Refresher Course

Topical collecting can unite your interests

By Michael Baadke

We all know that you like stamps. What other interests do you have?

Figure 1. A subject collection of whales will include stamps from various countries showing whales.
 
Figure 2. The 20¢ stamp showing Moby Dick author Herman Melville would be appropriate for a thematic collection about whales.
 
Figure 3. Postage meter stamps may contain pictorial elements that make them very suitable for a topical collection. This 1949 example from Chicago, Ill., salutes railroading.
 
Figure 4. Several elements of the first-day cover may appeal to a topical collector. This Winter Olympic Games cover from Liechtenstein features both skiing and flowers.
 
Figure 5. Postmarks that show pictorial or topical elements may be machine-generated, like the example at top, or handstamped, like the Dover, Ohio, example below.

The field of topical stamp collecting allows you to combine your hobbies by collecting stamps and related items that depict some of your other interests.

Ever since the earliest years of stamp collecting, the specialty of topical collecting has grown and expanded to include many exciting subjects, from animals and plants to occupations, organizations, sports, flags, windmills and virtually anything else under the sun.

In Adventures in Topical Stamp Collecting, a book by George Griffenhagen and Jerome Husak, the field of topical collecting is described as consisting primarily of the two areas of subject collecting and thematic collecting.

"The typical subject collection for a given topic is generally arranged by country of issue in chronological order by date of issue," the authors write.

"On the other hand, a thematic collection is arranged in such a way as to tell a story. Here the arrangement is not by country of issue; instead the arrangement develops a theme."

Though both collecting methods are popular, philatelic exhibits at stamp shows more frequently feature thematic collections.

Let's say your collecting topic is whales.

A subject collection would feature whale stamps from many countries, arranged by country of issue, like the four stamps shown in Figure 1. Each stamp is from a different country and shows a different kind of whale.

A thematic collection would use stamps like those in combination with others showing different subjects to tell a descriptive story about whales, including where they roam, how they live, and what they eat. Stamps could be selected to show how whales were depicted in literature, how they were hunted through history, and products that have been made from the whale carcass, such as glue, cosmetics, fuel oils, food and medicines.

Therefore, while the thematic collection would certainly include many whale stamps, it would also include many stamps and related items that do not show whales, but which can be related to the story of whales.

Figure 2 shows Herman Melville on United States Scott 2094, issued in 1984. Melville wrote the most famous whaling novel of them all, Moby Dick. The inclusion of this stamp in a thematic collection about whales would be very appropriate.

The choice of topic depends upon the collector, and may be related to his personal interests or occupation. A topic can be quite general and large, like dogs or butterflies, or it can be smaller and more specialized.

It may be more difficult to find items for highly specialized topics, but a collection with an unusual theme is more appealing to some collectors.

Collecting stamps is usually the first step to building a topical collection, but there are many other postally related items that can be used to make the collection grow.

Because postage meters are used to prepay postage, just as stamps are, they can hold an important place in a topical collection. Over the years, many postage meter users have included pictorial elements to advertise a business, event or benevolent cause.

The meter stamp shown in Figure 3 celebrates the Chicago Railroad Fair of 1949 and shows a train within the circle at left. Certainly this postage franking is an attractive element to add to a topical collection of railroads.

Meter stamps are best saved intact on cover, rather than clipped off. The full cover often provides useful information about the history of the mailing or the meter stamp.

Another popular collectible that has a place in the topical collection is the first-day cover. When a new stamp is issued for the first time, many countries offer cancels that mark the date and location of issuance.

Often these cancels are pictorial in nature, and may augment a topical collection.

A first-day cover from Liechtenstein is shown in Figure 4. The stamps have a skiing theme, while the first-day postmark shows a flower.

At lower left on the cover is a design called a cachet (pronounced "ka-SHAY"). Sometimes elements in the cachet that do not appear on the stamp or postmark make it a nice addition to the topical collection.

Using cachets in a topical philatelic exhibit is sometimes discouraged, particularly if the cachet is privately produced, rather than created by a postal authority. For similar reasons, items like picture postcards are also not included in most exhibits.

That shouldn't discourage any collector from adding such items to his collection at home.

Many first-day-of-issue postmarks from the United States are quite plain, but the U.S. Postal Service occasionally includes pictorial elements in some of these first-day cancels.

An example can be seen (in print) in Linn's Postmark Pursuit feature, where William Menker shows the first-day cancel for the Sylvester & Tweety stamp that will be issued April 27. The pictorial elements of that postmark should appeal to both cat and bird topical collectors.

Other postmarks from the United States and other countries around the world often fit into a topical collection because of pictorial or name-related reasons.

Many classic handmade postmarks from the 19th century included topical elements, such as the Waterbury, Conn., running chicken. Other old cancels showed pumpkins, gin barrels, stars, insects and much more.

Be warned, though — some of the rarest cancels can be costly to obtain.

Modern cancels, such as the pair shown in Figure 5, will fit the bill for many collectors. The top example is a machine cancel that includes an American flag. This type of cancel is from automatic machinery and is processed on items in the general mailstream.

The bottom cancel, from Dover, Ohio, is a pictorial hand stamp applied by the Postal Service to special event covers or envelopes submitted by collectors.

Dozens of pictorial cancels are made available each week by post offices across the United States. Information about newly created postmarks appears weekly in Linn's Postmark Pursuit column.

Many nations around the world include pictorial elements in their postmarks as well. Some countries, like Great Britain, sell advertising space on postmarks, which adds an additional topical element to the cancel.

Collectors can start assembling a topical collection with items found in the daily mail, and expand the collection by trading with others, or by obtaining items from postal authorities and stamp dealers.

In Linn's classified advertising, you'll find topical dealers in sections 131-140. Topical approvals are listed in section 46.