Refresher Course

Three little words can make a big difference

By Michael Baadke

At one time or another everyone has seen a parcel or box marked "HANDLE WITH CARE" in bold red letters. You know the reason for the warning. There's something fragile inside, and if the package is mishandled, it's bound to get damaged.

Figure 1. Which of these two 40¢ Claire Chennault stamps would you choose to place in your stamp collection? Stamps are fragile and can be damaged through careless handling. The upper-right corner of the stamp at right has been bent.
 
Figure 2. How many ways can you damage a stamp if you pick it up with your fingers? You might stain the design, bend the corner, crease the paper or dirty the gum. Stamp tongs (bottom) are specially designed tools that help the stamp collector handle stamps without damaging them.
 
Figure 3. Stamp collectors must be careful about storing stamps properly. A stock book has small pockets that hold stamps in place and keep them free from dust and damage.
 
Figure 4. Some collectors store items such as stamp booklets and small panes in binders designed for stamp storage. Always wash and thoroughly dry hands before handling stamps. Hold booklets carefully when examining them and don't open booklets so far that the cover creases.
 
Figure 5. Plastic sleeves may be used to store covers indefinitely, although additional protection, perhaps a sturdy box, is also needed. Glassine envelopes, such as those shown at right, can be used for temporary storage, but watch for signs of aging or damage to the glassine that might affect the cover.

Every stamp collector in the world should have that three-word, red-letter phrase in mind as he approaches his collection: "HANDLE WITH CARE." Postage stamps, after all, are small and delicate. Because of the fragile nature of stamps, collectors take special precautions to make sure they don't harm the items they are saving.

Similar concerns must be applied to covers as well. Covers, you may know, are mailed or postmarked envelopes, postcards and even parcel wrappers that are saved and added to collections.

Some older covers are every bit as fragile as postage stamps. Some newer covers may be clean, bright and sharp, and it's your job to keep them that way.

Why all the concern about how the items in your collection are handled? If you think about it, almost every material object in the world has a greater value if it is undamaged.

If you pay $5 to add a certain stamp to your collection, and you stain it with jelly because you were eating a donut while putting it in your album, that stamp no longer has a value of $5. It may not even be worth 5¢. That's an extreme example, but even flaws less serious than a jelly stain can greatly reduce the value of any stamp.

As you create your collection, you'll want it to be the best that you can make it. When you obtain a stamp for your collection, you may not be able to get the finest example of that stamp in existence, but you should always look for quality and value in your purchase or trades.

Once you are the owner of that stamp, you don't want to damage it. A stamp that you have injured is bound to diminish the satisfaction you derive from your collection.

Take a look at the two stamps shown in Figure 1. Both are the United States 40¢ Claire Chennault definitive stamp of 1990, Scott 2187.

You can see one difference almost immediately between the two stamps. The stamp at right has a bent upper-right corner. The corners and edges of stamps are particularly susceptible to damage. They may be torn short by someone in a hurry separating individual stamps from a pane. They can be bent or worn down over time because of rough handling.

When you purchase a stamp from a stamp dealer or postal authority, you should look at the corners and edges to make sure they are sound. It is possible to flatten out a bent corner on a stamp, but paper fibers usually are irreversibly damaged when a stamp is bent. Bending the corner back only further weakens the corner. Bent corners and other creases in stamps usually occur because of mishandling.

Anyone who tries to use fingers to pick up a stamp from a flat surface, such as a table top, learns to maneuver the stamp into position to get a grip on it. At the top of Figure 2, a thumb and forefinger are beginning to pinch a nice Danish stamp in an effort to pick it up from a flat surface.

There's an additional danger to handling stamps this way: skin oil or other residue can transfer from the fingers to the surface of the stamp. Any kind of grease can stain the stamp immediately. Natural skin oil residue may not be immediately apparent, but it can discolor a stamp over time.

Stamp collectors use stamp tongs to avoid excessive handling of postage stamps and to help pick stamps out of stock books and off flat table tops without pinching or contaminating. The picture at the bottom of Figure 2 shows how the stamp tongs let you hold the stamp safely.

The tongs have polished smooth tips that allow you to hold the stamp without damaging it. They are specially made for stamp collectors and sold by stamp dealers. Don't try using the tweezers that you might find in a manicure kit. Tweezers usually have sharp edges that can cut or crease a postage stamp.

Does this mean you should never touch stamps with your hands? Sometimes you can't avoid it. A large pane of 20 stamps is nearly impossible to handle with a pair of stamp tongs, for example.

You should, however, touch stamps of any kind as infrequently as possible. Every time you put your fingers on a stamp, you have a greater chance of doing it harm.

Always wash your hands with water and soap, and thoroughly dry them before touching stamps. That will reduce the skin oil on your fingers, although it probably won't eliminate it.

How you store your stamps is as important as how you handle them. Stamps stuffed into an envelope or drawer are likely to curl as lack of humidity in the air begins to affect the gum on the back of the stamps.

The edges of stamps again may be damaged from contact with other objects. Stamps in a drawer or box with other items may get bent or creased as things shift about.

Individual stamps and small blocks are best kept safe in a stock book or on stock pages in a sturdy binder. Figure 3 shows a page from a stock book filled with recent stamps of New Zealand. The page on this particular stock book has nine long transparent horizontal strips that act as pockets to hold the stamps securely.

While the stock book is a good place to keep your stamps, you have to be cautious while using it. Have your tongs in hand while placing stamps in the stock book. Don't rush: you can snag the corners or edges of perforated stamps against the stock page pockets or other stamps on the page, and that may harm the stamp. Store stock books in an upright position away from sunlight, heat sources and humidity.

The same advice holds true when you're ready to mount your stamps in your stamp album. Find a safe environment to store the album. When you look through it, turn the pages carefully and watch for loose stamps on the page.

It's a good idea to open stamp albums and turn each page at least every few months to relieve the pressure of storage on the stamps inside. This is particularly true of mint stamps, where the adhesive on the back can be activated by the slightest increase in humidity combined with the pressure of the closed pages.

Collectors of small panes, stamp booklets and similar objects should also look for safe storage methods. Figure 4 shows a binder and pages specially made for the storage of stamp collectibles. At left in the binder are larger stamp booklets from Great Britain. At right are small panes of stamps from Germany.

All are held safe in the clear plastic pockets of stock pages from a stamp supply dealer. Once again, these items may have to be held in the hands to examine them. Do so sparingly, and as the picture shows, hold booklets gently but securely, and don't crease back covers or the panes inside.

Covers can also be saved in similar storage pages. The pages not only protect the items from damage but also make it easy to view and admire your collectibles without handling them excessively.

The collector with a lot of covers to store can use cover sleeves or glassine envelopes to individually protect special items. Figure 5 shows a few plastic alternatives at left. At right are glassine envelopes, made from a semitransparent paper.

Collectors can use glassines to hold either stamps or covers. New glassine envelopes are fine for temporary storage, but many collectors have seen older glassines turn brown with age.

A glassine that shows any sign of deterioration should be discarded. The aging of the glassine envelope can affect the collectible object inside, staining or discoloring the paper.

Covers kept in sleeves or glassines still need to be stored inside a safe container, such as a very sturdy box.

To help ensure that your collectibles are safe, you should purchase your storage supplies from a dealer who specifically carries products designed for use with stamp collections.

Many of these dealers advertise each week in Linn's Stamp News. Your own stamp dealer should also be able to help you find what you need.

Chemical ingredients in some plastics and papers can damage stamps and covers. Products that claim to be archival or acid-free should be safe for your collection.

Your stamp dealer can advise you further on the products and supplies that you need to help you handle your collection with care.