24 June 2015
Roosevelt with his stamp album 30.1.1983
The stamp shows Roosevelt with his stamp album.
It’s no secret that long before he held public office, Franklin Delano Roosevelt was an avid stamp collector. What’s more surprising is how the man who would become America’s longest-serving president changed the nature of stamp collecting forever.
Roosevelt began collecting as an eight-year-old, when his mother introduced him to the hobby. Sara Delano Roosevelt had been a stamp collector as a child, her collection bolstered by her father’s frequent trips to the Far East.
“At the time, collecting was thought to be a child’s hobby,” says Anthony Musso, author of FDR and the Post Office, a historical account of Roosevelt’s devotion to stamps and the Post Office™ Department. “An adult would never waste his time collecting stamps.” FDR’s collection grew, and several years later, he received his mother’s collection, which was passed to him through the hands of her younger brother, Frederic.
Even then, Roosevelt used stamps as educational tools, putting one or two stamps on a single page of an album and annotating the rest of the page with notes about the history of the person or event depicted in the image. Historians point to this self-education as a key to Roosevelt’s political strength and success: It equipped him with expansive knowledge of geography and the international community.
Historians point to this self-education as a key to Roosevelt’s political strength and success.
What’s more, says Musso, “Roosevelt got great personal enjoyment and intellectual satisfaction from his stamps.” So great was the future president’s passion that in four separate personal letters, he credited stamp collecting with saving his life after his polio diagnosis in 1921, when Roosevelt was 39. “I owe my life to my hobbies — especially stamp collecting,” he famously said.
As Roosevelt’s political star rose, so did the hobby’s profile. “Roosevelt was so enthusiastic that he would chat with anyone about his collection, and naturally, if a hobby is good enough for the governor of New York, people figure it’s good enough for them,” Musso says. “He took stamp collecting to another level” — right into the White House.
Shortly after his inauguration in 1933, Roosevelt found out that his predecessor, Herbert Hoover, had been a collector, though less passionate than FDR. Hoover had established a routine with the Department of State that Roosevelt embraced: Whenever the department received communications from anywhere in the world, it would send the envelopes to the Oval Office so the President could have the stamps.
“Roosevelt once took the Secretary of State to task because he said the department’s employees weren’t sending over enough envelopes,” Musso says. If FDR didn’t need or want the stamps, he had his secretary collect them in packs and mail them to American children who wrote to the President. “He was like the Ambassador of Stamp Collecting.”