Labour Stamp: The Image of the Worker on Canadian Postage Stamps

Article excerpt

David Frank, "The Labour Stamp: The Image of the Worker on Canadian Postage Stamps," Labour/Le Travail, 39 (Spring 1997), 179-94.

IT IS OFTEN SAID that you can learn much about a country's history and culture from its postage stamps. Pierre Berton, for instance, has written that on postage stamps "the great milestones of the past" in Canadian history "have all been recorded in miniature." (1) A closer examination demonstrates that postage stamps have usually presented a selective reading of the public identity and that some narratives are privileged and others are neglected. In a recent study of the politics of commemoration, John R. Gillis has pointed out that public memories and identities are socially constructed and are embedded in complex class, gender, and power relations that determine what is remembered or forgotten. Several groups, including workers, minorities, young people, and women, have been relatively slow to gain admission to the public memory. (2)

As a rule postage stamps have rated low in the hierarchy of modern cultural taste, and historians have devoted surprisingly little attention to this widely circulated form of public iconography. (3) As early as 1947, however, the Canadian artist Charles Comfort argued that the postage stamp was "a valuable instrument of discreet national publicity": "The stamp carries its message far afield. A well-designed stamp does more than show that the sender has paid the prescribed rate of postage. It brings to the recipient, whether at home or abroad, something of the character, the national dignity, the contemporary awareness of the state in which it had its origin." (4) Indeed if we understand stamps as a source of "government messages" about a country, social historians have suggested, then we need to consider "what kind of knowledge is produced" by the experience of contact with and collection of stamps by millions of people both at home and around the world. (5)

This discussion offers a modest case study in the politics of Canadian identity. It is prompted by a larger concern about the representation of the worker in Canadian history in general and in public culture in particular. (6) It also contributes to the emerging work on images of labour in Canadian visual culture. Researchers such as Rosemary Donegan have pointed to the existence of an iconography of labour embedded in the specific cultural artefacts produced by workers' organizations and in the general body of work produced by Canadian artists. (7) In this case, however, we are looking at a form of official culture produced by the state, often through the use of staff artists employed in the graphic arts industry, though by the 1950s the designs were opened to the talents of a number of artists of stature such as Emanuel Hahn, Charles Comfort, and A.J. Casson. (8)

Historically, the selection of subject matter and designs for Canadian stamps has been the prerogative of the minister responsible for the Post Office. Since 1969 a more formal structure has prevailed in the form of an appointed Stamp Advisory Committee representing interest groups in the visual arts, philatelic and, occasionally, historical community. It considers proposals from various sources, including the public, and its annual recommendations are submitted for approval by the Board of Directors of Canada Post. The policy guidelines are of a very general nature and suggest that stamps should "instil pride in their country in the minds and hearts of all Canadians" and "have popular appeal to broad segments of the Canadian population." Stamps should also "evoke Canadian history, traditions, accomplishments or natural heritage," commemorate "deceased persons generally recognized as having made outstanding contributions to Canada" and "illustrate the social, cultural or economic life of Canada." (9)

This discussion was also provoked in part by the first page of Greg Kealey's chapter on labour history in the useful handbook Writing About Canada that was published in 1990 by Prentice-Hall Canada Inc. …