What is Philately? Discover Stamp Collecting!
Stamp Collecting: "The Hobby of Kings"
Did you know that postage stamp collecting-- even in our digital age-- remains one of the most popular collecting hobbies in the world? Stamp collectors-- sometimes known as philatelists-- still number in the tens of millions, and in rapidly developing nations like India and China, stamp collecting is actually enjoying tremendous growth.
It is estimated that-- at one time in the not too distant past-- as many as 1-in-10 people in the US saved and collected stamps. Stamp collecting has always been an inexpensive and easy hobby to get into-- after all, the "subject" of the hobby can potentially arrive FREE in the mail, almost every day. Add to this that stamps are colorful miniature works of art, offer a tiny "window" to the culture and history of different countries, take up very little room, require few "specialized tools" to collect and are available in every corner of the world-- and you've got a truly global collectible!
In this article you'll learn more about the history of stamps and stamp collecting, as well as tips on the many different ways to collect stamps, supplies and reference books, where and how to buy stamps (if you're not going to wait for them to come in the mail!) and much more.
How I Got Started with Stamp Collecting
Some Danish stamps from my childhood ==>
I was born and grew up in Denmark-- a tiny country in Northern Europe. When I was little, my father worked as a manager at a manufacturing and international trade company. Naturally, the office would get lots and lots of mail from places all around the world, and in the mid-1960s, the only way to get things from "point A" to "point B" was to put a stamp (or several) on an envelope.
My father believed that a stamp collection would be a great hands-on way for me to learn about the culture, history and geography of many different places-- in a manner far more interesting and practical than learning about these things in school. On top of that, I would have a hobby, as well as a way to connect with other kids with a shared interest. When I was a kid, lots of my friends collected stamps, and I made lots of new friends as a result of being a stamp collector.
Little did my father know that he "gave" me a life-long hobby that has since allowed me to correspond with and get to know 100's of fellow stamp collectors all around the world. That is one of the great benefits of stamp collecting-- even though it can be a solitary pursuit, there tends to be a great fellowship between collectors all around the world.
Yes, there IS a Stamp Collecting for Dummies!
Of course, you do have the option of just skipping everything I've written here and just ordering a book about stamp collecting instead. Of course, I'd prefer you stayed and read my article, though!
The good news is that I know Dick Sine (the author), and he's a good guy and he knows what he's talking about. He has also managed to keep this book written in a "light" sort of way, while offering lots of information.
The not-so-good news is that the book is heavily focused on US stamps, and even though lots of the general principles are valid ANYwhere, it might feel a bit dull, if you're from somewhere else, or just not interested in US stamps.
The REALLY bad news is that the book is out of print and has-- in a touch of irony-- become quite collectible, in its own right... and thus can be pretty spendy. But it's a good book, so DO check it out, if you feel so inclined.
Time for a quick poll!
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The World's First Postage Stamp
The story of England's "Penny Black"
The first postage stamp in the world was issued in England in 1840. The stamp pictured here is from my own collection. ==>
Stamps were "invented" as a result of an overhaul of public mails in England. Prior to 1840, sending a letter was a very complicated and unpredictable affair, and how much it would cost to send the letter depended on the letter carrier, the distance it was going, how many people had to handle the letter along the way and much more.
English postal reformer Sir Rowland Hill proposed and introduced what became known as "uniform penny postage," which meant that now a basic letter could be mailed anywhere in Britain for a penny. A small label-- the "stamp"-- affixed to the letter served as proof that the cost to transport the letter to its destination had been pre-paid by the sender.
The "penny postage" system was quickly embraced and resulted in an explosion in the volume of mail sent.
The world's first stamp was a simple design with a picture of Queen Victoria, ruling monarch at the time, inscribed with the rate of "one penny." The stamps were printed in sheets of 240, and the letters in the lower corners indicate where in the sheet the stamp comes from, column and row. Back then, stamps were cut from the sheet with scissors-- there were no "perforations" between stamps to help you separate them. Finding a stamp that was cut accurately on all four sides can be quite tricky.
Although this IS the world's first stamp-- and highly collectible-- it is by no means the world's rarest because millions and millions were printed to meet postal needs.
Own the World's First Postage Stamp!
There are a number of reasons why the "Penny Black" is highly sought after, It is not only collected by stamp collectors, but also by collectors of ephemera based on having "the world's first" of anything.
Prices vary considerably, depending on the condition of the stamp. Stamps in excellent "premium" condition (don't forget this is a piece of PAPER, 175 years old!) can sell for $100's.
So How Do You Start a Stamp Collection?
As I mentioned in the introduction, starting a stamp collection is very easy because-- in principle-- the "subject matter" arrives in the mail, for free. The stamps pictured at left are from 1970, and arrived on everyday mail at our house, back then. With subjects like elephants and dinosaurs, these were pretty interesting, when I was ten. Of course, if you don't get very many letters-- true for many of us, in this day and age-- that might take a while.
As a kid, I got 100s of stamps by walking across the street from my junior school to the post office and looking in the trash bins by the P.O.Boxes where people often opened-- and discarded-- envelopes when picking up their mail.
If you want to stick to the "free" method, you can always join a penpal club or postcard exchange, which will get you lots of mail, but you'll also be expected to send mail to others. However, it can be a fun way to get stamps from all over the world. For example, the Postcrossing project has resulted in more than 21 million postcards being exchanged between members. If postcards are not your bag, you can also join a penpal club like Interpals, which has been on the web since 1998 and has many thousands of members.
Of course, the option many people opt for is simply to buy some stamps to get started-- there are lots of options for doing so, and I'll get back to those, a little further down.
The next obvious question is what to DO with the stamps, once you have some. Most people opt for some form of stamp album-- although I've come across collections that were kept in photo albums, in scrapbooks, in envelopes, coin holders, trading card sleeves and even in desk drawers. I recommend some kind of stamp album, though... along with some basic "supplies" that will make your collecting efforts easier and more enjoyable.
Basic Stamp Collecting Supplies
Here's a "short list" of some of the very basics I suggest for a new stamp collector... it'll get you "off on the right foot," so to speak.
Here's a funny thing for you: After 45+ years as a stamp collector, I've discovered that you do NOT always get the best deals on stamp collecting supplies from hobby shops that specialize in this stuff. I buy a LOT of stamp collecting supplies, and these sellers on Amazon actually have the best prices on collecting supplies. I will keep this list as current as possible, to make sure the best deals are always featured here.
This is going to be your first stamp album. A LOT of places sell these for $20.00-32.00, so this is a really good deal.
Lighthouse is a "premium" brand, and sure, you can find a "cheaper" book. But I've been "field testing" these for 30+ years and I still have some that are that old. The "cheap" albums I've owned have all been thrown away. Why? Either they just fall apart, or the pages start to yellow, which will damage your stamps. 'Nuff said.
Stamp tongs are sort of like tweezers, only different.
Why use tongs? Well, they allow you to pick up stamps without damaging them, and it keeps the oils on your fingers from damaging the paper, especially with really OLD stamps.
Do NOT use regular tweezers from your bathroom! Why? Because they have little "ridges" on the gripping surface... great when you want to pull a splinter from your finger, but they will damage the paper of stamps.
A lighted magnifying glass just makes sense, because stamps tend to be pretty small, and some of the writing on them is truly tiny.
I recommend the lighted kind like this one because whereas you CAN use a plain magnifyer you already have, you'll want light, and your head tends to get in the way when you look at stamps.
Those little saw-tooth shaped things at the edges of stamps are known as "perforations." You probably knew that, through!
Anyway, lots of different sizes of perforations are used on the edges of stamps, around the world. And on old stamps, differences in the size of perforations can be the difference between a 10 cent stamp and a 100 dollar stamp.
Any other supplies I might need?
The above covers the very fundamentals. There are other things you might want, as you get along.
Many older stamps were printed on watermarked paper... and many different watermarks were used. Now, in many cases, you can see a watermark by holding the stamp up to a light source... but not always. And sometimes the postmark and stamp design can interfere with what you think you're seeing. There are special watermark detection fluids that are safe for stamps, and you might also want a "watermark tray" which is a small black receptacle you pour the fluid into... black, because as a background, it helps the watermark stand out.
Glassine envelopes are handy for stamps you want to sort, or stamps you want to store somewhere other than your album. Yes, you can use ordinary envelopes... but the thing with glassines is that you can see through them, which you can with regular envelopes.
A pocket sized UV lamp can be handy, too. Some stamps have UV reactive "tagging" added to the surface of the paper. The original purpose is the aid automated letter sorting equipment locate the stamp on an envelope and turn all the envelopes so they face the same way. For stamp collectors, however, a "tagged" stamp is often considered different from an "untagged" stamp, for the purposes of collecting. So you need to be able to tell them apart.
A Few Words about Stamp Catalogues and the Values of Stamps
Another fairly important part of a stamp collector's supplies is a stamp catalogue. Or, in the case of more advanced collectors, several stamp catalogues and reference books.
Stamp catalogues list and picture every stamp from a particular country-- or sometimes the whole world-- and allow collectors to determine when and where a stamp was issued. As such, they are important in helping you organize your collection, and in helping you discover more about which stamps you have, and which stamps you might still want to add to your collection.
In addition to identification, stamp catalogues attempt to determine an approximate value of stamps. I say "approximate," because ascertaining the actual value of a stamp is more of an art than a science. In stamp collecting, a stamp catalogue will give you a value for a given stamp in a very specific condition... but what your stamp is really worth is determined by its condition, compared to the catalogue "standard," as well as demand and supply in the collector market.
Hence "second rate" copies of an old stamp might be worth a small fraction of "catalogue value," while flawless copies may be worth considerably more than stated catalogue value. In addition, most lower value stamps have very little effective market value. For example, a stamp might be in the catalogue as worth 25 cents, but its actual worth is probably less than one cent. How does that work? You can generally consider most of this "value" a sort of "handling charge" for a stamp dealer to even bother having the stamp available. If you think a bit about the cost of living in our world, nobody can make any semblance of a living from selling items for once cent each, right?
It's all a bit confusing and daunting for newcomers to the hobby.
So, do you really need a stamp catalogue, when you're just starting out? Perhaps not. There are a number of good reference sites online that can help you with basic identification of stamps. And if you do want to use a real paper catalogue, most public libraries have them available, in their reference section.
Why am I so cautious in recommending catalogues? Well, they are expensive. And if you're still in the "I'm not really sure what I want to collect" stage, spending over US $200 (for example) on a set of Scott world stamp catalogues seems like a bit of overkill.
There are many major issuers of stamp catalogues around the world. Scott is based in the US and has a worldwide catalogue. Stanley Gibbons is based in the UK, and their catalogues are best known for British Commonwealth stamps. Other publishers include Michel (Germany), Yvert & Tellier (France), Zumstein (Switzerland), Facit (Scandinavia) and there are many others, but they are a bit beyond the scope of this article.
Scott Standard Postage Stamp Catalogue - It's what collectors use for reference...
Most collectors in the US use the "Scott Standard Postage Stamp Catalogue" (referred to by most stamp collectors simply as "Scott") for reference. This catalogue covers every stamp ever issued, anywhere. A full current set of 6 volumes, at the going rate, will set you back about US $500.00+
Unless you really, really feel compelled to buy the latest version, I suggest you invest in a set of catalogues that are a couple of years old. The absolute latest stamps won't be included, but pretty close. And you'll be able to get them for 1/3 to 1/2 of the new price.
The listings below are for a 2012 set. While still a considerable investment, it's more within most people's reach, price wise.
Choices: Should I Collect Mint or Used stamps?
Stamps typically come in two primary "flavors:" Mint (or unused)-- and used (or cancelled or postmarked). At left, you can see the same Danish stamp in both mint and used condition.
Although a few collectors collect both kinds, most collections are made up of one... or the other.
Personally, I collect used stamps. I like the idea that the stamps have "been somewhere" and have served the purpose they were designed for. I also like seeing the postmarks on them, from different parts of the world.
A lot of collectors favor mint stamps. One important reason is that the stamp's design is readily visible, and not partly covered by cancel ink.
There is no "right" or "wrong" way to go about choosing-- it's purely a matter of personal preference. One thing to keep in mind is that if you do end up getting serious about stamp collecting, really old mint stamps can be quite expensive... because very few people "back then" thought to save stamps, as opposed to just using them on letters.
For example, I collect Danish stamps. I could buy a nice used copy of Denmark's first stamp (from 1851) for about $25-30, while a mint copy of the same stamp might set me back 15-20 times that!
Mint stamps also have to be handled with more care, because it's quite easy to damage the adhesive (known to stamp collectors as "gum") on the back of the stamp, which means the stamp's value is reduced.
Collecting Worldwide Stamps
How most people begin a stamp collection
Most stamp collections start out as "general worldwide" in scope. People simply save whatever interesting stamps arrive in the mail with little attention paid to having any kind of focus. That's how I got started, as well... there were so many different unusual and colorful stamps in my dad's office mail that I declared I would "collect the whole world!" I just wanted to get one each of all the stamps, ever!
The stamps pictured here were issued by West Germany (before the Berlin Wall fell); Sweden; Kenya, Uganda & Tanzania (as a single postal entity under British dominion) and Malaysia.
On a more realistic level, collecting all the stamps of the world would be a monumental and extremely expensive endeavor, as hundreds of thousands of unique stamps have been issued by hundreds of different sovereign nations between 1840 and the present day. Certainly, there are "general worldwide" stamp collectors out there, but their numbers are fairly small.
That said, a worldwide collection is a great way to start because it allows you to see "what's out there," and that might help you develop more specialized interests, perhaps as a result of discovering that certain stamps always get your attention.
Collecting the Stamps of a Country or Region
The most common way to narrow down the scope of what to collect is to limit your collecting emphasis to a particular country or region. The stamps pictured here are all from the Nordic countries.
Once I had gotten past my initial childhood enthusiasm for collecting "the whole world," I eventually settled on collecting the stamps of Denmark (because we lived there), Sweden (because it was "next door" and we knew people there who sent us letters) and France (because we went there on vacation on a regular basis).
In my case, the determining factor was that the stamps were "relatively easy to get." In our modern times-- largely thanks to the Internet-- there are fewer geographic limitations on "what you can get."
As I said earlier, there is really no "right" or "wrong" way to go about choosing. It's fairly common to choose your "home country" to collect... but some people choose things like "countries I have traveled to" or a region like "Scandinavia" or "East Africa."
Collecting the Stamps of a Specific Time Period
Another way to narrow down the scope of a stamp collection is to collect only the stamps issued during a particular time period.
Many stamp collectors form "The first 100 years of stamps" collections-- these are of finite size, and appeal to many for their historical value. However, it can also become a pretty costly affair, because some of the "classic period" stamps are also among the most expensive to buy. And they are definitely NOT going to "arrive in the mail."
There are many different approaches, though. You could collect "stamps issued during World War II" for example. Maybe you grew up in the 1960's and you might enjoy having a collection from that time period... which might show some of the history and pop culture of that decade.
Another popular thing is to combine an area and a time period: For example "Stamps from British Commonwealth countries during the reign of King George V."
You can pretty much make your choice as narrow or as wide as you wish-- there are lots of possibilities! The stamps pictured here were "issued by British Commonwealth nations during the reign of King George VI."
Thematic or Topical Stamp Collecting
With the advent of "modern" stamps-- the result of new design and printing technologies-- featuring a wide range of subject matters, a new form of stamp collecting has gained widespread popularity.
Known as "Topical" or "Thematic" collecting, this type of philately focuses on a particular theme on stamps. It might be something straightforward like "Butterflies on stamps" or "Horses on stamps," or something quite esoteric like "medical innovations." There's almost no limit to the creativity of thematic collectors, who will sometimes also include thematic postmarks and other "related items" in their collections.
Topical collectors get quite creative, sometimes. They might do considerable historical research, as part of their collecting. For example, I met one collector whose interest in "scouting on stamps" extended beyond merely the stamps featuring scouting related motifs, to also include "famous people" on stamps whom he'd determined to have had some kind of affiliation with the scouting movement. Basically, it became an adult "treasure hunt," of sorts.
Personally, I have a small collection formed around the theme "Cats on stamps" because I have had cats for most of my life, and I found it interesting how often they were part of stamp designs. Pictured above is a special hand painted first day cover with the cat stamps issued by the US in 1988.
Specialized Stamp Collecting
There's really no fixed definition for what a "specialist" stamp collector is. My personal "definition" is that it's someone who collects stamps in some more involved or detailed fashion than just "one of each."
Usually, specialization happens after someone has been collecting for a number of years and discovers that they are particularly and frequently drawn to some fairly specific area of stamp collecting.
Some people might start collecting stamps and old letters sent from or to the town or county where they were born, or where their family originally came from. Or maybe they get interested in a particular group or series of stamps from a specific country. Because so many stamps have been issued around the world, the possibilities are almost endless.
There are common misconceptions that specialized collecting is only for "very advanced" stamp collectors, that you "have to be rich" to afford specialized collecting, and that it's all about sitting a looking at tiny variations in design with a magnifying glass.
All three of these assumptions are largely myths. Yes, you need to have a pretty good understanding of the basics of stamp collecting to understand what makes something "collectible," but that's about it. As for the cost, you can make an extensive specialized collection out of a country's most common stamp, if you get a bit creative with it. I've seen it done!
I have a number of specialized stamp collections, running the range from "cheap" to "pretty expensive." Pictured above are some stamps from my collection of 19th century Swedish town cancellations.
Let's Get Started: I Want to Buy Some Stamps to Start a Collection!
So, you may have gotten to the point where you've decided that waiting for stamps in the mail is going to take too long, so you want to buy some stamps to start your stamp collection. There are a number of different places you can do this.
If you live in a bigger city, there may still be a street level stamp store in your town. With the Internet, there are not as many as there used to be, but they are still around. You might find them under "stamps for collectors" in the yellow pages.
You can also look through the newspaper and perhaps see ads for a local stamp show, where dealers also set up tables and sell from their stock. Again, that is a possibility, but somewhat limited.
Your best bet is to go online and do some research. Online, you'll find "marketplaces" that sell stamps (like eBay), and you'll find numerous stamp dealers who sell from their web sites, and you'll find stamp auction firms that allow you to place bids for lots of stamps from their web sites, or from paper catalogs they send you in the mail.
You can either buys stamps individually, one at a time, or you can buy them in "lots" or "accumulations" or "collections." It's a good idea to have some sense of what you want to do, before you "go shopping." If you're just starting out, you might want to start of with a smaller "world wide" collection, or a starter collection from a particular country or area. These are widely available, and often not so expensive.
Buying a Starter Collection of Worldwide Stamps
A good way to start-- and usually get a LOT of stamps for a reasonable price-- is to buy a "packet" or starter collection. Here are some suggestions:
Places to Buy Stamps for Your Collection
Here's a short list of some of the best places to buy stamps online. This list is by no means exhaustive-- there are literally thousands of web sites that sell stamps.
- The Stamps Section on eBay
There are always hundreds of thousands of stamps for sale on Internet auction giant eBay. Some are for sale at fixed prices, while others are available with auction style bidding. You can find anything from individual stamps to huge collections-- pre
- Stamps on Delcampe
Delcampe is a specialized collectibles online auction site, based in Belgium but with buyers and sellers from all over the world. Last I checked, their stamps area had over 15 MILLION listings, and a much wider price range than you might find on eBay
- Stamps2Go stamp selling site
Stamps2Go is a different kind of marketplace for stamps. Rather than an auction format, this is a fixed price marketplace, where hundreds of sellers offer their stamps to thousands of potential buyers. Here you're mostly going to find individual stam
- BidStart stamp marketplace
BidStart (formerly known as StampWants) is another "online auction style" marketplace with millions of stamps listed for sale by both individual collectors and professional stamp dealers.
Connecting With Other Stamp Collectors
Although stamp collecting is mostly a somewhat solitary pastime, there are lots of ways to connect with other stamp collectors... and for most people, part of the enjoyment of having a collection comes in the form of sharing and trading with others.
There are many different kinds of organizations for stamp collectors, ranging from your local stamp club that might meet monthly at a library or other public place, to national associations. These can be found in almost all countries, and there are also specialty societies for people who collect something specific, whether it's thematics or particular types of stamps.
If stamp collecting really starts getting your attention, it's highly recommended that you join some form of stamp club to get more out of the hobby!
If you want to start out with something a little less "formal," the Internet has given rise to 100's of online forums and "communities" for stamp collectors. These can be extremely helpful for beginners who have questions-- whether you need help with identifying stamps, or suggestions on albums or catalogues, or even what and how to collect. They are far too numerous to list, but a few of the more significant and active ones appear below.
Major Stamp Collecting Associations
As is true with most things, there are clubs, associations and other organizations for stamp collectors. Of course, there are hundreds of these... listed here are just a few major ones.
- American Philatelic Society
This is the primary stamp collecting organization in the USA, with over 30,000 members.
- The Royal Philatelic Society London
This is the primary stamp collecting organization in the UK.
- The International Society of Worldwide Stamp Collectors
This organization is for those who DO decide to collect stamps from all around the world.
- The American Topical Association
This is the primary US organization for thematic or topical stamp collectors.
Online Stamp Collecting Forums and Communities
Becoming part of an online stamp collecting forum can be helpful and informative for new collectors. Usually, these work as a sort of bulletin/message board where you can post comments and ask questions and others reply, sometimes sites are more elaborate, like small specialized "social networks" with lots of additional features.
- StampoRama Stamp Club (and forums)
Started in 1996, this is perhaps the oldest continuously operating online stamp group. It's actually a "hybrid" in that is combines being a "stamp club" with being an online forum and community.
- StampBoards: Where Philatelists Meet
This is the world's largest and busiest online community for stamp collectors, with over 12,000 members and millions of posts created over a period of many years.
- Stamp Community Family Forum
One of the larger, most established and active stamp collecting forums on the web.
- The Stamp Collecting Forum
Another large and active forum-- this one straight "message board" style-- that has been on the web for many years.
- Stamp Bears Community
Although this is a somewhat smaller and newer community, it's mentioned here because of it's extremely friendly and welcoming "atmosphere," especially when it comes to newcomers to the stamp collecting hobby.
- My Stamp World Community
This is a more recent entry in the stamp collecting world, set up more like a specialized "social network" where you can not only use a message board, but there are also blogs, photo sharing, a buy-sell area and more.
Learning More About Stamps
Aside from simply "getting your hands on some stamps," the best way to learn is through reading more about what other stamp collectors do, and what's going on-- in general-- in the world of stamp collecting.
A little time with Google will lead to you to hundreds of web sites and blogs about stamp collecting, the majority of them created by stamp collectors... for no other reason than they enjoy the hobby and want to share what they are doing.
Another good way to learn is to subscribe to a stamp collecting magazine or news service, where you can also read about what others are doing, and get ideas for your own collection. I have personally been a subscriber to "Linn's Stamp News" since the 1980's, and have gotten lots of good ideas... not to mention lots of stamps ordered from the advertisements in the magazine!
It's well worth learning about stamps, and building a stamp collection. Stamps teach us about other cultures, and they are miniature works of art that show us the culture, history and nature of many different places on the planet!
News and Magazines for Stamp Collectors
Because stamp collecting is a truly global hobby, there are also lots of different hobby magazines and periodicals for stamp collectors. Here's a list of the more significant ones
- Linn's Stamp News
Linn's Stamp News is a USA based weekly publication for stamp collectors. Has both an online and paper version-- available by subscription.
- Stamp News Online
Stamp News Online is the major "online only" magazine for stamp collectors, with a new edition every month. A very nice alternative to paper magazines... this is a "real" monthly publication, NOT a blog with an occasional article.
- Stamp Magazine (UK)
Stamp Magazine is the primary monthly magazine for stamp collectors in the UK-- available both on line, and as a paper magazine by subscription.
- World Stamp News
World Stamp News is online newsfeed of ongoing news from the world of stamp collecting. This one is continuously updated, rather than published by a schedule.
Facts and Stats
All images in this article are the original work and property of the author; all the stamps are in the author's personal collection. Photos may be reused/republished ONLY with a proper attribution and link pointing back to this article.
This article was first published on March 19th, 2014
Since then, it has been revised, added to or otherwise modified 7 times
Most recent revision took place on August 11th, 2014
This article has been read 579 times, as of July 31st, 2014
Awards and recognition:
Purple Star award on March 25th, 2014.
Lens of the Day on March 27th, 2014.
Are you a stamp collector? Have you ever been one? For how long have you been collecting? What are your interests? Did you used to have a collection, but gave it up at some point? Do you think you might take up collecting, again? Does stamp collecting sound like a hobby you'd be interested in?
Please leave a comment and share your perspective!
Last updated on August 11, 2014
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