Hill Philatelists Put on a Show in Rayburn

Posted July 22, 2012 at 7:04pm

Members of Congress put their signature stamps on franked mail and their figurative stamps of approval on policies they support.

But only a select few put stamps of the more literal sense in leather-bound albums or on display in picture frames.

The handful of philatelists on Capitol Hill have partnered with the National Postal Museum to put together a satellite exhibit for three days in the Rayburn House Office Building beginning Tuesday.

Visitors can peruse selections from the personal stamp collections of lawmakers, among them Sens. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), Carl Levin (D-Mich.) and Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) and Reps. Gary Ackerman (D-N.Y.), Robert Aderholt (R-Ala.), William Lacy Clay (D-Mo.), Joe Pitts (R-Pa.) and Silvestre Reyes (D-Texas).

“The exhibit is designed for collectors and non-collectors alike with unique philatelic material that has never before been seen by the public,” according to an announcement on the Postal Museum’s website.

Stamp Dudes

Pitts and Ackerman, co-chairmen of the Congressional Stamp Caucus, spoke to Roll Call about their histories as stamp enthusiasts, what they’ll be showing this week and how their time in Congress has enhanced the opportunities they’ve had to bone up on their collections and their reputations as collectors.

Pitts said he’s been collecting stamps since he was 8. Today, he can boast that he has even been a guest curator at the Postal Museum.

“They asked me to help design displays that they have done,” Pitts said. “I did one years ago on these stamp designs by [President Franklin Delano Roosevelt]. He would often design U.S. postal stamps on little notes as he was in meetings, and a display we had showed his little drawings with instructions and then the actual stamps that the post office printed.”

Rayburn hosted an exhibit of Members’ stamps several years ago, Pitts said. At that time, Pitts chose to showcase some of the postal stamp blocks that he had autographed by presidents and first ladies.

This time, he’s displaying stamp “errors.”

“When stamps are printed, oftentimes there are errors made, so they’re one-of-a-kind stamps you can collect,” he explained.

After 65 years of collecting, Pitts says his stamp collection probably amounts to “thousands and thousands.”

Ackerman said that after childhood collecting, he took a hiatus until his interest was reignited by a personal challenge: get every Member of the House and Senate to sign an envelope bearing a special stamp commemorating the 100th Congress.

“Hey, I’m in Congress, I can get the autograph of every Member of Congress!” Ackerman recalled thinking at the time.

The biggest challenge, he said, was tracking down Senators.

“It took a very long time,” he said. “Some Senators are pretty obscure and never show up on a vote until their names are called. So I had spies in the Senate cloakrooms. Someone would call me and say ‘Senator So-and-So is about to show up!’”

Another lightbulb flashed for Ackerman when he realized he was in frequent contact with world leaders in his capacity as a member of the Foreign Affairs Committee. His special interest is having stamps “signed by heads of state who are opposed to each other or whose countries are in trouble.”

One notable “get” is a South Africa stamp signed by Nelson Mandela and F.W. de Klerk, who was president of the country before Mandela was released from prison and the apartheid regime crumbled.

During next week’s exhibit, Ackerman is featuring memorabilia alongside the stamp created to honor the victims of 9/11. Ackerman sponsored the legislation that established the stamp and also earned himself one of President George W. Bush’s famous nicknames: “Stamp Dude.”