Behind the cover


Jack Child, author of the pioneering semiotic study of Latin American stamps, Miniature Messages, reveals why his 60-year project has been a labour of love – and what we can learn from the political statements concealed within these images

REVIEW of Miniature Messages

THE GOAL OF Miniature Messages was to take a theoretical approach (semiotics – the study of messages) and apply it using a multidisciplinary approach to the history and politics (national and international) of the smallest icons of Latin American popular culture: postage stamps.

Why bother? It seemed to me that this book would provide a fresh and useful way to see and illustrate various aspects of the field of Latin American studies. I am an interdisciplinary area specialist, and realise that some would say that is a confession of not having any discipline at all. But I have always felt, especially in my teaching enterprise, that anything that could help me understand my field, and communicate that understanding to my students, was worth exploring. Over the years this has included realia such as reproduction of pre-Columbian pottery, art objects, folk art, toys, film, music, and, of course, stamps.

Why stamps? Here I confess a personal bias. I have been collecting stamps ever since I was growing up in Argentina in the Perón years, a dual Argentine-US citizen. I began during the classical boyhood “collecting years” between 5 and 10, when children love to put together accumulations of all sorts of things, such as seashells, special toys, sport cards, dead insects, and coins and stamps. Following the usual pattern, I set my philatelic activities aside in my teen years when I discovered amateur radio, rugby, spelunking, swimming, fishing and … girls. But not before realising that the stamps of the Perón years were far more beautiful and interesting than the rather dreary and predictable ones of the earlier periods. And so, when I left Argentina at age 18 to attend college in the US (and avoid being drafted into the Argentine army) I decided to bring my stamps with me as a souvenir of my youth.

They sat in a closet until my grad school years when, at the urging of my friend and mentor, the late John Finan, I wrote a paper on the stamps of the Perón years. The technology was primitive: the actual stamps or their photocopied images were imbedded in the text along with identifying captions. I did do some semi-serious research at various institutions in the DC area, including the library of the OAS and the Library of Congress. Upon starting my doctoral work some years later, I began to dig more deeply, spending time at the Library of the National Postal Museum and the American Philatelic Society. It also dawned on me that, from a legal US perspective, stamps were considered government documents in the public domain, and thus copyright free unless they were specifically copyrighted, such as when the US Postal Service copyrighted all its images since 1978 in order to be the exclusive outlet for stamp key chains, coffee mugs etc.

The primary database for the book was the corpus of some 40,000 Latin American stamps since Brazil issued the first one in the 1840s. Most of the 19th-century stamps were easily and quickly examined, since they generally included many versions of the same national heroes and symbols such as crests and flags. But in the 1920s things began to change as nations around the world realised that the postage stamp could deliver original and inexpensive messages to their own citizens and to the people of other nations. The era of the colourful and semiotically rich commemorative stamp had begun, and it was my pleasure to explore and chart those messages.

Armed with this array of copyright-free images, I began to prepare 35mm slides of many of my stamps, and to use them in lectures and articles. I also made them available to my students for their presentations and papers. The technology of the computer, the colour scanner, and manipulation software (Photoshop) was a giant leap forward, since now it was very simple to produce a digital image of a stamp, size it, and use it in publications and presentation software such as Power Point.

I gratefully acknowledge a debt to a British academic, David Scott, who, in 1995, published a pioneering work: European Stamp Design: A Semiotic Approcah to Designing Messages (London, Academy Editions). His work was an inspiration and, essentially, my book is an attempt to apply his methodology to a different geographic area, using a more interdisciplinary approach.

A secondary goal of my project as to assemble an easily available collection of digital images for use by others. In the process of researching and writing the book, I accumulated some 5,000 digital images of the stamps of Latin America (to include South American Antarctica and the Malvinas/Falklands); 156 of these colour images were used in the book, and the Duke University Press editors are to be commended for the excellent treatment of my original 300 dpi images. I placed over 2,800 of these images on a CD-Rom in a couple of formats: JPEG Photoshiop, and Microsoft Word.

It was not feasible to include the CD with the book, so in the Introduction I offered to send a free copy of the CD to anyone who purchased the book. My intent is to continue adding images to subsequent versions of the CD. Although the CD is free shareware, we asked that a contribution to cover reproduction and mailing costs be made to The Language and Foreign Studies Department at American University.

For me, this 60-year project has been a labour of love which allowed me to bring together a hobby, computer skills, and professional interests, as well as the hope that the work will be useful to other academics, educators and students, both as a scholarly monograph as well as a rich source of copyright-free digital images.

Jack Child is a professor in the Department of Language and Foreign Studies at American University in Washington

REVIEW of Miniature Messages