Refresher Course

There's no limit to the ways you can collect

By Michael Baadke

The Refresher Course column of the July 19 Linn's looked at many of the basic questions beginning stamp collectors often ask, such as whether to collect mint or postally used stamps, what kinds of supplies are necessary and helpful to have, and so on.

Figure 1. Collectors often choose to save the stamps of just one country. In the United States the choice is often U.S. stamps (such as the 1999 Jackie Robinson stamp on top), although some collectors prefer stamps from a different country (such as the 1998 stamp from India shown on the bottom).
 
Figure 2. Instead of collecting one each of every stamp from a country, some collectors save varieties such as this 1981 plate number strip from the United States Transportation coil series.
 
Figure 3. Recent stamps from Jersey, the United States and Tonga showing birds. One collecting option is to save stamps whose designs show a specific topic.
 
Figure 4. First-day covers include a stamp, a postmark showing the issue date for that stamp, and often a design related to the topic of the stamp. The covers shown are from the United States (top) and East Germany (bottom).
 
Figure 5. Collectors of postally used covers often research the details of the stamps and postmarks found on the cover.

One topic that was visited briefly in that column was the different ways that stamps and covers can be collected.

A cover, as you may know, is any mailed or postmarked item that can be studied or added to a collection. Most often this refers to an envelope with a stamp on it that has traveled through the mail, but it might also refer to a postcard, a wrapper from a parcel, an aerogram, or any other mailed item.

Less frequently the word "cover" is used to describe an envelope or postcard that has a stamp on it but has not been mailed.

Although the hobby that you read about in Linn's is most frequently referred to as "stamp collecting," many collectors involved prefer to save intact covers, with stamp, postmark, addresses and so on all kept together for study and enjoyment.

As you start out in what we like to call the "stamp hobby," your first collection might be one each of the stamps of a single country, such as the United States or Canada.

Many collectors want or need nothing more than the pleasure of building a single-country collection. One could say that this method of collecting is the foundation upon which the hobby grows.

Other collectors look for a second collection, or an alternate way of collecting, or just something different to do.

When they look around, they often find that the stamp hobby provides more choices and collecting possibilities than anyone could imagine.

Whether your interest is in stamps or covers, you certainly ought to be able to find something that keeps you busy, keeps you entertained, and holds your attention for as long as you wish.

As the July 19 column noted, many collectors concentrate on the stamps of a single country.

Figure 1 shows a recent stamp from the United States on top, and another from India on the bottom.

Choosing a country is often easy. It may be the country of your birth, or perhaps you are interested in another land where your family originated years ago.

The most popular way to collect a country is to save one of each stamp issued, but what if you're looking for something different?

One easy choice is to look for a specialty. This means focusing your attention on part of a country's stamp output instead of the entirety of it.

You might find an interest in what's known as the back of the book: stamps such as airmails, semipostals, Officials and so on.

These special-duty stamps are sometimes listed after regular-issue stamps in standard postage stamp catalogs, which explains why they're called "back-of-the-book."

Even a regular stamp series can be the focus of a specialty collection.

Instead of collecting a single stamp or a pair of U.S. coil stamps, for example, some collectors save strips of three or five with a plate number on the center stamp in the strip.

Figure 2 shows a plate number strip of three 17¢ Electric Auto stamps, U.S. Scott 1906, from the 1981 Transportation coil series.

A small plate number "1" can be seen near the bottom of the center stamp in the strip.

Reference works such as the Durland Standard Plate Number Catalog or the Scott Specialized Catalogue of United States Stamps and Covers list seven different numbers on this issue, 1-7.

Collectors may look for examples of each number, either in mint strips, postally used singles, or on cover.

Similar plate number collecting challenges exist with booklet stamps, and sheet stamps that yield plate number blocks with the number in one or more corners of the pane.

A pane is the standard unit of stamps sold at post office windows, often 15 or 20 stamps together. Panes are cut from larger press sheets before they leave the stamp printing facility.

There are many other interesting stamp collecting specialties. Perfins are stamps that have small holes punched into the design to identify the authorized user of the stamp.

It's possible to build collections of stamps showing a number of different perfin designs.

Going beyond the single-country collection, worldwide stamps offer a new range of possibilities.

One of the most popular worldwide specialties is the topical or thematic collection.

A topical collection consists of stamps that all share a common design element. The stamps illustrated in Figure 3 all show birds, for example, and birds are one of the most popular collecting topics.

A thematic collection is a little different, in that the collector uses the designs on the stamps to tell a story about a chosen subject. In such cases, the stamps may show different topics, but relate to a single theme.

Postmarks and postage meter stamps can also be important additions to topical or thematic collections.

Some collectors look only for worldwide stamps issued during a specific time period, such as a single year.

Many of these specialties lead to collecting on-cover examples that show where and when the stamps were used.

A popular cover collecting specialty is first-day covers.

Figure 4, top, shows a first-day cover from the United States, and, at bottom, another FDC from East Germany.

Most postal administrations around the world create special postmarks for use on the day a stamp is first issued. The countries either sell special commemorative covers or allow collectors to prepare their own covers for postmarking on the issue date.

The decorative design at the left of each of the two pictured covers is called a "cachet" (pronounced "ka-SHAY"). It is a prominent feature of many first-day covers.

Collecting covers that carried the daily mail can be a challenging choice, but it also is one of the most interesting collecting areas.

This type of collecting requires much more study and leads the collector into the field of postal history.

A collector who is interested in a specific stamp series, for example, may begin collecting covers that show different ways stamps from that series were used to carry the mail.

Take the 17¢ Electric Auto stamp shown in Figure 2 as an example.

When it was issued in 1981, the 17¢ stamp fulfilled the second-ounce rate for first-class postage. In later years, however, the Electric Auto stamp could be found filling other rates, often in combination with another stamp, and it was also adapted for presorted first-class mail.

The German postal card shown in Figure 5 serves as an example of how covers start collectors on the road to research.

Mailed in Berlin in 1935, the card has a stamp imprinted upon it. That's what makes it a "postal card" rather than a "postcard," as the postcard needs to have a regular stamp affixed to it before it can be mailed.

A cover collector may ask many questions about such a cover. When was this particular postal card first issued? How long did it remain on sale? Were many created or just a few? Does the postage paid by the imprinted stamp meet a special rate?

The unusual pictorial cancel on the stamp raises more questions. What does it signify? Was it only used in Berlin, or in other cities as well? How long was it used?

To answer these questions, the postal historian looks through reference books, journal articles, post office records and other sources.

It's a little different than buying a new stamp and placing it on a stamp album page, but as you can see, it is just one of many collecting options this hobby has to offer.

Whenever anyone says they are going to quit the stamp hobby because they are tired of buying new stamps all the time, or they are frustrated because they can't afford to fill the empty spaces on their album page, they are clearly not looking at the multitude of possibilities that the stamp hobby has to offer.

There's no doubt that these frustrated collectors don't need to quit the hobby.

They simply need to look a little deeper at what it has to offer, and find a fresh new specialty that they can explore for the very first time.

What area will you collect next: U.S. plate number coils, topicals, postal stationery, first-day covers?