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Miniature Messages

by Jack Child (College of Arts and Sciences)

While many of us may view stamp collecting as a modest hobby, Latin America expert Jack Child turned his examination of 40,000 stamps into Miniature Messages, his new book that decodes the messages behind the colorful and sometimes controversial images.

These tiny icons of popular culture, says Child, often have a big impact, reflecting current political tensions and even sparking new ones. “If there’s a border dispute and you put a map on your stamp, you’re just asking for trouble.”

Argentina, Great Britain, Chile, and other nations have, for example, used postage stamps to stake their—sometimes overlapping—claims to Antarctica. British and Argentine stamps have made similar claims to the Malvinas/Falkland Islands, which are a self-governing Overseas Territory of the United Kingdom, but have been the subject of a claim to sovereignty by Argentina since the reestablishment of British rule in 1833.

To begin his massive, miniature investigation, Child first examined a stamp issued by Brazil in the 1840s. Examining 40,000 stamps “sounds like more work than it really was,” he explains because most of the nineteenth-century stamps included several versions of the same national heroes, flags, and crests.

However, by the 1920s things had changed.

By that time “nations around the world realized that the postage stamp could deliver original and inexpensive messages to their own citizens and to the people of other nations,” explains Child. “The era of the colorful and semiotically rich commemorative stamp had begun, and it was my pleasure to explore and chart those messages.”

Child’s six-decade long fascination with postage stamps began when he was a boy growing up in Argentina. He was drawn to the vibrant images of the Peron era and began collecting stamps. Then a teenage Child shelved the collection to pursue swimming and rugby, but pulled them out again, when as a graduate student at AU’s School of International Service, he wrote a paper on the stamps of the Peron years.

And the rest, as they say in Child’s field, is history.

“Most academics define a discipline; I don’t,” he explains. “I have always felt that . . . anything that helps me understand my field and communicate that understanding to my students is worth exploring.” Indeed, his students have enjoyed learning about Latin American culture and language by examining the toys, films, and folk art that Child often brings to class.

Now, with his book published, Child is eager to share the 2,800 digital images he assembled for Miniature Messages. Since stamps are government documents they are copyright-free, so the scholar is offering a complimentary CD to anyone who purchases his book.

“For me, this 60-year project has been a labor 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.”