By Janet Klug
Most of the calamities that befall stamp collections can be avoided if you take preemptive action.
Arguably the most common damage that can occur to a stamp is also the easiest to avoid. Stamps are fairly fragile bits of paper that get bent and creased very easily.
We have all done it. It only takes overstuffing a glassine envelope with too many stamps, as shown in Figure 1, to get some bent corners. You can avoid this by using the right-size glassine envelope or by putting fewer stamps in more envelopes.
Shown in Figure 2 is a stock book page that is more than fully crammed with stamps. Stamps will end up with creases or pulled perforations when placed in stock books that are crammed beyond capacity.
A good rule of thumb for storing stamps in stock books is that you should almost never overlap or stack stamps on top of one another.
Even stamps that are neatly hinged into a stamp album can become bent through careless page turning, especially if the album pages are printed on both sides with stamps mounted facing one another on opposite pages.
Sooner or later one will get hung up on another. You will close the album and — ouch! — the stamps will bend each other.
The safest way to avoid that problem is to use only album pages that are printed on one side. The second-best option is to place interleaving between facing pages. Mylar is a better choice than glassine. It is more expensive, but it is stable and safe.
Stains can easily be avoided by never, ever touching your stamps with anything other than stamp tongs. Your hands, no matter how often you wash them, contain natural oils that will transfer to the stamps you handle. Over time, this oil discolors stamp paper.
Never write on your stamps or covers with pen or pencil. A lot of collectors write catalog numbers on the backs of stamps, but catalog numbers sometimes change. What is the point?
A lot of stamps have been creased or thinned by the simple act of trying to erase pencil notations from their backs. Don't write the numbers there in the first place and you avoid this problem.
If pencil markings are not advisable, trust me when I tell you that pen notations are even more detrimental to stamps and covers. Once you have written on stamps with a pen, you might as well toss them into the wastebasket.
Food and drink stains should never be a problem, and yet I continually see stamps and covers with coffee or mustard stains because some collectors persist in eating or drinking while working on their stamp collections. If you do this, you are playing Russian roulette with your philatelic treasures.
Cigarette, cigar and pipe smoke will also discolor stamps over time. Stamps, being very porous, will pick up the odor of smoke. Sadly, I have purchased collections and boxes of stamps at auction that, once opened and inspected, reeked strongly of tobacco smoke.
Once the smoky smell permeates the paper, it is very difficult to remove. I have had modest success by putting the stamps individually in dry baking soda for a few days, but this is time consuming and doesn't work on really bad cases.
Of course, the other problem with smoking around stamps is that of creating an unnecessary fire hazard. Stray hot ashes or sparks from lighters can set stamps ablaze. A lifetime of careful collecting can be gone in a flash.
Fading is also an avoidable problem. Keep your stamps and covers out of sunlight. Even indirect and artificial light can fade or change the color of stamps over time. Keep your stamps in albums. Keep the albums away from strong light sources.
Mold and mildew can ruin a stamp collection faster than almost anything else except fire. Humidity is the cause of most of these problems.
Stamp albums and accumulations that are kept in a wet basement will quickly be attacked by mold or mildew. Once that happens, your only option is to throw it away. If you try to integrate moldy stamps or covers into your collection, you spread the mold. To minimize this risk, keep all of your stamps and covers in an environment that is comfortable for a human, about 70 degrees Fahrenheit and about 50 percent relative humidity.
Paper will develop rips, holes or thins if mishandled. If you have ever dropped stamp tongs with pointed tips on a stamp, you will know the pain of putting a hole in a stamp.
Carelessness with scissors when cutting a mount will result in a cut stamp, as shown in Figure 3. The good news is that you only ever do this once before you learn this vital lesson: never cut a mount with the stamp inside.
Minimize the risk of creating a thin. If you use hinges to mount stamps in albums, never try to remove a hinge from a stamp while it is still wet.
Unfortunately, most hinges today are not predictably peelable. If you need to remove a hinge from a stamp and it does not come off easily and readily, stop trying to peel it. Soak the hinge off in a water bath or work it off with a moist brush.
Mint stamps have a host of problems related to keeping the gum pristine, but one not-so-well-known problem is that of uninformed family members mistaking a mint stamp for a collection as a mint stamp for letter mailing.
Keep those stamps you intend to use as postage well away from any stamps for your collection. Make sure your family members know what stamps they may use for posting the electric bill or a birthday card to Uncle John.
Critters, crawlies and kids all find stamps irresistible.
Your stamp collection might look like a seven-course meal to silverfish, termites, mice and other paper chompers. Check for this kind of damage often, and get an exterminator in as quickly as possible at the first sign of infestation.
Pets are lured by stamp collections. Dogs will chew them. Cats will chase them or claw them, or simultaneously chase them and claw them.
All you really need to do is set a box full of stamps on the floor, as shown in Figure 4, and a pet will seem to be magnetically drawn to it. Their fun begins when your back is turned.
Small children are attracted to the bright colors and pretty pictures in your albums. They also see that stamps are consuming your time and attention. You can be pretty sure they will want to play with any stamps they can get into their little hands and mouths. Put your stamps up out of the reach of inquisitive children until they are old enough to handle them without damaging them.
Another quick safety tip for those who have small children or grandkids: freestanding bookcases tilt over surprisingly easily. A small child climbing on them to get to the goodies might be all it takes to tip the bookcase and make it fall forward causing serious injury or death. Use some L-shaped brackets and bolt them into the wall studs if there is any possibility this could happen at your house.
Unfortunately we live in a world where we have to be concerned about theft. Stamp collections can be an attractive target for thieves because they are easily portable and can be difficult to identify.
Make your collection less attractive to thieves by marking every page with some identification. You can purchase a small rubber stamp that will do the job nicely and unobtrusively on the back or in the margin of each album page. Use your name and address or your name and American Philatelic Society or other society membership number. This might serve as a deterrent to thieves.
If the worst should happen, it will assist in the identification and recovery of your material should the robber attempt to sell it. If a valuable collection is ever stolen, notify the police, the philatelic press and the American Philatelic Society as quickly as possible.
Just as is true for most endeavors, there is no substitute for common sense in stamp collecting. A good first step is remembering that stamps and covers are only paper and treating them accordingly.
Accidents are going to happen occasionally no matter how hard you work to avoid them, but there is no excuse for outright carelessness. Treat your stamps with care, and they will give you a lifetime of pleasure in return.