The Hindenburg is the big one, philatelically speaking -- though there are many smaller aviation disasters that are told of through stamps, or more correctly, via the postal history items that survived the disaster. The American Air Mail Society calls them Interrupted Flight Covers, or in common slang, crash covers.
In truth, a crash doesn't actually need to be involved. It is enough that the plane be forced down, thereby literally interrupting its flight. But the most popular are the biggest air disasters. A cover carried on the tragic last flight of the Hindenburg zeppelin is a premier item among disaster cover collectors. Those who have seen the newsreel footage of the aeronautical behemoth's fiery end are usually amazed to realize mail survived. But there are enough pieces of charred envelopes and cards to see items regularly offered in philatelic auctions. And they are ultimately hammered down for thousands of dollars.
Many collectors question those who collect stamps with dark themes. They wonder if there isn't a morbidity involved in proudly exhibiting a cover that went down on a plane where the pilot and perhaps others lost their lives.
Postal Pictures of Tragedies
Even the deltiologists can get in the doom and gloom - one of the most popular topics in the collecting of postcards is that of wrecked trains. Especially popular are the Real Picture postcards, of small local printings that give a true "you are there feeling" to something that admittedly most would rather not be there for.
Or how about a piece of the biggest disaster of them all? Although there was no mail saved from the sunken Titanic, enterprising agents sold hundreds of cards at a couple of cents apiece. You're lucky to find one under $25.00 today, a price out of proportion to the item's rarity. The great continued interest in the disaster including the recent re-release of the film Titanic(1997; 2012 (3D))help to keep the prices high.
War and Stamps of Conquered Countries
But in the final analysis perhaps the largest category of postal history is war related. In the real world, letters and cards sent to and from soldiers, many of them with unusual stamps and markings are avidly collected. In the stamp collecting world, there are countless philatelic covers commemorating everything from the opening of a post office named after Douglas MacArthur to a cover commemorating the bombing of Hiroshima.
Obviously these items are mostly of generational interest, or of interest to younger collectors with an interest in history. And in fact that is what prompts many collectors to put together a collection that some might call morbid. The "you are there" historical flavor of such a collection is a big draw for stamp collectors.
And it is not only covers and postal history with which one might build a collection. As one might imagine, once a country changes hands after a conflict, the victor will make sure all know what's what by issuing new stamps or overprinting old ones. There is a great deal of material from Europe in the years that the German's made their push to try to literally take over the world.
But there are less dire covers showing not disaster, but possible disaster averted, for example when a balloon flight is canceled due to wind and weather concerns, while the cover is canceled and sent on its way to disappointed collectors who have to make due with a philatelic might-have-been.
Tragedy Commemorated with Stamps
A shadow was recently thrown over the collection of stamps and postal history that are related to Pitcairn Island and the survivors of the HMS Bounty, famous for the mutiny fomented by Fletcher Christian against Captain Bligh. The replica ship from the 1962 film Mutiny on the Bounty sank in the storm Sandy and one of the Christain's descendants, his great-great-great-great-great granddaughter, Claudene Christian, 42, was killed. With all the philately and postal history that has come out of the Bounty and its story, there is little doubt that the deceased will be remembered on at least one stamp issued by the island.
Stamp collecting can be a great escape from the world and all its troubles, as long as you collect one of the sunnier topics, or don't look any deeper to a stamp commemorating messy things like wars and deaths.