Michael Frechette loves stamps. He’s been collecting them for over 60 years. He spends his free time researching Connecticut postal history, volunteering with the Boy Scouts and running the New Haven Philatelic Society, a space for fellow enthusiasts. Frechette loves stamps — he just can’t quite explain why.
“It’s a strange question, why people collect stamps. Why would they? They’re little tiny pieces of paper that you stick on things that nobody uses anymore because we all use email.”
Yet there we all were. On a Tuesday night in mid-January, fourteen of us gathered in the storefront of the Chapel West Special Services District office. We were early. The meeting usually starts at 7:30 p.m., but everyone was there by 6:45 p.m. — settling into chairs around the long center table, ruffling through briefcases, sneaking glances at the auction desk. Most of the society’s members were well into retirement. “Come over and sit with us,” they called. “There’s a postcard of the Beinecke you should see.” A limited-edition “Looney Tunes” set someone bought the other week. A book of Czechoslovakian stamps by Alfons Mucha — “pay attention to the border, look at the red swirly bits over here.”
Frechette rapped on the table. The table is really two tables, a mismatched plastic pair joined at the ends — plus Brian McGrath’s desk. McGrath sat alone over by the wall and interjected loudly every now and then.
“Well, the good news is that Ross is not dead,” Frechette announced. Ross recently appeared among the deceased in the national stamp newsletter, but Frechette spotted him on Sunday looking very much alive. Apparently, this kind of thing happens every so often. “My obituary was in the newspaper a few years ago,” said Ron Zacks, a longtime member of the club. Vern Nelson, the club secretary, started keeping cards in the back for the occasion. One can never be too prepared.
McGrath, however, is not the condolence card type. He’s the counterweight — the voice that rings out unexpectedly from the far wall, makes people jump, sets things straight. Sometimes, the voice translates German. Other times, the voice finds creative ways to announce the night’s auction. Other times the voice tells people to pay $15 for this box of stamps from the 1930s, and they grumble amongst themselves and pay it.
McGrath doesn’t sugarcoat things — just ask him why he’s here. He won’t tell you he started collecting stamps because he wanted to be part of a vibrant and loving philatelic community. He didn’t even start collecting stamps because he liked them. He just did it because his mother told him not to.
When McGrath’s mother was growing up, philately, or the study of stamps, was “pretty much mandatory.” Teachers encouraged kids to collect postage because they thought it would help them learn geography and languages. By the time McGrath was 7 years old, his mother owned nearly 5,000 stamps from the around the world. McGrath was strictly instructed not to touch them, and so he did.
Everybody was doing it. Stamp collecting was enormously popular at the time, so much so that major companies started to take note. Ivory soap offered incentives for philatelists — send in 10 soap wrappers, and they’d give you 100 foreign stamps. Postage was even a form of currency: When immigrants traveled to America during the world wars, they often carried their wealth in the form of stamps. Soldiers also caught onto the trend and looted post offices on their way home.
Wherever these travelers arrived, the hobby boomed. Hundreds of stamp dealers set up shop across the East Coast. McGrath remembers taking the train up to New York to visit them: “The entire Nassau Street had over 20 stamp dealers on just one block.” Even New Haven had three retail stamp stores scattered across town. One of these, the Collector’s Shop, was right on Broadway. Thriftier options were also available at all the downtown five and dimes. “We’d go down there and buy a bagful of a thousand foreign stamps for $1, and then we’d trade at school.”
That school was Yale. When McGrath first joined the New Haven Philatelic Society, about 50 percent of its members were Yale students and faculty members. The club even leased a building on Wall Street for its weekly meetings — “our favorite home,” he remembered. But Yale’s most significant and longstanding contribution to the New Haven stamp scene has been entirely unintentional. The University just happens to receive a lot of foreign mail.
“For the last 50 years, hundreds of thousands of application letters came into this Yale University,” McGrath explained. “Virtually none of them escaped.” Employees and staff with an eye for philately would save the more interesting envelopes, and they’d eventually trickle down to the collectors. “We see boxes full of envelopes addressed to Yale admissions going back to the 1930s. It’s incredible.”
McGrath has been collecting stamps for nearly 70 years now. “I look for what they call the Cinderellas,” he explained. “Unlisted, forgeries, special stuff that you need foreign languages for.” Seven languages, to be exact. He speaks German and Spanish, reads Hebrew, Arabic and Italian, and could probably decipher some Cyrillic in a pinch. It’s not just about translating catalogs — things become meaningful when you understand the context.
Say rebels try to overthrow the government in Crete. They plan it out, issue a set of stamps for the new regime — but the revolution never works out. So now there’s a whole set of almost-Cretan stamps floating around, which are available for purchase but which were never actually legal.
This sort of thing doesn’t appear in your typical catalog. Everyone else misses it. But McGrath, of course, owns a Greek catalog. He’s been reading up about the 1905 Theriso revolt in his free time. He finds a Cinderella.
Other treasures are hidden closer to home. Right now, the club is on a mission to collect postmarks from every single post office in the state of Connecticut. Frechette has been involved in the search for several years, and it’s no small task. “There’s 169 towns in Connecticut, but over the years there have been over 800 post offices,” he said. As the towns evolved, they left behind a trail of offices created, abandoned and repurposed. It’s the perfect opportunity for philately — track the postage, and you can track the history of the state.
A few years back, the club stumbled on a postmark from a now-defunct office called “Ore Hill.” The town doesn’t exist anymore, so they took a closer look. They found a giant iron mine in northwestern Connecticut that had been forgotten for decades.
Frechette admitted that his discovery isn’t particularly useful. But it is satisfying. “Just learning stuff is a pleasure,” he said. “Some people don’t want to, they’re tired, done with school, done with all this. But we like it.”
Here’s what Nelson likes: the plague. He collects stamps on all sorts of critters and the diseases they spread, plus the famous people who’ve died from them. Notables include George Washington and John Adams, the occasional saint and a surprising number of popes.
Nelson’s collection goes back to the 1960s, but he’s always finding something new. “The biggest thing about stamp collecting is that you can take it in any direction you want to.” The diseases, critters and presidents collection now includes normal people — stamps that raise awareness, help victims or depict the affected regions. And if malaria gets boring, there’s always Zika: “I found a souvenir sheet from the Solomon Islands at the World Stamp Show in New York two years ago,” he recalled.
You don’t have to go very far to find a stamp featuring the next mosquito-borne epidemic. One of the oldest shows in the country is right here in New Haven. On the fourth Sunday of every month, dealers from around the Northeast come to set up shop. They have it all. Prizes. Gifts for kids. Snacks. Lots and lots of free parking. Any type of collectible is welcome, from coins to postcards to Indian arrow points. With luck, the event will draw some of the more secretive hobbyists out of the woodwork and into the philatelic community.
Before New Haven’s club took over, however, “The show was dwindling away. The people that ran it wanted to make a profit, and if they didn’t, they quit,” McGrath explained. So the members stepped in. They turned the show into a nonprofit and volunteered their own labor to keep it running. Over the past 40 years, it has become one of the most successful events of its kind.
“We’re not in it for the money,” Frechette said. “Some dealers do it to make a living, but not us.” The show holds special value to him — even when commuting every week to work in Washington, D.C., he always made a point to stop by on Sundays. “There’s some absolutely stunningly beautiful stamps that have been produced over the years.” Sometimes it’s just nice to spend an afternoon surrounded by beautiful things — a museum in miniature, every fourth Sunday.
For many Americans, spending a Sunday at a stamp show doesn’t carry the same thrill that it did for McGrath and Frechette when they were kids. In 2000, about 40 percent of new members recruited to the American Philatelic Society were younger than 50. By 2016, the number had dropped to just 13 percent. Younger generations haven’t caught onto the hobby the way their parents and grandparents did — stamps and the people who collect them seem increasingly like relics of the past.
“When’s the last time you got a letter?” Frechette asked pointedly. A letter — not a package from Amazon, or the millionth blue flier from Chase Bank — but a real, live letter. “The opportunity to look and see what’s out there has been greatly diminished,” he says. Thanks to email, there’s no reason to rush to the post office for this year’s duck stamp or a special Walt Disney commemorative issue. We’d never use them.
The U.S. Postal Service is also to blame. Even if we did rush over to the post office, we’d probably just see a bunch of identical “forever” stamps with the American flag plastered across them. “I’m mad at the U.S. government,” said Stan Sablak, a longtime member of the club. “They don’t make stamps to commemorate anything anymore.” The really interesting stuff — the stuff that kids used to scramble to the post office for — isn’t as big a deal as it used to be. “They’re making stamps just to make stamps. It’s totally useless.”
The society isn’t new to change. As recently as 1985, only men were allowed to become members. According to McGrath, “People wanted to drink wine and swear, and … they felt they couldn’t swear in front of women.” The club spent three years debating whether it should integrate. Some people even threatened to resign if women were allowed to join. In the end? “Now we all swear in front of the women.”
Today, the members are acclimating to a new online environment. As it turns out, this isn’t actually a bad thing. “I think the internet is definitely expanding the number of collectors,” McGrath said. “And it’s absolutely expanding any collector’s ability to find cheap stamps that they previously couldn’t find.” The best thing about stamp collecting is the fact that anyone can do it for next to nothing. In McGrath’s opinion, the internet is making the best thing better.
As for Sablak, he’s also adapting. Now he collects covers — the full envelopes, addresses and postmarks included. “They tell stories you wouldn’t believe.” Like the first and only time the U.S. censored mail inside its continental boundaries: Los Alamos, New Mexico, P.O. Box 1660. Sablak has 3 covers addressed to this box, including one addressed to the military, one to a civilian and a third marked “special delivery.” When you look at the special delivery cover, you’ll notice a funny bit of tape on the end. That’s where the censors sealed the letter back up before passing it on to the creators of the atomic bomb.
But even one of the only censored letters in continental U.S. history isn’t worth very much. Frechette estimated that 95 percent of what’s out there isn’t valuable. “Stamps are good for one thing and one thing only: getting stuff through the mail. They can only be used once, that’s it. They don’t really have any intrinsic value.”
It creates a peculiar duality. Since stamps are so cheap, anyone can collect them — just walk over to Yale admissions and see what you find in the garbage. But on the other hand, the histories behind the postage are so dense that it can take a serious collector months to piece through them. McGrath really did research an entire revolution just to find one kind of stamp. Nelson really has spent 50 years of his life collecting postage about malaria.
But why? This is what nobody could quite explain to me. They could estimate offhand the number of Yale affiliates who have appeared on stamps or name each foreign air mail line from the 1930s, but no one was able to articulate why they cared enough to know any of these things in the first place.
Of course, it’s “interesting.” They like “learning.” Stamps are “pretty.” But these words don’t capture the urgency with which Ron Zacks pulled me aside to explain the border on Alfons Mucha’s stamps. Or the look on Nancy Barr’s face when I asked if she’d ever give up her collection. “I just can’t quite part with it.”
Around 9:30 p.m., the meeting on Chapel Street reluctantly drew to a close. People pulled on coats and then forgot to leave. Nelson reminisced about the ’90s, when the Elvis stamp came out and everyone wrote fake addresses so the envelopes would be stamped “Return to Sender,” like the song. Frechette lingered over the club’s forgery collection. The trick is in the flowers, he explained — four miniature petals that no forger could quite figure out how to replicate. If you squint just right, you might notice a smudge or a lopsided petal dangling from the stem. These things are easy to overlook — but for Frechette and his fellow philatelists, the small curiosities are the most precious.