many instances) had not been there, gave a feeling of closeness between himself and his visitors concerning their homelands.

“To you and I who have complete movement and can relieve our tensions by just getting up from our chairs or desks even for a few seconds, it is hard to realize how deep were the frustrations of one who knew that movement was an effort rarely to be considered without outside help. Thus, it was the ability to reach for a box full of envelopes with stamps from abroad, accomplish his aims. undertake his responsibilities and perform his duties, I am absolutely sure.”

An unusual story on the relaxing powers of philately dates back to August 1914, immediately after the outbreak of World War I. At the time the German freighter Willehad, under the command of Captain H. Filsinger, was steaming for the west coast of the United States when the British cruiser Essex loomed on the horizon and gave chase, intent on sinking the enemy ship. The Willehad took immediate evasive action and made a run for it, without lights, through a heavy North Atlantic fog. After almost a hundred hours on the bridge, Captain Filsinger finally shook off the Essex and steamed into the safety of Boston harbour. American newsmen who boarded the Willehad to get first-hand reports of the exciting chase found Captain Filsinger, after a couple of hours’ rest, elated but still careworn and tired with bloodshot eyes. What amazed the reporters was the fact that they found the captain in his cabin with a large stamp album in front of him, calmly engaged in mounting specimens he had acquired from a previous voyage. His first act, after greeting the newsmen, was to draw their attention to the excellence of his Canadian collection. From the press reports of the day, it is clear that the reporters regarded Captain Filsinger as somewhat eccentric. Not being philatelists, they were unable to appreciate the fact that the captain was able to find in his stamps the relaxation he needed after his ordeal.

The medical profession has not been slow to recognise the significance of such stories, and there is an increasing trend to use hobbies such as stamp collection as a therapeutic weapon in the fight against mental stress. Extensive experiments along these lines have been carried out at Veterans’ Administration hospitals throughout the United States and at the New York Institute of Physical and Medical Rehabilitation.

The most extraordinary case history to emerge so far from such experiments, however, comes not from America but from Germany where a doctor’s recommendation that a patient should take up stamp collection to cure his extreme nervous tension led direct to the capture and ultimate execution of Adolf Eichmann, the Nazi war criminal.

This story has been related in detail by the man concerned, Simon Wiesenthal, in his book Ich jagte Eichmann. Wiesenthal was near death in the infamous Mauthausen concentration camp when it was captured by the American army in May 1945. After expert medical treatment, Wiesenthal recovered some of his physical strength and joined the War Crimes Office of the American army. But the mental stress he had gone through in the camp played such havoc with his mind that he suffered from insomnia and by 1948 was close to a complete nervous breakdown. The doctor whom he consulted realised that Wiesenthal needed an interest strong enough to expunge the torturing memories of Mauthausen. He recommended stamp collecting.

Until that time, Wiesenthal had no interest in philately, but he realised the soundness of the doctor’s advice and decided to take up collecting to quieten his nerves. Of this period he wrote:

“I don’t wish to serve as a publicity agent for stamp dealers, but I must admit that the new hobby really diverted me and put my mind at rest. I bought some catalogues, magnifying glasses, a pair of tweezers etc. and spent my evenings bent over the stamps which caught increasingly my imagination. It made me forget the events of the preceding day. It became a passion with me.”

As Wiesenthal’s interest in philately increased so did his circle of philatelic friends, and soon he was corresponding with fellow collectors in all parts of the world. In 1953, while holidaying in the Tyrol, he learned that an elderly Austrian nobleman wished to sell part of his collection. He contacted the baron, who invited him to his villa near Innsbruck. During his stay at the villa, the talk turned from stamps to their wartime experiences and to Nazi war crimes in general. The baron mentioned that he had recently received a letter from a philatelist in Argentina, a former army colleague. As the baron thought the letter might be of some interest to Wiesenthal, he located it and passed it across for him to read. Wiesenthal’s eyes lighted on this startling paragraph:

“I have already met a few acquaintances here. Lieutenant Hoffman, who belonged to my regiment, lives here, as well as Captain Berger of the 188th Division. Furthermore some other acquaintances you do not however, know. Fancy whom I saw here twice already, an acquaintance of mine has actually even spoken to him. It is this miserable swine Eichmann who commanded the operations against the Jews. He lives near Buenos Aires and works for a water company.”

Wiesenthal was stunned by this paragraph since he knew, from his work in the War Crimes Office, that all the efforts of the Israeli Secret Service and other agencies to track Eichmann had, up to that time, failed. Every word of the letter was burned into his memory, but he did not allow the baron to notice his upset and shortly afterwards he made his apologies and left. He immediately passed the information on to the Israeli Secret Service agency, thus setting in motion the machinery that was to track Eichmann down, positively identify him, and, finally lead to him being kidnapped and smuggled back to Israel to face arrest and ultimate execution, bringing to a close one of the great dramas of the twentieth century - a drama which began when a German doctor urged a patient to take up stamp collecting as a means of steadying his nerves!

Bill Hornadge


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