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Wall Street Journal

A History of America in Stamps

A new book tells the story of U.S. history through postage

1 of 18 [ For the slideshow of 18 photos which accompany the following 18 descriptors, see:  http://online.wsj.com/articles/a-history-of-america-in-stamps-1416597141 ]
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-Critics at the time described this 1995 stamp as ‘drab.’  Smithsonian National Postage Museum
-Used copies of this stamp that are in decent condition sell for about $40.  Smithsonian National Postage Museum
-This stamp was first issued in 1869.  It happened to come out the year that the first transcontinental railroad was built, though it depicts a different train.  Smithsonian National Postage Museum
-Depicting Edwin Stanton, decent used copies of this stamp today would cost about $25.  Smithsonian National Postage Museum
-Commemorating a new luxury liner commandeered by the Navy in 1898, this 1901 stamp was part of a series showing America’s technological achievements.  Smithsonian National Postage Museum
-Issued in 1919, this stamp can be found in various shades.  Smithsonian National Postage Museum
-This 1923 stamp was based on a William A. Coulter painting.  Smithsonian National Postage Museum
-A Lindbergh commemorative stamp from 1927.  Smithsonian National Postage Museum
-A United Nations Peace Conference commemorative stamp.  Smithsonian National Postage Museum
-Based on the postwar stamps of 1948, writes Mr. West, people seemed eager to get back to normal life:  ‘Aggressively normal, if the rather wooden-looking boy and girl in this stamp are anything to go by.’  Smithsonian National Postage Museum
-In the midst of the Cold War, this 1959 stamp celebrated the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.  Smithsonian National Postage Museum
-This 1963 ode to the Emancipation Proclamation was first stamp designed by an African-American, artist Georg Olden.  Smithsonian National Postage Museum
-For Mr. West, this 1972 stamp of 19th-century author Sidney Lanier—including his full beard and the style of the portrait—reflects the time it was made.  ‘He has this John Lennon look,’ he says.  Smithsonian National Postage Museum
-In 1974, even stamps encouraged energy conservation.  Smithsonian National Postage Museum
-Designed by Peter Cocci, this stamp first came out in 1981.  Smithsonian National Postage Museum
-Rock stars began appearing on stamps only in the ‘90s (Elvis got his in ‘93).  Before then, musicians on stamps were mostly limited to classic composers.  Smithsonian National Postage Museum
-This 1996 stamp was issued to mark the 50th anniversary of the U.S. Army’s ENIAC, a groundbreaking early computer.  Smithsonian National Postage Museum
-The famous photo of three firefighters who took a flag from a boat and planted it on the site of the Twin Towers on 9/11 became a stamp the following year.  Smithsonian National Postage Museum

What can you learn from postage stamps?  According to writer Chris West, they can tell a whole country’s history.  In a new book, “A History of America in 36 Postage Stamps” (Picador, $28), Mr. West describes his subject as “little rectangular time machines.”  Starting with the embossed stamps from the Stamp Act of 1765, he uses postage to describe the major events of U.S. history, including wars and technological innovation.  He continues through the present, when he went to Stamps.com to create postage in his own image.  “I thought that said something about the way modern society is, the ‘look-at-me society,’ ” he says. “ But it also says something about democracy, in that today anybody can be on a stamp.”

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