VISUALIZING FINLAND: POSTAGE STAMPS AS POLITICAL MESSENGERS

Authors


Abstract

ABSTRACT. Postage stamps are a very political, territorially grounded and yet overlooked part of visual culture. We argue that the mundane omnipresence of stamps gives them considerable nation-building power and makes them exemplary tools of what Michael Billig calls ‘banal nationalism.’ By focusing on the socially constructed visual qualities of stamps, we argue that their ‘reading’ as political, socioculturally and territorially specific texts offers valuable insights into the evolution and outlook of the issuing state and the ‘imagined community’ within its boundaries. Our examination of 1 457 stamps issued in continental Finland between 1917 and 2000 shows how the desired visual representation of the Finnish state, nation and society has evolved over time, along with the changing outlook of the national elite, its relationship with ordinary citizens and the country's geopolitical context. The stamps illustrate how the state's focus shifted from war to peace, Finland's economy diversified and specialized, and the Finns reached a relatively high level of social welfare and equality. The myth of Finland's cultural homogeneity remained strikingly strong despite dramatic changes in Finland's cultural make-up, suggesting that not only presence but also absence of a narrative from a visual scene can be strongly meaningful. Over the course of the twentieth century, Finnish nationalism grew increasingly ‘banal’ and inclusive in character, but the stamps maintained their central role in citizenship education. Our findings promote the use of postage stamps in the teaching and research of political geography and identity-political iconographies.

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