Stamp collecting has enjoyed more than just one golden age

By Daniel Piazza

This 22¢ stamp from the 1986 Stamp Collecting booklet celebrates the founding, in 1886, of the country’s two leading philatelic institutions: the American Philatelic Society and the Smithsonian’s National Philatelic Collection.

The 1962 50-franc Telstar airmail stamp from St. Pierre and Miquelon. A number of French overseas territories feted the mother country’s communications satellite achievement — and catered to the burgeoning topical stamp market — by participating in an omnibus issue.

A view of the 1964 NAPEX awards banquet in Washington, D.C., one of the largest ever at a national stamp show, with 325 collectors in attendance.

One of the questions I am most commonly asked by nonphilatelic media is “When was stamp collecting’s golden age?”

The inquirer is likely to get one of several answers, depending on what I am writing, researching or thinking about at the time the question is asked.

The obvious, safe answer is: the 1930s.

During the Great Depression, stamp collecting could be an inexpensive pastime, and it had the added benefit of being educational. A beginner album and a packet of stamps cost a dime — or could be obtained with S&H Green Stamps or Ivory soap wrappers.

In the darkest days of the Depression, philately basked in the reflected glory of its most exalted practitioners. Both presidents in this decade were serious stamp collectors: Franklin D. Roosevelt gets all the attention, but Herbert Hoover was also an American Philatelic Society and American Air Mail Society member.

The kings of England, Egypt and Romania were well-known collectors, as were industrialists Josiah K. Lilly and Arthur Hind.

However, I think at least two other decades are candidates for the golden age title.

By the 1880s, the boys who began collecting stamps shortly after they were first issued in 1840 had become middle-aged and middle-class men.

The hobby, having grown up alongside the first collectors, took on many of the features we would recognize today.

Local clubs flourished, and the American Philatelic Association and the Smithsonian Institution’s stamp collection both began in 1886.

The first public stamp exhibition was held at New York’s Eden Musee in 1889. The culmination of this golden age was the 1895 consolidation of several New York stamp clubs into the Collectors Club of New York.

Then, in the 1960s, topical stamp collecting gained prominence.

Space was definitely king. Several early catalogs of space stamps were printed, the American Topical Association released its first space-related handbook, and albums for space-themed stamps appeared.

In November 1962, 20,000 collectors packed New York City’s 14th National Postage Stamp Show to view Friendship 7 and Telstar 1, the world’s first commercial communications satellite.

Two years later, the ATA convened at NAPEX 1964 in the Shoreham Hotel in Washington, D.C. The show’s banquet seated 325 collectors, while the 1966 SIPEX international stamp show drew more than 17,200 attendees.

Few shows today could field crowds of that size.

What do you think was stamp collecting’s golden age?

Let me know at SmithsonianNationalPostalMuseum on Facebook, or @PostalMuseum on Twitter.

Daniel Piazza is a Smithsonian curator of philately.

The National Postal Museum is devoted to presenting the colorful and engaging history of the nation’s mail service and showcasing one of the largest and most comprehensive collections of stamps and philatelic material in the world. It is located at 2 Massachusetts Avenue N.E., Washington, D.C., across from Union Station. For more information, visit the museum web site at www.postalmuseum.si.edu.

Published 6/9/2014 7:00 AM