Sets and series are tailor-made for collecting

Jan 17, 2000, 12 PM
A set of three stamps from Luxembourg issued Sept. 21, 1998, to mark the 1,300th anniversary of the Abbey of Echternach. Each stamp has a different design and value.

By Michael Baadke

Stamps issued in sets and in series appeal to many collectors for a variety of different reasons.

The topical collector also fits his stamps into a sequence that he finds pleasing or that succeeds in conveying an established theme.Every dedicated stamp collector has some concept of order and organization that he methodically applies to his stamp collection. Even the worldwide collector, who welcomes into his collection almost any stamp ever printed, still arranges that collection by country or by year, or both.

We probably don't think of it consciously, but the desire to neatly organize our collections, and our ability to do so, are appealing elements of the stamp hobby. It is apparent that the stamp collector possesses some trait that makes accumulating and sorting attractive activities.

That may also explain why the appeal of the stamp hobby is so strong for some people and so incomprehensible to others who by their nature are not collectors.

It may have happened by accident, but postal administrations around the world have tapped into the collector's instinct for organization by regularly issuing stamps that can be collected in sets and series.

The terms "set" and "series" as they apply to postage stamps are sometimes confused by collectors, and they do, in fact, have a tendency to overlap in meaning.

Both terms refer to groups of stamps that share common characteristics of design or theme.

A series of stamps is issued over a period of time, often several years.

A set of stamps may be issued all at once, or it can be issued over a period of time, but generally not an extended period.

The three Luxembourg stamps shown in Figure 1, Scott 996-98, constitute a complete set of stamps. The stamps commemorate 1,300 years of the Abbey of Echternach. All were issued on the same day: Sept. 21, 1998.

Each stamp was issued in separate panes of 20 stamps, and each carries a different denomination to pay specific domestic or international mail rates.

These are all characteristics of this particular set from Luxembourg. Stamps from other sets may be issued on different days or may all have the same denomination.

For example, in 1973 the United States Postal Service issued a set of four 8¢ stamps individually honoring composer George Gershwin (Scott 1484), poet Robinson Jeffers (1485), painter Henry O. Tanner (1486), and novelist Willa Cather (1487).

All four stamps share very similar designs created by Mark English, but they were issued on four different days, ranging from Feb. 28 for the Gershwin stamp to Sept. 20 for the Cather issue.

Stamps in a series may be issued on a regular schedule, or they may appear as a postal need for new denominations arises.

One series of commemorative stamps from the United States is the Black Heritage series. Each year for the past 23 years, one stamp in this series has been issued to honor one individual.

Commemorative stamps are usually printed in a predetermined quantity and are taken off sale after a year or two. Definitive stamps, on the other hand, may be printed over and over again as the need arises, and they are often available for many years.

A 33¢ Black Heritage series stamp honoring Patricia Roberts Harris, a Cabinet secretary during the administration of President Jimmy Carter, will be issued Jan. 27.

Some collectors will simply save the Harris stamp as part of their general United States stamp collection.

Others may be maintaining a specialized collection of the Black Heritage series or a topical collection of Black Americans on stamps, and they will look forward to adding the Harris stamp to it.

While the Black Heritage commemorative series continues on in 2000, another popular U.S. stamp series ended a few years ago.

The Transportation coil definitive stamp series began in 1981 with the issuance of an 18¢ single-color stamp depicting a surrey from the 1890s (Scott 1907).

New stamps in the same series were issued from time to time, each showing a different form of transportation and most bearing different face values ranging from 1¢ to $1.

More than 50 different designs were created over the course of 15 years.

Many collectors have been fascinated by the Transportation coil series and found different ways to build collections of the various stamps.

While 23 years or even 15 years may seem like a long time for a series to continue, the longest-running stamp series in the world has existed for more than 125 years.

Norway's Posthorn definitive stamp series began with a 3-skilling rose stamp issued in 1872 (Scott 18). The 2sk stamp of the same design (17), issued in 1874, is shown at left in Figure 2.

Over the course of more than a century, stamps have been issued in the Posthorn series to reflect changing postage rates and printing techniques. Five stamps from the series are shown in Figure 2. At far right in the illustration is a 20-ore blue stamp (1142) issued in 1997.

The 2000 Scott Standard Postage Stamp Catalogue lists more than 100 major varieties in Norway's Posthorn series, and countless minor varieties exist as well.

Though there have been some small changes in the basic design, the stamps in the Posthorn series all bear close resemblance to one another.

Design similarities can be a distinguishing characteristic among sets or series, but sometimes stamps in the same series may bear little resemblance to one another.

Again, the Black Heritage series provides an example. The designs of the various stamps in the series include multicolor paintings and monochromatic photographs with a variety of type styles and arrangements.

In this case, the series is defined by the subject matter, not the design. Sometimes the series subject is formally announced by the issuing postal authority. Sometimes it is defined by collectors.

There are many instances where stamps are issued in sets that become part of a larger series.

In 1993 the United States began its Legends of American Music series with a single 29¢ stamp issued Jan. 8 to honor Elvis Presley (Scott 2721).

Later that same year, the Postal Service began issuing booklets and panes of stamps with similar designs honoring other musicians or musical productions.

Three panes in the Legends of American Music series are shown in Figure 3: the Country & Western issue of 1993 (2771-74), the Popular Singers issue of 1994 (2849-53), and the Jazz Musicians issue of 1995 (2983-92).

As the illustration shows, these issues contained more than one design on the pane. The Jazz Musicians pane of 20 stamps, for example, honors 10 different musicians.

The 10 different stamps on the Jazz Musicians pane are a set, while all of the different Legends of American Music stamps (a total of 93) make up the series.

A list of all 93 stamps in the Legends of American Music series was printed in the Sept. 20, 1999, issue of Linn's Stamp News. The series ended with the release of six 33¢ Broadway Songwriters stamps Sept. 21, 1999.

Stamp collectors decide for themselves how they like to collect stamps that have been issued in sets or in series.

Mint stamps can be collected singly, such as the three Luxembourg stamps shown in Figure 1, or even in full panes, as the Figure 3 panes show.

Many collectors prefer to save postally used stamps, such as the five Posthorn issues shown in Figure 2.

Another option for the collector of used stamps is to save the stamps intact on cover. Figure 4 shows one of the 33¢ Sonoran Desert stamps of 1999 (Scott 3293) on cover.

The 10 stamps in the Sonoran Desert pane all have different designs, but they are considered to be a set.

Commemorative stamps often see less use as postage than definitives do, so on-cover examples are sometimes hard to come by. Creating a collection of the 10 Sonoran Desert stamps on cover can be quite a challenge.

Covers bearing stamps from earlier definitive series are popular with many collectors. Examples showing stamps paying special postage rates, such as certified or registered mail, are particularly interesting.

Different catalogs list sets and series of stamps in different ways. The Scott catalogs often group related stamps together, assigning them individual sequential catalog numbers.

A handy Identifier section near the beginning of the Scott Specialized Catalogue of United States Stamps and Covers helps to locate and identify United States definitive stamp series.

Sometimes the standard catalog listing for a series is broken into different sections, and the catalog will lead you to later sections with a note at the end of the first section.

Fascinating collections have been created using stamp sets and series as a starting point.

On some occasions, postal authorities have created immensely popular sets and series, while others have turned out to be great flops.

The success or failure of each set usually depends upon collectors and the general public. It is up to the individual collector to decide which stamps he enjoys and how he wants to add them to his own collection.