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  • Miniature Messages: The Semiotics and Politics of Latin American Postage Stamps
  • William H. Beezley
Miniature Messages: The Semiotics and Politics of Latin American Postage Stamps. By Jack Child. Durham: Duke University Press, 2008. Pp. xviii, 247. Illustrations. Notes. Index. $84.95 cloth; $23.95 paper.

I have a friend who ranks as the world's fifth most important collector of the stamps of North Borneo. He is obsessed with moving to fourth place. Such possessed philatelists [End Page 138] and youthful collectors have generally dominated the study of stamps. In contrast, historians have largely overlooked these bits of culture, despite the fact that since the Brazilian "Bull's Eye" was produced in 1843, Latin American governments have issued over 50,000 stamps with some 20,000 designs. This engaging book now offers scholars and students a model to evaluate postage stamps as expressions of national politics, identity, ambitions, idealism, natural resources, and diversity throughout Latin America. The author, revealing his own passion for collecting, examines the national and international politics behind postage stamps—what he calls the smallest icons of popular culture—and the messages they attempt to deliver.

Without becoming a victim of the jargon and the arcane discussions of the discipline of semiotics, the author follows the methodology developed by David Scott in European Stamp Design (1995), which in turn is based on the typologies of Charles Sanders Peirce. Stamps, as the author notes, are seen with frequency by members of the national community and they see the same messages repeated until they become commonly recognized. Buying stamps usually offers choice, even if in a limited range, and this makes stamps for mass consumption objects of popular culture, under whatever definition one uses. Demonstrating that analysis of postage stamps as representatives of popular culture has academic validity has the appearance of knocking down straw men or preaching to the choir. The author's arguments here are unnecessary and give the book an anachronistic tone, as though written in the late 1980s. These debates, at least in history, no longer have purchase.

This unnecessary exposition notwithstanding, the author provides fascinating bits of national history throughout the text. A chapter on Argentine stamps provides a case study that successfully demonstrates the possibilities for the rest of Latin America. One learns, for example, that Juan Perón decreed that for the year of mourning following Evita's death, only her commemorative stamps could be used and that postal workers could not mark her face. Another chapter that touches on the stamps of ten other nations of the region gives direction for future research. Duke University Press has produced an excellent, attractive volume, though it is a shame that even when no defensible explanation exists for using endnotes, rather than footnotes, it continues to do so.

The insertion of 16 pages of colored plates of some 150 stamps visibly confirms the analysis of the book and suggests lines of future research. An investigation of programs, especially sports, for individuals with disabilities, for example, comes to mind seeing the Salvadorean stamp commemorating the soccer championship for amputees. Other chapters examine internal politics, international relations, the Malvinas issue, and competing claims for Antarctica. In general, the author does not set out to provide broad new insights into the history, politics, and culture of the region. Rather he asserts that the study of stamps generally confirms many conclusions found in other analyses of popular culture.

A persistent theme throughout the text points to the pedagogical characteristics both of the stamps themselves and their potential for use in classes and to illustrate texts. The author does more than suggest these uses, as he has produced a compact disc with approximately [End Page 139] 2,000 postage stamp images in both JPEG format and in PowerPoint slides, available from the author for no charge (but with the request for a donation to American University's Latin American Studies program). This fortuitous source comes at an appropriate moment. Child noted several times the importance of the centennial of Latin American independence as the subject of stamps. The celebration of the bicentennial of these patriotic struggles beginning in 2010 should result in comparisons of the stamps that...


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