By Michael Baadke
One very popular way to collect stamps is by topic.
For example, a stamp collector who also has an interest in tigers may want to accumulate as many stamps as possible that show tigers, such as the four issues shown together in Figure 1.Instead of looking for stamps from just one country, the topical collector looks for stamps and related postal items showing a subject that reflects a specific topic or theme.
The country of issue does not matter to many topical collectors as long as the pictured subject fits into the collection.
George Griffenhagen and Jerome Husak, in the book Adventures in Topical Stamp Collecting, suggest that topical collectors can choose to create either subject collections or thematic collections.
Subject collecting simply involves finding stamps that picture the subject of interest, and organizing the stamps in whatever way pleases, whether by country, chronologically or by subtopics.
Thematic collecting expands the subject collection to include additional postal items that tell a story about the topic.
Stamps and other philatelic items in a tiger thematic collection may show ways mankind has threatened the extinction of tigers with hunting, traps and the destruction of habitat. The collection may include stamps showing circuses and zoos where tigers are held in captivity.
Other relevant stamps could tell where and how tigers live in the wild and what they eat. Stamps depicting authors who have written about tigers, such as Rudyard Kipling, could also be included.
Therefore, while the thematic collection about tigers would certainly include many tiger stamps, it would also include stamps and related items that do not show tigers, but that help illustrate the story of tigers in a logical sequence.
The collector may design and create his own album pages and describe his topic on each page of the collection, fitting in appropriate items to illustrate the theme.
Many thematic collectors prepare their collections as exhibits that are displayed at stamp shows.
How does a collector choose a topic?
Often the choice is a personal one based on the collector's interests. Some collectors choose to look for stamps related to their occupations. For example, a stamp-collecting doctor may decide to collect medical themes on stamps.
Others select favorite sports, literary themes, animals and so on. A topical collection can show anything that has been pictured on stamps.
Some topics, such as birds or butterflies, literally comprise thousands of stamps. These are very popular topics, but the collector must concede that such a collection will never be complete.
One alternative is to specialize within such a large topic by looking for items related to a specific species, such as the cardinal or the monarch butterfly.
Smaller topics can be equally challenging, for it may be difficult to find enough stamps to create an interesting collection.
Postage stamps are not the only collectible objects that are sought by topical collectors. Postal stationery items from all over the world often feature interesting topics.
Figure 2 shows the imprinted stamp image from a 15¢ United States postal card commemorating the sesquicentennial of the Iowa Territory.
The design shows a harvesting scene and would be an important addition to a collection on the topic of farming.
Along with postal cards, collectors can look for stamped envelopes and aerograms to add to the topical collection.
These prestamped items all pay postage for mailing, which is an important element in the topical collection. Most collectors do not include items like picture postcards for the sake of the picture alone, because the picture really has no correlation to the transport of the mail.
Of course, a picture postcard mailed with a stamp that ties in with the collecting topic would fit nicely into the topical collection.
Some collectors also avoid items like nonpostal labels and revenue stamps.
Of course, the collection is created to please the collector, not the experts (except, perhaps, in the case of judged exhibits). It's completely up to the collector what he does or does not want to include.
Many stamp collectors complain about the prevalent use of postage meter stamps on daily mail, but for the topical collector the meter stamp can be another source of interesting material.
For many years meter stamps have been created that include pictorial or slogan elements, such as the example shown in Figure 3.
This 1961 meter stamp from Des Plaines, Ill., includes the image of a jet in the slogan imprint at left, a fine addition to a topical collection with an aviation theme.
Postmarks and pictorial cancels also provide ample material for topical collectors. These can include pictorial or slogan standard machine cancels, as well as commemorative postmarks honoring special events.
Two such postmarks are shown in Figure 4.
At top is a fairly common Danish postmark from the 1980s reminding everyone to properly use postal codes when addressing mail. A busy bee wearing a mailman's cap is pictured on the cancel.
Pictorial postmarks appear from time to time on daily mail in the United States. Lexington, Ky., for instance, often uses a machine cancel that shows a galloping horse.
Some countries, like Great Britain, sell advertising space on their postmarks, which adds a topical element to the cancel.
At the bottom of Figure 4 is a 1997 commemorative postmark from Reno, Nev., to mark a local balloon race.
Many postmarks like these are offered each week in communities all across the world. Information about obtaining current U.S. postmarks is available weekly in Linn's Postmark Pursuit column, which appears in this issue on page 51 (in print).
Meter stamps and postmarks are best kept intact on an undamaged cover (an envelope, postcard or parcel wrapper), rather than clipped off the paper. The intact cover is more interesting and tells more about the postal history of the marking.
First-day covers are another source of interesting topical material. The topic may be represented in the design of the stamp, the postmark or the cachet, or even all three.
Figure 5 shows a 1999 first-day cover from India's Department of Posts commemorating 125 years of Mumbai Port Trust.
The 3-rupee stamp and the first-day cancel both show ships, while the cachet (the pictorial envelope design at left) features a lighthouse.
Many topical collectors don't care if their stamps are mint or postally used, but most try to collect items that are in the best possible condition. Heavy cancels that obscure the stamp design are usually avoided unless the object is particularly scarce.
As the topical collection grows it can turn into a delightful display of many different postal objects.
With such a great array of collectibles to choose from, many topical collectors happily maintain a number of different topical collections at the same time.
Where to go for more information
The American Topical Association is a society of collectors with interests in topical collecting. Members receive the journal Topical Time six times per year as part of their membership benefits. Among the journal's regular features are topics on postmarks, topical postal stationery, publication reviews and much more.
Members also have access to the ATA checklist service, which provides lists of stamps on hundreds of topics for a very nominal fee.
Annual membership dues are $20 for U.S. residents and $25 for non-U.S. residents. More information is available from ATA Central Office, Box 50820, Albuquerque, NM 87181-0820.
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The second edition of Adventures in Topical Stamp Collecting by George Griffenhagen and Jerome Husak is a 96-page handbook that will prove useful to the beginner or the advanced collector. Filled with color and black-and-white illustrations, the book provides numerous tips for building the successful topical collection or exhibit.
Adventures in Topical Stamp Collecting is available for $22 ($20 for ATA members) from the American Topical Association at the address noted above.