With the issuance of the world’s first postage stamps, the Penny Black and the Two Penny Blue, in early May 1840, came the birth of the hobby of collecting postage stamps and related objects. However, revenue stamps had been collected since the previous century with John Bourke, Receiver General of Stamp Dues in Ireland often credited as the first collector. In 1774, he assembled a book of the existing embossed revenue stamps, ranging in value from 6 pounds to half a penny, as well as the hand stamped charge marks that were used with them. His collection is preserved in Dublin.
People started to collect the new postage stamps almost immediately. It is often mentioned that early purchasers of the Penny Black pasted sheets of the imperforate stamps upon their walls. While unused examples of this stamp are quite scarce, used examples are quite common, and may be purchased for $20 to $200, depending upon condition. One of the earliest and most notable collectors was John Edward Gray. In 1862, Gray stated that he “began to collect postage stamps shortly after the system was established and before it had become a rage”.
Another early collector is known only by the name of Vetzel from Lille, France. Apparently, he began collecting “the English vignettes created by Rowland Hill” starting in May 1841. Vetzel was a renowned coin collector (numismatist) who died in 1906. Women stamp collectors also date from the earliest days of postage stamp collecting. One of the earliest was Adelaide Lucy Fenton who wrote articles in the 1860s for the journal The Philatelist under the name Herbert Camoens.
By 1860, thousands of postage stamp collectors and dealers had appeared around the world as the new hobby spread across Europe, European colonies, the United States and other parts of the world. There were already so many collectors in France that the Stamp Exchange was created in the Tuileries Gardens in 1860, moving to the Champs Elysées in 1866, opposite the Guignol Theatre, where it still operates today.
In 1861, the first catalogue, Potiquet, was issued, followed immediately by the issues of Moens in Brussels, the second French catalogue of Vallete and the British Stamps Catalogue of Mount Brown, issued in London in December 1862, the date on which the first philatelic journal in the world, The Monthly Advertiser was issued.
Children and teenagers were early collectors of stamps in the 1860s and 1870s. Many adults dismissed it as a childish pursuit but later many of those same collectors, as adults, began to systematically study the available postage stamps and publish books about them. As the hobby and study of stamps began to grow, stamp albums and stamp related literature began to surface. The first shop dedicated to selling postage stamps was set up in 1862 by Pierre Mahé at a house in Rue des Canettes, Paris. The first stamp album was published by Lallier in December 1862. By the early 1880s, publishers like Stanley Gibbons made a business out of this advent.
The first exhibition of stamps took place in 1881 in Vienna, Austria. Stamps took a prominent role in the International Book Exhibition at the Palace of Varied Industries in Paris, which ran from July 24 to November 29, 1894, devoting one month to each specialty described as follows: Stamps of Europe, Stamps of Africa, Stamps of Oceania. The program divided the exhibits into six classes:
1°. – removable and fixed stamps
2°. – telegraph and fiscal stamps
3°. – philatelic journals
4°. – blank albums and catalogues
5°. – written works on philately
6°. – various objects not covered by the above classes
An account of the 1890 exhibition at London’s Guildhall marking the 50th anniversary of Rowland Hill’s creation stated that,
“We could not reach the improvised post and telegraph offices, where there were hordes of people wanting to send letters and postcards with a special cancellation: a kind of star with commemorative inscriptions. These post offices sold 10,000 postcards of a special model on Saturday alone, with the common stamp on the right, with the arms of London on the upper part and the monogram VR superimposed by a crown and the inscription: PENNY POSTAGE JUBILEE GUILDHALL – LONDON.“
In 1897, at the opening of the Postal Congress of Washington, an open letter to the representatives was published in the Collectionneur, which said:
“Stamp collectors are following the work of the Congress of the Universal Postage Union with great interest. They are the first to realize that the postal network is in expansion around the world and only a few spots remain where the stamp has not taken its civilizing work. On the other hand, there are many countries that have been abusing stamps for several years, creating new editions and provisional stamps at short intervals, with the sole purpose of making money, which is totally deplorable.”
Many casual stamp collectors accumulate stamps for sheer enjoyment and relaxation without worrying about the tiny details. However, the hobby of philately is the study of stamps, postal history and other related items. It also refers to the collection, appreciation and research activities on stamps and other philatelic products. It is possible to be a philatelist without owning any stamps. For instance, the stamps being studied may be very rare, or reside only in museums. The creation of a large or comprehensive collection generally requires some philatelic knowledge and will usually contain areas of philatelic studies.
The origins of philately came about in the observation that in a number of apparently similar stamps, closer examination revealed differences in the printed design, paper, watermark, color, perforations and other areas of the stamp. Comparison with the records of postal authorities showed that the variations were occasionally intentional but more often not, leading to further inquiry as to how the changes could have happened, and why. To make things more interesting, thousands of forgeries have been produced over the years, some of them very good, and only a thorough knowledge of philately gives any hope of detecting the fakes.
Early terms for stamp collecting included timbromania, timbrophily and timbrology. The word philately is the English version of the French word philatélie, coined by Georges Herpin in 1864. Herpin stated that stamps had been collected and studied for the previous six or seven years and a better name was required for the new hobby than timbromanie, which was disliked. He took the Greek root word φιλ(ο), phil(o), meaning “an attraction or affinity for something”, and ἀτέλεια, ateleia, meaning “exempt from duties and taxes” to form philatélie. The introduction of postage stamps meant that the receipt of letters was now free of charge, whereas before stamps it was normal for postal charges to be paid by the recipient of a letter. The new term gained acceptance during the 1860s.
A few basic items of equipment are needed to collect stamps, including stamp hinges and/or mounts, stamp tongs, a magnifying glass, and a way to store the stamps such as an album (either printed or blank) or stockbook. A wide variety of catalogues — both printed and digital — exist to aid collectors in identifying their stamps. Stamps can be obtained from the post office (for new or recent issues), dealers, trading with other collectors, or by clipping (and then soaking) stamps from envelopes that arrive in the daily mail.
Stamps can be collected unused (mint), used or still on the envelopes (on-cover, recommended for older postal history items). Stamps can be displayed according to the collector’s wishes, by country, topic, or even by size, which can create a display pleasing to the eye. There are no rules and it is entirely a matter for the individual collector to decide. Albums can be commercially purchased, downloaded or created by the collector. In the latter cases, using acid free paper provides better long-term stamp protection.
Currently, there are relatively few collectors pursuing a worldwide collection, although doing so does seem to be enjoying a bit of a resurgence in recent years. Most worldwide collectors tend to concentrate on the so-called “Classic Era” of 1840-1940 with many British collectors extending this to the end of 1952 with Queen Elizabeth II beginning her reign the following year.
Many collectors today limit their collecting to particular countries, certain time periods, types of stamps such as airmail or revenue stamps, or particular subjects (called topicals) like birds or aircraft. Other collectors concentrate on items including first day covers and programs, souvenir sheets, maximum cards, and many more. Some collectors, such as myself, have started to attempt “A Stamp From Everywhere” (ASFEW) but soon realize that some entities are impossible to obtain even a single example of without deep pockets. I now call my worldwide collection “Stamp(s) From Almost Everywhere” (SFAEW) and still have quite a ways to go! I have seen some mention of “virtual collecting” where collectors just download images of stamps and are satisfied with that.
The list of what to collect and how to do it truly is endless!
Philatelists study the technical aspects of stamp production and stamp identification, including:
- The stamp design process
- The paper used (wove, laid and including watermarks)
- The method of printing (engraving, typography)
- The gum
- The method of separation (perforation, rouletting)
- Overprints on the stamp
- Security markings, underprints or perforated initials (“perfins”)
- The study of philatelic fakes and forgeries
Others may study postal history by examining the postal systems and how they operate and, or, the study of postage stamps and covers and associated material illustrating historical episodes of postal systems both before and after the introduction of the adhesive stamps. This includes the study of postmarks, post offices, postal authorities, postal rates and regulations and the process by which letters are moved from sender to recipient, including routes and choice of conveyance. A classic example is the Pony Express, which was the fastest way to send letters across the United States during the few months that it operated. Covers that can be proven to have been sent by the Pony Express are highly prized by collectors.
An aspect that I am becoming increasingly interested in myself is that of Cinderella philately. This is the study of objects that look like stamps, but are not valid for postal use. Examples include Easter Seals, Christmas Seals, propaganda labels, and so forth. I have become so interested in local post stamps that I have been creating my own since 2013 with my 2018 issues being perforated for the first time.
There are thousands of books and periodicals about stamp collecting and specialized philately, beyond the stamp catalogues. Philatelic literature documents the results of philatelic study. Theses constitutes yet another collecting area as well.
Tools that a philatelist may add to the list of basic stamp collecting supplies would include a perforation gauge, watermark detector and, perhaps, an ultraviolet light as well as more specialized catalogue or philatelic literature.
Philatelic organizations sprang up soon after people started collecting and studying stamps. One of the first was he Société Française de Timbrologie, created in Paris around 1874 by Dantis, Rothschild, Legrand, Durrieu and by the famous count of Ferrari. Today, there are thousands of organizations including local, national and international clubs and societies where collectors come together to share the various aspects of their hobby. Most nations have a national collectors’ organization, such as the American Philatelic Society in the United States. The Internet has greatly expanded the availability of information and made it easier to obtain stamps and other philatelic material. The American Topical Association (ATA) is now a part of the APS and promotes thematic collecting as well as encouraging sub-groups of numerous topics.
Stamp clubs and philatelic societies can add a social aspect to stamp collecting and provide a forum where novices can meet experienced collectors. Although such organizations are often advertised in stamp magazines and online, the relatively small number of collectors — especially outside urban areas — means that a club may be difficult to set up and sustain. The Internet partially solves this problem, as the association of collectors online is not limited by geographical distance. For this reason, many highly specific stamp clubs have been established on the Web, with international membership.
Organizations such as the Cinderella Stamp Club (UK) retain hundreds of members interested in a specific aspect of collecting. Social organizations, such as the Lions Club and Rotary International, have also formed stamp collecting groups specific to those stamps that are issued from many countries worldwide that display the organization’s logo.
The stamp collection assembled by French-Austrian aristocrat Philipp von Ferrary (1850–1917) at the beginning of the 20th century is widely considered the most complete stamp collection ever formed (or likely to be formed). However, as Ferrary was an Austrian citizen, the collection was broken up and sold by the French government after the First World War, as war reparations. A close rival was Thomas Tapling (1855 – 1891), whose Tapling Collection was donated to the British Museum.
Several European monarchs were keen stamp collectors, including King George V of the United Kingdom and King Carol II of Romania. King George V possessed one of the most valuable stamp collections in the world and became President of the Royal Philatelic Society. His collection was passed on to Queen Elizabeth II who, while not a serious philatelist, has a collection of British and Commonwealth first day covers which she started in 1952.
U.S. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt was a stamp collector; he designed several American commemorative stamps during his term. Late in life Ayn Rand renewed her childhood interest in stamps and became an enthusiastic collector. Several entertainment and sport personalities have been known to be collectors. Freddie Mercury, lead singer of the band Queen, collected stamps as a child. His childhood stamp album is in the collection of the British Postal Museum & Archive. John Lennon of The Beatles was a childhood stamp collector. His stamp album is held by the Smithsonian’s National Postal Museum.
Former world chess champion Anatoly Karpov has amassed a huge stamp collection over the decades, led by stamps from Belgium and Belgian Congo, that has been estimated to be worth $15 million.
Many stamps have been issued over the years portraying the Penny Black, making it difficult to choose just one. I believe Michel #2156, issued by Russia on April 23, 2015, to commemorate the 175th anniversary of the postage stamp, is the only one in my collection to portray the Penny Black through a magnifying glass. The 26.50-ruble PVA-gummed stamp was printed using offset lithography. Designed by M. Bodrova, the MARKA Publishing & Trading Centre printed 438,000 copies of the stamp, comb-perforated 12 x 11½.