Refresher Course

There is more to stamp collecting than collecting stamps

By Janet Klug

If you are reading this you are probably a stamp collector. Perhaps you collect the stamps of a single country, such as the United States or Germany. Maybe you collect stamps from all over the world, but limit this collection to a specific time period.

Figure 1. United States Scott 285-E11 is an unadopted essay created by Edward Rosewater for the Trans-Mississippi Exposition issue.
Figure 2. Stamp collectors collect a variety of different formats: sheets, booklets, coils and souvenir sheets, as well as single stamps.
Figure 3. An Australian registered cover to the United States sent during World War II. In addition to the numbered registration label, it bears a resealing label and handstamp indicating the contents were inspected by censor.
Figure 4. An illustrated advertising cover for Howe sewing machines and a hand-drawn and hand-painted cacheted first-day cover for the 1977 Skilled Hands for Independence stamps.
Figure 5. Stampless covers from the United States, France and Germany.

Some stamp collectors collect thematically, concentrating upon the subject depicted on the stamps, such as rockets, cats or orchids.

Prior to the process of printing a stamp there are often a number of preprinting processes that are done to assure a high quality image. Proofs may be taken from the die that would be used to make a printing plate. Once a plate has been created, a plate proof may be made.

It is sometimes possible to acquire original artwork made when an artist is designing the stamp, such as the unadopted design by Edward Rosewater shown in Figure 1. It was requested in 1897 by the U.S. Post Office Department for the Trans-Mississippi Exposition.

Such items are sought by many collectors.

Stamps can be issued in sheets, panes, souvenir sheets, booklets and coils. If the same design of a stamp is issued in more than one of these formats, many collectors will want each format in their collection. Figure 2 shows stamps in a booklet, a pane, a coil and a souvenir sheet.

As with most things in life, one thing leads to another. An interesting postmark or cancel on a stamp has led many stamp collectors down a new path of collecting postal markings. Once that happens, the collector will start looking for envelopes bearing a stamp and a postmark. The envelope is called a "cover" by collectors because it is a container or cover for the message contained therein.

Some stamp collectors enjoy pursuing mail that has been sent using a special service. Registered mail is an example. Mail that is registered receives a unique number that is recorded at each post office it transits through, leaving a record that allows the mailpiece to be tracked. These days this is done electronically using barcode technology. In years gone by it was done meticulously by hand, and often the letter or parcel would receive a postal marking from each transit post office.

A registered cover sent from Australia to the United States during World War II is shown in Figure 3. The cover was also subjected to censorship and bears a resealing label and handstamp indicating the censorship.

Some business covers bear decorative images or writing used to advertise a product. These, too, are collectable. Many countries have a special postmark to mark the first day a stamp is issued. When the stamp is affixed to an envelope that has a design that reflects the subject of the stamp it becomes a souvenir of a stamp's "birthday" or day of issue.

An illustrated advertising cover and a cacheted first-day cover are shown in Figure 4.

Mail has been carried by numerous methods, beginning with hand-carried letters and progressing through couriers on horseback, mail coaches, sailing vessels, steamboats, rail, motor vehicles, airplanes, rockets and other methods too numerous to mention.

There are collectors who specialize in methods of mail delivery, and organizations devoted to the specialists' interests.

Postal services and mail delivery existed long before there were postage stamps. These stampless letters are also collected.

Envelopes were not in general use in those days, so letters were folded in such a way that the written message was on the inside, the address was on the outside, and the letter was held together with sealing wax or a wax wafer. The letter was taken to a post office where a postal clerk would use a handstamp or a pen to postmark the letter and note how much postage had been paid by the mailer, or needed to be paid by the recipient.

The best part about these stampless letters is that you get to read the letter contained within and learn how people lived a century and a half ago. Stampless covers from the United States, France and Germany are shown in Figure 5.

Stamp collectors are also book collectors. Most of us want to learn more about what it is that we collect. We begin by acquiring stamp catalogs. That leads to magazines and journals about stamps and stamp collecting. Eventually we acquire handbooks, research papers and auction catalogs that pertain to the fields we collect. The next thing you know, the stamp collector has formed an extensive library.

We stamp collectors are also drawn to postal forms, picture postcards, maps, atlases, city directories, photographs and ephemera of all manner and description. What might begin with a few centimeters of postage stamps and a thin album in which to hold them at some point can overtake much of the livable space in one's residence.

Collecting stamps is not just one hobby, it is many hobbies connected by a passion for history, art, geography and the many other elements that draw collectors to stamps.

It is never boring, and it is ever evolving.