An Introduction to Stamp Collecting

To outline all of the facets and sidelines of stamp collecting is much like trying to define outer space. Each has almost limitless boundaries. While this document will explore the more common philatelic pursuits, the possibilities are by no means complete. They can never be complete, because collecting stamps and related material defies full annotation.

Stamp collecting's charm is its individual, tailor-made freedom to fit the desires of any collector for as much as he wishes to spend in time, money and effort. For beginning collectors, some good advice is not to take on more than they can handle comfortably in all of those areas. That maxim applies whether stamps are collected by country, by topic, by time period or within any other personal parameters.

Many years ago, it was possible to collect all the stamps of the world. A small, optimistic minority may still try to do so. But with more than a half million stamps already issued worldwide, and with thousands more being released each year, that is an impossible dream even for the opulent few. Great rarities and thousands of varieties now make it impractical for anyone, however wealthy, to attain world completeness.

The following guidelines may aid you in whatever your collecting choices may be.

Enjoyment: Collect what pleases you or what interests you. If you are smitten by the colorful new stamps of some offbeat island, collect them regardless of their future worth, postal validity or philatelic prestige. If you cannot afford to obtain all that's available in your field, limit yourself to what intrigues you the most. No law says that your collection must be absolutely complete.

Many fine, award-winning collectors follow that path, collecting stamps or covers just for the fun of it. F. Burton Sellers, a prominent collector, works hard on the stamps of Haiti, Panama and United States possessions. For sideline enjoyment, he likes a topical, "wine on stamps." He delights in another collection called simply, "Cuz I Like 'Em," a potpourri of stamps with unusual cancels, odd shapes and advertisements printed on their gummed sides.

Ernst M. Cohn, who owns one of the worlds top-notch collections of the Paris Balloon mail of 1870-71, can't wait for the postman to arrive. He's looking for mail properly stamped and addressed to him, but which the post office has misdirected and delayed. Cohn collects plenty of these postal "goofs" right at his front door.

The late Emerson Clark, a past president of the American Philatelic Society, specialized in the stamps of Canada and Mexico. For a philatelic dessert, he doted on something he called "Libations, Liver Pills and Loose Ends." This melange consisted of advertising covers from breweries, vintners, distilleries and liquor merchants; patent medicine stamps and covers; and such wild items as envelope ads reading, "Electric Beans For Tired People," and "Stansfields Unshrinkable Underwear."

The message from these prominent collectors is clear: You can be serious about stamp collecting and have fun at the same time. These fine collectors are saying you may do what you please, without worrying about cataloging, organization or whether anyone else collects that way. Collecting stamps and their related material is probably the least structured hobby in the world; you can do exactly as you wish.

Common sense: Be aware of your financial limitations, and beware of unbelievable bargains and outrageous pricing. Most beginning collectors attempt to try for too broad a stamp spectrum. Collecting every U.S. postage stamp is now almost an impossible dream. Counting all available varieties of U.S. stamps, only one or two complete U.S. collections are thought to exist.

Collecting stamps issued within a time span was more popular decades ago than it is now. Our grandfathers often tightened their collecting to a set period: a few years or a couple of decades. Even today, many serious stamp collectors will limit themselves to one stamp, with all of its varieties, essays, proofs and postal usages; one set of definitives or commemoratives; or just a year or twos worth of issues.

Tightening your collecting goals will allow you to become more knowledgeable about what you do collect. With that focused knowledge comes price sagacity, better selectivity and, very possibly, more enjoyment. All of that leads to another point.

Authoritative sources: Let yourself be guided by any and all reliable sources. Read avidly, seek information and assistance in your stamp searching, follow the philatelic press, and never be afraid or too proud to ask for help from fellow collectors and dealers who know your collecting field.

Join a local stamp club or start one if none exists in your community. When it comes to stamp collecting, camaraderie and knowledge just seem to go together. International, national and regional societies now embrace almost every collecting phase and stamp-issuing country. Seek them out. Many societies publish data about specific collecting fields in newsletters, papers and journals. Some maintain libraries whose books are available to members.

Techniques: Learn as much as you can about the stamp hobby, its tools, language and methods. Good basic catalogs will give you much of this information; their introductions often can educate you on terms, printing methods and stamp design. Read them, though they may seem complex at first. A thorough knowledge of these will help you attain your collecting goals. When you realize, for example, that a tiny variance in perforations can mean the difference between a common stamp and one of great value, you will appreciate the wisdom of a quest for philatelic knowledge.

Although you have been advised to limit your collecting goals, don't apply that rule to your accumulation of knowledge. As with antique and art collecting, knowledge and discernment are the keys to common-sense approaches and the enjoyment of your hobby. With those caveats in mind, what are the major choices when it comes to collecting stamps?