Collecting little bitty stamps can yield great big enjoyment

Oct 13, 2008, 1 PM

By Rick Miller

I have friends who love boating. They actually have two boats and spend summer weekends cleaning them, keeping them in repair, and sometimes taking them out for a spin in a nearby lake. With fall approaching, they will be pulling them out of the water and putting them into dry dock.

Boats are great big things. You can't just park a boat on a book shelf and pull it out on a cold winter night.

In contrast, we stamp collectors have it made. If we want a boat — or a dozen boats — we can easily take out a stamp album and find a fleet of them.

Compact size is one of stamps' most appealing features, but if you have been collecting for a while you realize that a stamp collection seems to grow exponentially. In my case, my collection is about 30 percent greater than the available shelf space allows. Stamps are little, but they go into albums that are big and bulky.

Add catalogs, books, magazines, newspapers, newsletters, show programs, stock books and first-day-of-issue ceremony programs. Soon you have stacks of philatelic flotsam all over the place, taking up almost as much room as two boats. Or maybe more.

It has occurred to me that it might be possible to save shelf space by collecting only little stamps. After all, small-size stamps take up less than half the space of larger commemoratives or souvenir sheets, don't they?

So what stamps will be in this collection? Great Britain's Penny Black, issued in 1840, established the benchmark size for a regular-issue stamp that still holds true today. Any stamp smaller than that is littler than normal. The littlest stamp I could find in my own collection was issued by the Colombian department of Bolivar in 1863.

This imperforate 1-peso red Coat of Arms stamp (Scott 3) shown in Figure 1 measures just under a ½-inch on each side, including the margins. It is shown much larger here, but a magnifier is a must if you want to appreciate the detail of the coat of arms on this tiny stamp.

The German state of Brunswick issued an odd stamp in 1857. The 1-gutegroschen black on brown paper Crown stamp (Scott 12) shown in Figure 2 comprises four ¼gg stamps, each of which could be cut from the stamp and used as a 3-pfennig stamp. As a unit, the 1gg stamp does not qualify as little, but the individual ¼gg stamps are about 12 millimeters square.

Spain issued a small-size ¼-centimo green Mural Crown stamp (Scott 190) in 1873 that bears a remarkable resemblance to the earlier stamp from Brunswick. A block of four of the stamps is shown in Figure 3.

Great Britain came up with a novel idea in 1870 when it issued a ½-penny rose Queen Victoria stamp (Scott 58, shown enlarged in Figure 4) that was much smaller than the 1d stamp. This stamp is a great choice for collectors who want to begin a specialized collection. They are plentiful and still relatively inexpensive in used condition.

The stamps were printed in sheets of 480, in 20 rows of 24. Each stamp in the sheet has letters in the corners that today aid collectors in determining the position the stamp came from in the sheet. The stamps from the first row all have the letter "A" in the lower left corner, and a letter in the lower right corner that ranges from "A" through "X."

Therefore, the stamp illustrated in Figure 4, which has the letters "G" and "S" in the lower left and right corners is from the seventh row in the sheet and is the 19th stamp in that row.

The letters in the upper corners are in reverse order of the bottom letters, so always look at the bottom letters to determine placement.

Some collectors like to reconstruct an entire sheet with nice postally used examples of this ½-penny stamp. Others will choose to take the project even further and try to reconstruct a complete sheet from each of the 20 plates. The plate number from which the stamp was printed is inscribed on the stamp within the inner framework that flanks the denomination on both sides of the stamp. This type of project is a lifelong pursuit that will result in many volumes of stamp albums crowding the shelves in your stamp room.

Two Australian colonies, South Australia and Victoria, issued vertical half-sized ½d stamps, following Britain's example for size but not format. These stamps are even gentler on the stamp budget and not nearly so complex as the British examples. A South Australian ½d chocolate-brown Queen Victoria stamp (Scott 76) is shown in Figure 5.

Russia, the world's largest country, has had a penchant for small stamps for much of its history. Figure 6 shows an 1883 Imperial Russian 3-kopek carmine Imperial Eagle and Post Horns stamp (Scott 33) at left, and a 2006 Russian Federation 5.60-ruble Coat of Arms stamp (6962) at right.

To conserve paper during World War II, South Africa and South West Africa issued small stamps known as "bantams." The designs were the same as the previous stamp issue but were shrunk to half the size. The stamps were issued in pairs or strips of three that were perforated around the sides, but rouletted between.

The 4d and 1-shilling stamps have bilingual inscriptions (English and Afrikaans). The other stamps in the set are in bilingual pairs. A pair of South African 6d orange Welder bantams (Scott 96) is shown in Figure 7.

The United States has also issued little stamps. The small 13¢ Indian Head Penny stamp (Scott 1734) shown enlarged in Figure 8 was issued in 1978.

Collecting little stamps provides big fun, but doing so may not actually save much shelf space. Even if it did, I'm sure we could all figure out how to fill the recovered space with more stamps and covers.