Refresher Course

Pick your favorite topic and start collecting

By Michael Baadke

When you decide to build a topical collection of stamps, you may find that you're heading into uncharted territory. Some topical stamp collectors will tell you that's exactly why they love it. You can build and shape the collection any way you please.

Figure 1. Four stamps on music, from Isle of Man (top left), Russia (top right), and the United States (bottom left and bottom right). Each stamp also fits into a musical subtopic. Click on image to enlarge.
 
Figure 2. What topical collection of cats on stamps would be complete without this 29¢ Siamese Cat stamped envelope, issued by the United States in 1993? This example is postmarked, but either mint or used examples are suitable.
 
Figure 3. A machine-applied cancel from Germany (top) and a hand-stamped cancellation from the United States (bottom). Both contain interesting topical elements.
 
Figure 4. Postage meter stamps (top) and computer-vended stamps (bottom) may include elements that fit a topical collection. Shown are the stamp corners from complete covers.
 
Figure 5. It may be difficult to see in this photograph, but the pictorial cachet on the left side of this first-day cover shows many topical elements. Some collectors may add this cover to a topical collection, while others may choose not to. Click on image to enlarge.

Simply put, a topical collection isn't based on the stamp's country of issue. Instead, it is created using stamps whose designs or subjects share a common topic or theme.

In many cases, it doesn't matter if the stamp is mint or canceled, though most topical collectors prefer to save stamps that aren't heavily postmarked. However, in some cases, the postmark may be the element that fits the stamp into the topical collection.

What kind of topics are collected? You can start with any stamp subject that grabs your attention and take it from there. Topical stamp collections may be built around various sports, interesting animals, recreational activities, plants and flowers.

Many people like looking for stamps that relate to their occupations. An auto mechanic may collect stamps showing cars, or a doctor might look for stamps with a medical theme. Music is a very popular collecting topic, and the four stamps shown in Figure 1 reveal how music, like many other topics, can be divided into more specialized areas.

The music stamps shown fit into four subtopics: musical instruments (1989 10-kopeck Russian Instruments stamp, Russia Scott 5818), recorded music (2000 33¢ Compact Discs, United States Scott 3190h), musical notation (2000 64-penny Skylark, Isle of Man Scott 860c) and famous musicians (1995 32¢ John Coltrane, United States Scott 2991).

Narrowing the collection from a huge topic to a smaller one helps make the collection more manageable and really helps to tie it all together. Some of these subtopics could be narrowed even further. A musical instruments collection might zero in just on the piano, for instance.

You may have noticed that the musical notation on the Isle of Man Skylark stamp in Figure 1 appears on the attached margin selvage, not on the stamp. Does this stamp belong in a topical music collection? It's up to the individual collector to decide.

That's the uncharted-territory part of it all: making up checklists of appropriate stamps and creating album pages or exhibit pages. Traditional collectors of a single country should be able to find a catalog that lists all the stamps they need. Most will also find preprinted album pages for the stamps they collect.

Topical collectors usually don't have these resources to fall back on. To find out which stamps relate to their chosen topic, they may have to look through catalog listings for every country as well as new-issue listings of the world. They might spend hours combing through stamp dealers' stocks to find stamps that may have escaped their attention. They may find help from stamp dealers and friends who collect in similar areas, but for the large part they're on their own and enjoying it.

In the book Adventures in Topical Stamp Collecting, George Griffenhagen and Jerome Husak suggest that topical collectors can choose to create either subject collections or thematic collections. A subject collection consists of stamps that picture the subject of interest. The stamps can be organized in whatever way pleases, whether by country, by chronology or by subtopics.

The thematic collection includes additional postal items that tell a story about the topic. For example, a subject collection of pianos would probably just show stamps that picture a piano in the design.

A thematic collection involving pianos may show the development of the piano from its earliest incarnations to the modern day, with additional stamps showing individuals associated with piano development, materials used to construct pianos, well-known piano performers, and so on. The stamps in a thematic collection are assembled to tell the story in a logical sequence, with text added to each page by the collector to move the story along.

Many thematic collectors create exhibits using stamps and many other stamp-related collectibles. The topical collector who looks only for postage stamps is really closing the door on a wide range of great possibilities.

Stamped postal stationery items often contain interesting topical elements. Figure 2 shows the stamp area of the 29¢ Siamese Cat envelope issued by the United States in 1993. The 29¢ imprint pays the postage for mail delivery, so this design would fit quite appropriately into a topical collection of cats.

Although only a portion of the envelope is shown here, the illustrated stamp is actually part of a complete envelope, also known as an entire. Whenever possible, that is the best way to save envelopes (covers) for a topical collection. Other postal stationery items that may fit right into a topical collection are aerograms (also known as air-letter sheets) and postal cards.

Stamp collectors usually differentiate between prestamped postal cards, sold by postal authorities, and unstamped postcards, which might be bought at a souvenir stand. Though the pictures or drawings on many postcards include topical elements, most stamp collectors don't include them in their collections unless an affixed stamp or postmark somehow relates to the collecting topic.

Postmarks frequently fit into a topical collection. Figure 3 shows a 1999 machine-applied cancel from a letter-sorting facility in Kiel, Germany, that includes the image of a sailboat. Below it is a 1998 commemorative cancel applied by hand by a U.S. postal facility in California. It shows a tiger, and complements the 32¢ Year of the Tiger postage stamp.

Many stamp collectors have no interest in postage meter stamps or similar computer-vended postage stamps, but these items can also provide suitable topical elements. Figure 4 shows a 1938 3¢ postage meter stamp (again on a complete cover) with a pictorial element advertising "Four Roses Whiskies." This stamp could fit well into at least two topical collections: flowers or beverages, of course.

The computer-vended stamp shown at the bottom of Figure 4 comes from a post office in France. The 1999 rectangular label not only pays postage but also pictures a charming flock of birds in flight as part of its design.

Another bird item is shown in Figure 5, a first-day cover for the nondenominated (22¢) D-rate Eagle stamp. The cover includes a decorative cachet at left that has many topical elements: a horse and mail carriage, a chicken, a dog and two people.

Some topical collectors consider these cachet elements irrelevant to their collections because they are not created or applied by a postal authority and do not figure into the delivery of mail. Other collectors may welcome this cacheted cover into an appropriate topical collection.

Those who create thematic collections with an eye toward exhibiting should become familiar with the judging rules relating to such exhibits. There may be limitations on exhibiting cacheted covers as part of the topic.

But when it comes to collecting for your own enjoyment, a topical collection gives you the chance to add anything and everything you like.

A great source for additional information about topical collecting is the American Topical Association. Members receive the journal Topical Time six times per year. Adventures in Topical Stamp Collecting is also available from the ATA.

For membership details visit the ATA Internet web site at http://home.prcn.org/~pauld/ata/ or send an addressed, stamped envelope to ATA Central Office, Box 50820, Albuquerque, NM 87181-0820.