The postage stamp as cultural property and micro-artwork

For the 175th anniversary “Swiss Postage Stamps 1843-2018”

by Urs Knoblauch, cultural journalist, Fruthwilen TG

The history of communication, postal services and, in particular postage stamps, gives an interesting insight into international communication as well as into the diversity of creative and cultural expressions of people in the respective nation states. Already 5,000 years ago people used knots, symbol script on wood, clay tablets and papyrus as their exchange medium. In the Middle Ages, the monasteries became centres of literacy. Postmen often carried the messages to their recipients on long and dangerous routes by water and on land. Soon signposts and distance markers appeared on the scene. In the 17th century, stagecoach operators created the first offices resembling modern post offices with stamps and postmarks on postcards and letters. The technical development was rapid. Infinite small inventions and improvements contributed to that. As per invitation to the interesting exhibition at the Museum of Communication in Berne, “Stamps are not only a mirror of cultural history, but also a Swiss success story,” that introduces well to this multicultural and identity-building cultural property.

1874: Foundation of the Universal Postal Union in Berne

On 1 March 1843, Switzerland was the second country worldwide after the United Kingdom to introduce the postage prepayment system with the Zurich 4 and Zurich 6 stamps. Additionally in 1874, the Universal Postal Union was founded in Switzerland, in the assembly hall of the “Äussere Stand von Bern” (was a historical ceremonial society of young citizens of Berne), where its seat is still today. With this honourable office, the Swiss Confederation has also taken on a great social responsibility. Hence, the postal system is based on mutual human trust, mutual help among people and an ethic of peaceful coexistence.
For 175 years countless creations of art enabled human relations on equal terms by letters, postcards and packages to all countries and remote regions of the world is possible in a variety of languages and forms. Often, well-known artists were invited to the design of postage stamps and design competitions were carried out. In Switzerland traditionally special stamps are issued annually for aid organisations, humanitarian and social concerns as well as for anniversaries. Stamps became a valuable national and international collector’s item, collecting is mostly cultivated in families and through numerous active clubs, exchanges of stamps and friendly relations. Just today it is a meaningful stimulus for families and schools to revive this cultural heritage of handwritten postcards and letters in times where digitalisation becomes dominant.

Cosmopolitan and independent Switzerland

Even before the foundation of the federal state in 1848, Switzerland was cosmopolitan and economically and culturally innovative. Through its four-language and cantonal tradition and diversity as well as its neutrality and the rejection of violence and wars of aggression, the Swiss Confederation acquired a sought-after diplomatic and democratic mediating role and culture. In 1871, shortly after the foundation of the Red Cross in 1864 this international aid organisation and the Swiss population provided exemplary humanitarian aid in the internment and care of the 87,000 suffering Bourbaki soldiers in the Franco-Prussian War.
This certainly contributed to the fact that, at the suggestion of the German General Postal Director Heinrich von Stephan, the Allgemeine Postverein, one of the oldest international organisations with 22 member states, was renamed the Universal Postal Union (UPU) in 1874. Since 1909, Berne has been home to the impressive World Post Memorial “Autour du Monde” (“Around the World”) by the French sculptor René de Saint-Marceaux. It shows five postwomen embracing the globe while exchanging letters of joy and sorrow. Over time, international agreements were signed on the occasions of the World Postal Congress. In 1947, the Universal Postal Union became one of the numerous specialized agencies of the United Nations. Down to the present day, Switzerland holds its pioneering role in the postal sector and thus bears a great responsibility.
Against this historical background, the current business policy and radical free market plans and processes are particularly worrying, not only in the postal services, forming an important basis of public services, but in numerous public institutions in the state and “services” up to school and healthcare! The population is well advised to protect these cultural properties and evaluate the extolled short-term “benefits” and modern technologies within the larger framework of cohabitation.

A presentation well worth seeing and inspiring educational material

On this occasion, the Museum of Communication in Berne has organized an interesting exhibition under the motto “Extreme – 175 Years of Swiss Stamps”. In addition to insights into the genesis of stamps, the program-supported exhibition offers a look at some of the most important and expensive stamps in Switzerland. Some examples of the 10,000 original stamp designs and around three million stamps can be admired as well as interesting video portraits of stamp collectors.
A catalogue and an inspired booklet on Swiss history for schools, “Dented and stamped – Stamps as a window to Swiss history and historical culture” have been issued for the exhibition that lasts until 8 July 2018. Although some of the usual official “historical narratives” are heard in the teaching material, the students are objectively, respectfully and interestingly introduced to some important aspects of Swiss historical culture. Thus,  we read: “Stamps are sources of history. Stamps in Switzerland are pasted on letters for 175 years. They are consciously designed works of art and authentic historical sources of the last 175 years, i.e. the epoch of modern Switzerland. They show their development, their people, their achievements and their crises.”
It is very deserving that the original booklet was commissioned by the Association of Swiss Philatelic Associations (President: Hans Schwarz) and developed at the Institute for History Didactics and Remembrance Culture of the Lucerne University of Education. It has been published by the educational publishing house of the Canton of Lucerne. (Authors: Karin Fuchs, Hans Utz, project management: Peter Gautschi) This example shall illustrate how important it is for a country and the world community to teach the subject of history.
The authors are aware of this, because the freedom of teaching materials and the careful and broad-based technical cooperation when developing teaching aids was a great achievement in Switzerland. They write: “The booklet offers an opportunity to get to know our history and deepen our knowledge through stamps. It combines easily understandable general information with tasks that lead to own discoveries. It can be used on its own, combined with other educational materials or in combination with a visit of the exhibition.”
Due diligence is an urgent necessity at a time when even in Switzerland thorough teaching of history was abolished by reform strategists as an independent subject in schools. This jeopardizes the necessary “learning from history” and the knowledge base of an honest, free and lively democracy with self-determination, concerns for the common good and critical resilience. Thus, in the chapter “Switzerland under threat – Strength through History”, the authors objectively point out the decisive importance of “Spiritual National Defense” alongside the military measures and quote an impressive excerpt from General Henri Guisan’s speech to the soldiers on 25 July 1940 at the Rütli.
The solid and richly illustrated bilingual catalogue (German and French as official world postal languages) was designed and realized by the philatelist Hans Schwarz (Seengen). In his contribution, the historian Tobias Kaestli (Magglingen) addresses the civic significance of stamps and emphasizes: “A nation is a political community that wants to assert itself in the world with its own cultural identity.” (P. 28) He touches upon the importance of the sovereignty and unity of Switzerland and on the example of the diversity of the cantons and associations flags and the unifying Swiss flag and adheres: “The federation acted cautiously. Swiss patriotism should not be dictated from the high ground, but be rooted in the spirit of federalism and nourished by the federal idea.” (p. 31)
In his welcoming address, Councillor Hans Stöckli (President of the IG Stamp) points out that “the invention of adhesive postage stamps by Sir Rowland Hill in 1840 […] for the formation of the modern Confederation of 1848 came just at the right time” and he continues that in the US National Postal Museum in Washington, the three issued cantonal stamps of Zurich, Geneva and Basel are among the top five stamps in the world. According to Stöckli stamps shall “help to historically embed events and people and give orientation on important things in and for our country”. This motto also applies to all states and the entire world community, all of which are linked to the pigeons of peace.     •

Further details: Museum of Communication, Helvetiastrasse 18, 3000 Berne 6, Tel. +41 (0) 31 357 55 55, www.mfk.ch
(Translation Current Concerns)