Defining and building a stamp collection

May 3, 2021, 5 PM

By Kathleen Wunderly

This Refresher Course would have been easier to write five or six years ago, when the boundaries of building a stamp collection were essentially the boundaries of the stamp marketplace. As of the late 1990s, however, the Internet changed all that. Never before have so many people been able to buy so many stamps so easily.

In building a collection, as with a house, you should have a design in mind, so let's consider first designing or defining a collection. Something attracts you to acquire and keep a particular stamp, so in a way, a collection defines itself by expressing your interests and likes.

Someone of Irish ancestry may be attracted to stamps issued by Ireland. A dog-lover becomes aware of the existence of stamps showing dogs as a topic and wants to collect them. Someone who was in military service discovers that there are stamps and covers (mailed envelopes, cards or wrappers) that honor the armed services or have postal markings that indicate use in wartime circumstances.

Like a new romance, a new stamp collection is an exciting and energizing situation. Everything is bright and interesting in the accumulating stage of collecting. New collectors seize without refinement everything that catches their eye or piques their interest.

In this phase, the condition of the newly found stamps may not seem very important. A stamp with a bit of a tear, or a design that is not well-centered, seems desirable just because the collector doesn't have one of that particular issue yet.

But with stamps as with love, things settle down after a bit and rationality kicks in. Or maybe it doesn't. Some collectors happily pursue a worldwide stamp collection, saving as many stamps as they can get from as many countries as possible, since 1840 when the Penny Black first went on sale.

A worldwide, to-date collection would contain more than 370,000 stamps. Most collectors define their collecting range a bit more narrowly than that. Stamps of a single country or area are a common choice.

This is more limited than collecting the world, but it still offers many collecting options, such as mint or used stamps, singles or stamps in pairs or blocks, stamps on cover or piece or removed from the piece, only stamps that are in perfect condition, or maybe any stamp.

The budding Ireland collector will note that in his accumulation are a number of stamps inscribed with the Irish word "Gra," illustrated with hearts and such. Finding that gra is Irish for love, he may decide to focus on Irish love stamps or maybe love stamps of other countries.

The dog-stamp collector may become overwhelmed by the number of canine topicals and decide to limit himself to collies and poodles.

Factors outside of one's control can help to define a collection. Storage methods, for example, may dictate the form a collection will take. A shoebox will hold only so many stamps before the lid no longer fits.

A standard, commercial stamp album sets limits of another kind. If a collector buys a country album for Italy of the type that provides a little printed box for each stamp issue according to its listing in one of the standard stamp catalogs, the way ahead is clear. The collector may choose whether to mount a mint stamp or a used one in the allotted space, but the spaces are plainly marked and waiting to be filled.

Inserting stamps in a printed album is the oldest method of collecting, and it is still popular with many collectors. Their goal may or may not be to completely fill the album, but the parameters of the collection are set for them by the album they use. Using blank albums, making one's own album pages or using blank stockbooks allows a collector to set limits or to ignore limits and arrange stamps and covers in whatever way is pleasing.

Finances and availability are other defining factors imposed on collectors. How much they can afford to spend is a factor in defining a collection for most people. Even if price is no object, acquiring a stamp can be limited by availability.

Think of a complete United States stamp collection as a pyramid. The base of the pyramid, the largest part of it, is a collection of any and all U.S. stamps that a collector can find, regardless of condition or duplication or any other element. All of the common, inexpensive, easy to find U.S. stamps are at the base of the pyramid.

As the collection grows and the album fills up, it becomes clear to the industrious collector that the want list is getting shorter and the pursuit is narrowing to the stamps that are harder to find and usually correspondingly more expensive.

Paradoxically, as a collector approaches the top of his stamp pyramid, the search may become both narrower and wider. Collectors may get stuck around the middle of the pyramid, unable to find or unable to afford the rest of the stamps needed to fill the album spaces.

The top of the pyramid, home of U.S. stamps on the order of the 1¢ Z Grill, Scott 85A, of which only two are known, will always be an unreachable goal for all but two collections, although there is the occasional opportunity to see the great rarities on display at stamp exhibitions.

Rather than striving for completeness, a U.S. collector may redefine his hobby goals and specialize in a subcategory, such as plate number coils, or color varieties of a certain issue or types of cancellations within a range of years in U.S. postal history.

The Holy Grail never came on the market with a price tag attached, so in a way these impossible stamp pursuits are more difficult than that legendary quest, but the thrill of the chase for all the rest of the attainable stamps is still alive and well.

But where to find them? If you decide to collect used examples of the stamps of a country you have some access to, the answer may be as simple as the daily mail. Collectible stamps, such as those shown in Figure 1, travel in the mailstream daily, although not in the quantities that they once did.

Putting the word out at work or through friends and family that you want the envelopes from their mail will get you free stamps and covers (envelopes). Pen pals from other countries can supply stamps as gifts or in trade, as can contacts made through stamp trading clubs. These kinds of clubs advertise in the stamp press.

The World Wide Web brings the potential for person-to-person contacts to a level never before known in the history of the world. A web acquaintance in another country may be willing to supply stamps to you in exchange for stamps or other items from your country.

U.S. mint stamps and postal stationery can be found at your local post office or they can be ordered from the United States Postal Service by mail order. Write to Stamp Fulfillment Services, Kansas City, MO 64179-0997, or call 1-800-STAMP24 to get on the mailing list.

New issues from other countries are often available directly from that nation's postal administration. A listing of foreign postal administrations and agents available in publications such as Linn's World Stamp Almanac, and it is on the Internet at

You should do some checking before launching your collection. You wouldn't take a road trip to a place new to you without obtaining a map of the area or directions on how to get there. Similarly, unless you plan to limit your collecting to dumpster diving and the kindness of friends and family, you should find out about the marketplace and literature and about organizations related to your collecting interests.

These three factors are interrelated. When you delve into one, you will encounter the others. Dealers advertise in periodicals and in some books related to the stamps they sell. Stamp clubs publish these periodicals and books and offer other services, such as members-only auctions and trading opportunities. There is a body of literature and a club or two for virtually every collecting interest.

Stamp auctions, such as those represented by the auction catalogs pictured in Figure 2, are an excellent source of stamps and covers. Lists of specialty stamp clubs can be found on the Linn's web site and on other sites such as that of the American Philatelic Society at

Philatelic literature dealers and philatelic libraries, such as the American Philatelic Research Library, Box 8000, State College, PA 16803-8000, or through the APS web site, are other means of locating useful information.

Many stamp dealers have an Internet presence. This makes stamps available to a much wider audience, but it also puts traditional stamp retailers in competition with, literally, the rest of the automated world.

Conversely, the web has brought a new body of potential hobby material within the grasp of stamp collectors who are online. In the paper ephemera online marketplace, the letter inside a cover may be what the dealer is advertising, but the cover enclosing the letter is what will attract the stamp collector.

The cover shown in Figure 3, bearing a simulated Bugs Bunny autograph, is as likely to be listed as a Bugs Bunny collectible as it is to be listed under stamps.

A state postal history collector I know has made some wonderful finds by searching for town names on auction sites and finding items intended for sale to genealogy buffs. 

The traditional stamp marketplace is still alive in print and at stamp shows. Look over what is being offered in advertisements in this issue of Linn's.