Miniature Messages: The Semiotics and Politics of Latin American Postage Stamps

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In Miniature Messages, Jack Child analyzes Latin American postage stamps, revealing the messages about history, culture, and politics encoded in their design and disseminated throughout the world. While postage stamps are a sanctioned product of official government agencies, Child argues that they accumulate popular cultural value and take on new meanings as they circulate in the public sphere. As he demonstrates in this richly illustrated study, the postage stamp conveys many of the contestations and triumphs of Latin American history.

Child combines history and political science with philatelic research of nearly forty thousand Latin American stamps. He focuses on Argentina and the Southern Cone, highlighting stamps representing the consolidation of the Argentine republic and those produced under its Peronist regime. He compares Chilean stamps issued by the leftist government of Salvador Allende and by Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship. Considering postage stamps produced under other dictatorial regimes, he examines stamps from the Dominican Republic, Guatemala, Nicaragua, and Paraguay. Child studies how international conflicts have been depicted on the stamps of Argentina, Chile, and Peru, and he pays particular attention to the role of South American and British stamps in establishing claims to the Malvinas/Falkland Islands and to Antarctica. He also covers the cultural and political history of stamps in Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, Cuba, Grenada, Mexico, Uruguay, Venezuela and elsewhere. In Miniature Messages, Child finds the political history of modern Latin America in its “tiny posters.”

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“To the non-stamp collector the world of philately can be a somewhat desiccated subject. However, here in a well-illustrated, thorough and entertaining book, Jack Child, having examined some 40,000 Latin American postage stamps certainly manages to engage the interest of the wider reader. . . . [Cild] has managed to marshal numerous miniature messages into a fascinating and valuable text.” - Igor Cusack, Bulletin of Latin American Research

“Child’s book is a careful analysis of the body of existing Latin American stamps. Making use of a wide array of cultural studies knowledge about Latin America, he examines the stamps as minitexts, not quite as one might a poem, but as bounded complexes of semiotic meaning. The result is fascinating and the first such analysis of the Latin American corpus. It is important to note that this study has been published by Duke University Press, the premier forum for Latin American cultural studies and that the book comes accompanied with a CD of the actual stamps themselves, organized in an accessible registry.” - David William Foster, Chasqui

“The passion and expertise with which this book is written confirm, in the author’s own words, that it has been a ‘labour of love.’ Beautifully written and illustrated, Miniature Messages also offers a colourful and engaging tool for teaching Latin American studies, an approach taken by the author throughout a teaching career dedicated to improving understanding of the region whose students, we can speculate, must clearly have been among the luckiest on campus.” - Gavin O’Tolle, Latin American Review of Books

“Child’s book is a significant contribution to the argument that academia should expand subject legitimacy to a broader range of materials. It has also got great stories about the complex world of Latin American politics and the role of government propaganda.” - Lincoln Cushing, A Contracorriente

“Professor Child. . . is that rare combination of social scientist and philatelist and bravely attempts to use the principles and methods of social science to analyse the politics of Latin-America postage stamps. . . . The study. . . is fascinating because of its breadth, his commitment to philately and the attempt to find explanations for differences in the choice, style, composition and production of postage stamps.” - The London Philatelist

Miniature Messages is a trailblazing study that demonstrates how an unfamiliar approach can throw light on different aspects of Latin American history, politics, and culture.”—David Bushnell, author of Simón Bolívar: Liberation and Disappointment

“The thoroughness and in-depth coverage of Miniature Messages are remarkable. Jack Child is probably the only person to possess the requisite knowledge and background to combine political science, history, and philately so well.”—Frank Nuessel, author of Linguistic Approaches to Hispanic Literature

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780822341994
  • Publisher: Duke University Press
  • Publication date: 7/28/2008
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 272
  • Product dimensions: 6.10 (w) x 9.20 (h) x 0.80 (d)

Meet the Author

Jack Child is a professor in the Department of Language and Foreign Studies at American University in Washington. He is the author of many books and articles on Latin American culture, translation, and geopolitics.

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Read an Excerpt


The Semiotics and Politics of Latin American Postage Stamps
By Jack Child


Copyright © 2008 Duke University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8223-4199-4

Chapter One


Semiotics is the study of signs and the messages they contain. The discipline has acquired numerous adherents in the last hundred years as a scientifically based approach to the myriad of pieces of information we are bombarded with on a constant basis. There is a rich and complex theoretical component to semiotics, and an equally rich and diverse field of applied semiotics that attempts to relate these theoretical aspects to concrete areas of human activities such as advertising, propaganda, popular culture, the arts, and cultural studies generally. In this work I will apply some basic semiotic notions to the study of Latin American postage stamps, following the work on the semiotics and designs of European stamps that was pioneered by David Scott.

At the simplest level of definition, signs are things that stand for other things. Thus, they have meanings and combinations of meanings derived from the things they stand for and the way they are presented. Words are the most basic and common signs, but they are by no means the only kinds of signs. As Arthur A. Berger points out, a theatrical performance (or a movie) relies on many semiotic signs beyond words. There is scenery, music, and costuming. The western villain's black hat is a sign with a certain meaning, as is the white hat worn by the hero.

One American philosopher stands out as the pioneer of the American (as opposed to the European) tradition of semiotics: Charles Sanders Peirce (1839-1914). A native of Cambridge and a graduate of Harvard, Peirce did not pursue an academic career, preferring instead to work for many years in the U.S. government's Geodetic Survey. His contributions, however, encompassed many fields, including philosophy, psychology, engineering, and logic. He published relatively little, and it was only after his death that his major essays were collected in one publication. His writing is dense, theoretical, and hard for the layman to grasp. Nevertheless, his basic ideas regarding semiotics and signs were to have wide-reaching impact. Peirce's view of the world was pansemiotic, and he believed that "the entire universe is perfused with signs, if it is not composed exclusively of signs." This pervasive presence of signs meant to Peirce that any field he studied could, and indeed must, be approached through the discipline of semiotics and the search for the signs that gave it meaning. As part of his approach to semiotics Peirce created a comprehensive and complicated typology of signs. Starting out with a relatively simple three-class typology, Peirce multiplied and compounded the categories until he arrived at ten major classes of signs, then sixty-six, and finally almost sixty thousand. In our approach to the semiotics of postage stamps we will limit ourselves to his original trichotomy, as Scott did in his semiotic study of European stamps.

The first semiotic message a postage stamp delivers is self-referential: it must identify itself as a postage stamp. The conventional way of doing this, and confirming that a postage stamp is indeed a postage stamp, has to do with its relatively small size and the perforations that surround it. If it is affixed to an envelope in its accustomed place in the upper right-hand corner we further confirm its identity. And if it arrives as part of a mail delivery and has been canceled with a date/time/city black-ink mark, then the message is clear and firm.

We should note that there is a fairly complex semiotic language associated with how the stamp is placed on the envelope. In addition to the four corners and the four sides of the envelope's front, stamps can also be placed at a large number of angles ranging from the conventional right side up to fully upside down. In the late nineteenth century elaborate codes were prepared with "secret" romantic messages associated with these various positions and angles. These messages ranged from "Do you love me?" to "I have my doubts" and "Write no more."

The next semiotic message is the identification of the country of origin. As we will see below when we apply Peirce's typology, there are a number of ways of delivering this message, starting with a simple typographical statement spelling out the name of the country. Most mail we receive is from our own country, so this important function is sometimes overlooked. The next message is a quantitative one: has the correct amount of postage been paid? This is confirmed by a number on the stamp specifying the prepaid value of the stamp, and presumably the weight of the letter or package delivered is covered by its value. This seemingly everyday function is crucial because the basic postal purpose of the stamp (leaving aside the various political and other purposes we will be exploring) is to carry the mail by validating the payment for delivery. Indeed, the invention of the adhesive postage stamp was due to the inconveniences and inefficiencies of the earlier system under which the recipient of the letter had to pay the cost of carrying it.

At deeper levels of semiotic meaning, messages common to most stamps are carried by features of design, to include color, typography, layout, and, of singular importance to our study, any representational drawings, engravings, photographs, or other graphics. These can deliver increasingly sophisticated messages of a cultural, historical, political, or economic nature.

Peirce called his three-part typology "the trichotomy of signs," in which he classified a sign as either an index, an icon, or a symbol. Signs that combined these features were also possible, and indeed Peirce argued that most signs were complex blends of these three categories. In layman's terms the three elements of the typology can be defined as follows:

Index: a pointer taking the viewer somewhere. An example would be smoke, which is an index to the fire that released it.

Icon: a graphic pictorial representation such as a picture, a design, or a photograph. It can be observed for its own aesthetic sake or, more important for our semiotic analysis, analyzed to see what the message of the picture is.

Symbol: a conventional sign in which elements stand for something else. Thus the symbol "$" stands for dollar, and the post horn is a common symbol for postal service.

Some examples will serve to illustrate how this semiotic analysis works. One such example concerns the indexing semiotic function of a postage stamp by which the viewer is given the message concerning the country of origin. The simplest solution to this requirement is to use typography (print) to identify the country, and indeed most postage stamps today carry the name of the country as text. However, the first postage stamp produced (by England in 1840) did not carry the name of the country. Instead, a profile of Queen Victoria was used. The only typographic elements on the black stamp were the words "postage" and the spelling out ("One Penny") of the amount of prepaid postage, which explains the popular nickname, "Penny Black." To this day British stamps do not carry the name of the country. Instead, the head of the reigning monarch is used, sometimes dominating the design (and thus becoming an icon in Peirce's typology), and sometimes discreetly placed in one of the upper corners.

The earliest Latin American stamps, those of Brazil in the year 1843, carried no index sign, and consisted simply of a numeral indicating the postage paid, along with an abstract ornamental design intended to make it difficult to forge the stamp (figure 1.1, Scott Brazil 1). In part this was because it was assumed that the stamps would be used only for internal mail within Brazil. But the reasons sometimes given for not placing the head of Emperor Dom Pedro of Brazil on early stamps included the argument that it would be undignified to blacken the royal face with an ink cancellation. It was not until the issues of 1866 that Dom Pedro appeared on Brazilian stamps.

The indexing function is sometimes accomplished with more abstract iconographic signs, such as Marianne, the national symbol of France, or a flag. In the case of countries with long names (United States of America, for example) initials or acronyms are frequently used, with a flag or national symbol such as the presidential palace as iconographic indices.

The iconographic semiotic message is the one that is more subtle and complex, and will be the main focus of our analysis. It is in the selection of the icon that a government frequently makes a conscious choice of what message is to be delivered, and how. The challenge of selecting meaningful icons is compounded by the extremely small surface area involved, and technical limitations such as printing methods (engraving vs. lithograph, etc.), inks, colors, and paper. The Universal Postal Union also imposes certain standards and requirements, which governments ignore at their peril.

When analyzing the iconic function of postage stamps an important distinction must be made between "definitive" and "commemorative" stamps. Definitive (sometimes also called "ordinary") stamps tend to portray general iconic messages that are not time-sensitive. They are usually smaller in format and simpler in design, and are intended to carry the mails for an extended period of time, which can be several years. In recent decades the ravages of inflation and the increase in postage rates have required fairly frequent changes in definitive stamps (witness the changes in United States definitives due to budgetary problems in the U.S. Postal Service). It is of course possible to use the same definitive stamp and simply change the numerical value. In fast-moving inflationary situations this is commonly done by overprinting the new value. The classical case is Germany in the 1920s, when definitive stamps increased their denomination several millionfold in a short period. Latin American cases include Bolivia, Argentina, and Nicaragua under the Sandinista regime.

Commemorative stamps, on the other hand, are issued to celebrate a special time-sensitive event, frequently an anniversary of some historic or cultural landmark. Visits by heads of state and border disputes are examples of commemorative stamps with strong political iconic messages. Commemorative stamps are usually issued for short periods (as brief as the day of a special event), but more commonly are sold for several months and used until the supply runs out. They are generally larger in format and often are clearly aimed at international postal service as well as internal, as can be seen from the postal rates they carry. The commemorative stamp is usually of greater interest to the collector than the definitive stamp, and this has led to abuses where nations issue many large and colorful stamps whose iconic semiotic message bears little or no relationship to the country involved. One class of stamp collector is the "topical" philatelist, who collects only stamps of ships, flowers, butterflies, and so on, from whatever country issues the stamp, and these topical collectors are sometimes the victims of unscrupulous postal administrations that issue such stamps knowing full well that they will rarely, if ever, be used to carry the mail. A classical example here is the stamp of an Antarctic penguin issued by a tropical country (Nicaragua).

Stamps with a strong iconic content are also usually quite clear about the semiotic indexing function, since when these stamps travel abroad it is essential that the country of origin be unambiguously identified. They are also frequently symbolic when a national, monetary, or linguistic symbol is used as well. This combination of Peirce's three typological elements, plus an array of design limitations and features, makes the commemorative stamp a complex sign with several levels and affording several degrees of analysis. Because of the larger format of commemorative stamps with a strong iconic component, these are where we tend to find the greatest range of pictorial and graphic elements, to include scenes of battles or other important events, illustrations of a nation's major economic products (especially those that are exported), famous buildings, celebrated citizens, scenic terrain or landscapes, tourist attractions, sports triumphs, and important works of art. Many of these categories, as we shall see below, carry intentional messages of a political, propaganda, nationalistic, or cultural nature.

As an example of a commemorative stamp with a rich mixture of indexing, iconic, and symbolic elements, Scott describes the 1994 French stamp celebrating the opening of the Channel Tunnel to Great Britain. The stamp, designed by the Englishman George Hardie, shows two icons (also national symbols): the British lion and the French rooster (le coq gaulois) reaching out from their shores over the Channel to touch claws (hands) while the rail tracks of the tunnel are shown uniting the two countries. The iconic element is strengthened by typography ("Tunnel sous la Manche"-"Tunnel under the Channel"), and the indexing element is explicitly confirmed by the French words "La poste." A parallel stamp (sold in a pair with the previous one) is by the French designer Jean-Paul Cousin, and shows the hands of Britannia and Marianne, wearing appropriate national rosettes as rings on their fingers, touching over the stylized icon of a train making the underwater run between the two countries.

The Peircian typology is completed with the symbol. For several European countries their long existence as nation-states, and their extensive empires, have allowed them to develop national symbols that are almost instantly recognized around the world. Such is the case of the British monarch (especially those with very long reigns such as Victoria and Elizabeth II) and the French Marianne (celebrated early on in the Eugène Delacroix painting Liberty Leading the People [1830], now in the Louvre). Supplementary national symbols would include the British lion, and flowers associated with the major national components of the United Kingdom. The French supplement Marianne as a national symbol with Ceres, the goddess of agriculture, and the coq gaulois. The Japanese use the chrysanthemum or the rising sun, while the Communist states associated with the former Soviet Union used a rich variety of national symbols derived from their common ideological roots (hammer and sickle, red star, head of Lenin, etc.).

A Peircian semiotic symbol can also take the form of linguistic expressions such as words, numbers, abbreviations, or acronyms. For many years Dutch definitive stamps were characterized by an austere simplicity in which the only elements on the stamps were the indexical name of their country, "Nederland" (also now a symbol because of linguistic considerations), a numerical symbol showing the denomination of the stamp, and some abstract calligraphic decorative elements. Scott notes the interesting case of Switzerland, which has four national languages (German, French, Italian, Romansch). It would be impractical to use all four languages as the typographical indexing sign, so the Swiss use the Latin word Helvetia to identify their federation. "Helvetia," honoring the Helvetii who resisted Roman conquest, is also an icon, which in this case serves the Peircian function of symbol of nation. The Swiss also use distinctive landscapes, such as the Jungfrau, as national icons.

Postage stamp designers frequently resort to pleonasm, the use of redundancy or repetition to get their point across. Thus, the figure of Marianne on French stamps is sometimes reinforced by stripes of color across her face to represent the national three-colored flag. Flags themselves are frequently used as index, icon, and symbol, especially by newly independent nations breaking free from colonial empires, and also in the case where a flag is redesigned, such as the United States with the addition of new states, or the Canadian adoption of the maple leaf flag to replace the British Union Jack.

When many of the old European colonies in Africa gained their independence in the 1960s, there was a concerted effort to replace the old colonial icons on postage stamps with new ones reflecting their independent identity. President Nkrumah of Ghana explained why: "Many of my people cannot read or write. When they buy stamps, they will see my picture-an African like themselves-and they will say, 'Aiee, look, here is my leader on the stamps. We are truly a free people!'"


Excerpted from MINIATURE MESSAGES by Jack Child Copyright © 2008 by Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations     ix
Preface     xv
Acknowledgments     xix
Introduction     1
Semiotics, Popular Culture, Politics, and Stamps     13
An Overview of Latin American Postage Stamps     43
Internal Politics and Latin American Stamps     57
International Relations and Latin American Stamps     75
Argentina     95
The Falklands/Malvinas     124
South American Antarctica     142
Other Miniature Messages of Note     161
Conclusions     190
Notes     197
General Index     225
Index of Stamps     235
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