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History of Stickers

Stamps The first adhesive postage stamp was invented in England in 1840 by Rowland Hill. Hill, an English teacher, became interested in postal reform in the 1830s, and concerned himself with improving the efficiency and consistency of the postal system. As part of his plan for development, Hill introduced the “Penny Black”, which was the world’s first adhesive stamp. In addition to indicating that a letter was pre-paid (instead of being billed to the recipient, who could refuse delivery), Penny Blacks essentially served as the first sticker. Penny Blacks were sold in un-perforated sheets to be affixed by the sender. As with today’s decorative stickers, design was critical in early stamps. Contents were held to design postage stamps, and inventor Hill was knighted in 1860 for his contribution.

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Adhesive The first stamps were produced using a thin layer of gum, usually acacia gum, on the back, and would adhere to the desired surface after water-activation. Self-adhesive stamps were developed in the 1960s to avoid the problem of water-activated stamps sticking together in tropical climates. The pressure-sensitive adhesive is a rubber-based compound, and its strength is designed to vary based on the force applied in its initial application.

     This technology proved useful for a variety of outlets, not just for postages stamps, but also for Avery brand mailing labels, 3M Post-It Notes and other adhesive paper products. Decorative stickers for collection were not the intended use for this self-adhesive, but proved to be a relatively lucrative market in a certain sector – in 2005, sticker manufacturer Mrs. Grossman’s reported yearly revenue at almost $20 million.  

The First Sticker & Stickermania

Graphic designer Andrea Grossman created the first sticker, a big red heart, in 1979. It was from this original design that Mrs. Grossman’s Paper Company, still the largest sticker manufacturer today, began with its most popular product: Stickers by the Yard.

   Grossman was profiled by People Magazine and crowned as the woman who started “Stickermania” – a craze that began in the early 1980s, where children became fanatically collecting decorative stickers. Success was due in part to their size – rolls of stickers were easily placed near cash registers of stores for cheap impulsive buys by young kids with allowance money. Mrs. Grossman’s sales doubled in 1983, which sparked a transition of stickers to more of a commodity – Grossman began hiring other designers, and manufacturing specialty items, such as fuzzy stickers and puffy stickers, as well as album pages for children to store their new collections.  

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The Emergence of the Sticker Collecting Fad

Though stickers became common in the late 1970s, they only grew into big business for several companies starting in the early 80’s and holding strong until the late 19with the emergence of the sticker collecting fad. Sticker collecting appealed to both boys and girl alike, with stickers ranging from simple shapes (hearts, stars), to novelty stickers (scratch and sniff, holographic) and eventually to pictures of celebrities (football stars, the spice girls). Kids across North America would proudly bring their stickers to school with them to trade during recess and lunch. Stickers became so popular that Stickers Magazine launched in 1983 for the enthusiast who just can't get enough information on stickers.

“It’s an inherently common pastime for kids to take a printed sticker and — as a from of expression, mind you — put it on something. It’s kind of like graffiti, I suppose, just maybe not as messy.”- John Williams, creative series manager of Topps.

Now that all of these stickers were available, the question became where to put them. Thus, the sticker album was born. Sticker albums were books with glossy pages that were designed to hold one's most prized possessions: stickers. In order to showcase them to your friends, you would need to display them in said albums. After all, what good is a sticker collection if you can’t carry it around and make your friends jealous? The best albums had super-glossy pages so that the stickers would peel off the pages without leaving any residue and could be reused. The alternative of actually sticking the stickers onto surfaces such as notebooks and Trapper Keepers was generally frowned upon. Stickers were veritable elementary school currency, so improper usage was akin to destruction of money--it may not have been illegal, but it certainly wasn’t acceptable usage.

The Sticker Album: Childhood Consumerism and Social Status A new sticker afforded its owner not only a new belonging but also recess bragging rights to the latest in sticker trends and technology.

A well balanced sticker collection also held the ability to move a child through the ranks of the playground social sphere.A fuzzy puppy sitting in a high top sneaker or a three dimensional googly eyed smiley face was usually more than enough to earn you a spot at the cool table in the cafeteria. New stickers were always released to tie in with the latest film releases (especially Disney) or the new football season.

Collection Guidelines

Like other forms of collecting, forming sticker collections required patience, self-restraint, and the ability to enjoy something that both serves no use. In order to maintain the pristine condition of your most prized stickers, it was critical to not touch or handle your collection too roughly; in short, it was necessary to treat them like a signed first edition being brought to appraisal on Antiques Roadshow. Doing anything to compromise the alleged inherent value of the following items was the equivalent of social sticker suicide.

Stickers in the Digital Age

Stickers and sticker collections are not abundant among today’s children for the simple fact that they are not readily available for consumers to purchase. Stores that used to sell them have either stopped selling them or have gone out of business. Sticker collectors from the 80s and 90s are attempting to keep the fad alive for the sake of nostalgia by creating online digital archives of their original collections. These collectors scan their original stickers into .JPEG format to display and share on personal blogs. In addition to digitizing their sticker collection, collectors also keep good care of their sticker books and sticker boxes to hand down in their family. With the exchange of physical stickers nearing extinction, collectors of the 80s and 90s feel it is important to share their social sticker experiences with their close friends and family, again for nostalgia’s sake. Since it is difficult to find new stickers in stores, collectors have turned to eBay to display and exchange their sticker collections. According to one collector, eBay is a “thriving market for vintage stickers.”

The Beginning of the End

It was during the first decade of the year 2000 that collectable stickers began to see their demise as a viable social status. In an interview with a typical 11 year old girl, one can try to pinpoint the moment when the stickers fad started to decline and eventually vanish. When asked about her first-grade sticker collection she said, “I like the way they felt. They were cool.” When asked why she thought they were cool she responded, “They were cool because everybody collected them.” She particularly enjoyed the squishy, puffy stickers. She would go around school trading to get “cooler” stickers; a sticker in the shape of a cell phone was “way cooler” than that of a dog. Beyond trading stickers with friends, she would look forward to receiving good grades in class so that she could peel off the stars and happy face stickers to add to her collection. Interestingly, her collection did not reside inside an old fashioned sticker book; instead she stored all her stickers on school folders and binders. She did this because it made it easier to show off to her friends. Her desire to collect stickers lasted about one year. When asked why she stopped collecting them she responded, “Because they don’t sell them anymore. The Learning Express [a local toy store] doesn’t offer them anymore.” She did not respond with a glum tone, however. When asked to imagine that stickers were still available in stores today she abruptly said, “I don’t care, I’m not 6 anymore.” She recognizes that sticker collections, just like Silly Bandz and Chinese Erasers that came after it, were only fads to enjoy for a certain amount of time and then forget about. Clearly this in-between generation of sticker collectors differs greatly from the original collectors from the 80s and 90s. Once stickers became harder to find, children moved on to the next “cool” thing.

Interview with a Current Child In an interview with a typical 6 ½ year old girl, it starts to become even clearer that keeping a physical sticker collection is a nearly dead medium of social interactivity. When asked to talk about the topic at hand the young girl said, “I don’t know what that means.” After briefly explaining the concept of trading stickers she responded, “I would trade them stickers if they would give me one.” Even when trying to relate the concept of trading stickers to the latest fad Silly Bandz, the girl could not grasp such a foreign notion of collecting and sharing stickers. Due to the lack of in-store availability, sticker collection that was so rampant during the 80s and 90s has died down to a faint whisper of original collectors displaying and selling their vintage collections online.

Today's Digital Equivalent In the digital age of computers, a new generation of sticker collectors has emerged. The Bumper Sticker application for Facebook currently has 4,075,434 monthly active users with a 4 out of 5 star rating. According to the app’s information page, “Over 23 million Facebook users use Bumper Sticker to view, upload, and share virtual stickers that can be displayed on Profiles and in Streams. Browse through millions of quirky, edgy, and hilarious stickers. Add stickers to your profile and/or stick your friends! Can't find a sticker you like, it's easy to make your own.” The Bumper Sticker app has successfully recreated the sticker book craze of the 80s and 90s by bringing it into the online realm.

The simple user interface resembles a sticker book in many ways. In fact, it uses sticker book terminology to draw users into the game of collecting and sharing digital stickers. Inside “Your Sticker Binder” resides your entire collection of stickers you have picked up in the virtual store. You have the ability to “drag to reorder”, “move to profile”, and share stickers with Facebook friends. A new feature allows you to purchase backgrounds (there are chalkboard, wood, and corkboard variants) to decorate your bumper sticker tab page. Collecting, personalizing, and transporting your sticker collection has never been easier thanks to cloud-based storage and the Internet.

Physical stickers have the advantage of coming in different shapes, sizes, and styles. In a similar fashion, Bumper Sticker gives users the option to select free “standard” stickers or purchase “animated” stickers. These flashy stickers cost 200 coins; you earn 50 coins for every standard or animated sticker you upload. In this way, the app is promoting its users to add personal and customized stickers to the constantly growing online collection. Uploading your own sticker is simple; once you find or create a .jpeg, .png, or .gif image on your computer, the app does the rest for you. Uploaded stickers become viewable by the entire community of Facebook users.

It must be understood that the concept of sticker collection is far from becoming a dead medium of social interactivity and a means of promoting social status. It is important to differentiate between physical and digital sticker collections because the latter is alive and kicking. Today’s children might not care for—or even remember—the sticker craze of the 80s and 90s, but they are proving that digital archives of stickers are an important way for expressing themselves to the public. Like the 11 year old girl who prominently displayed her collection on folders and binders for all to see, Facebook users are interested in revealing their collections on public profile pages right next to their digital photo albums. There’s a progression here that must be noted. The original collectors of the 80s and 90s preferred to privately store their stickers inside scrapbooks to protect them from dust and dirt. As the craze quickly turned into a fad the in-between generation of collectors liked to bring their collections into the public sphere. And now as the fad has all but died the digital age has rebooted the craze and entirely public collections of Bumper Stickers have taken over.