Topical collecting: an individual approach

May 30, 2005, 1 PM

By Joe Kennedy

No collector ever will have an example of every one of the hundreds of thousands of postage stamps that have been issued. Instead each collector has one of the gazillion possible subsets of all stamps.

Even the limited collecting areas called "topics" reveal enough variation that each collection is different.

The purpose of this Refresher Course is to celebrate the differences in topical collections.

To my mind, some collectors are too concerned about doing things the right way. I say that collectors should do things their own way and that will be the right way.

Let's say that your other hobby is birding, so naturally you collect birds on stamps. Lots of people collect the avian topic, but the boundaries of their collections vary from individual to individual.

One type of topical collection could be a backyard birds collection. Such a collection would include only stamps showing birds you have seen in your own backyard.

A little thin, you say? Not necessarily. A lady I know has a backyard list of 52 birds. Each of those birds has eaten seeds or cherries, taken a bath, perched on a twig, built a nest, or flown over her backyard while she was watching.

Can she find all of these 52 birds on stamps? Some she has found and some she's still looking for. She reports that a Cooper's hawk swoops by now and then to catch another bird for lunch. The Cooper's hawk has yet to appear on a stamp, according to the online list at

But a cardinal, the bird it sometimes has for lunch, is pictured on a number of stamps, including the United States 20¢ Ohio State Bird and Flower stamp shown in Figure 1 (Scott 1987).

You could expand the list to include stamps showing birds regularly or irregularly seen in your state. Or expand it further by using your own lifetime list of birds spotted as the criterion for inclusion in your collection.

Do you know that 49 species of kingfishers have appeared on stamps? Belted kingfishers alone are on 33 different stamps. One of them is the Turks and Caicos Islands 10¢ Belted Kingfisher stamp, shown in Figure 2 (Scott 1153).

You can go to the web site at to see if that number has increased recently.

If blue happens to be your favorite color, you can collect stamps that show birds with blue plumage. Blue jays, bluebirds and indigo buntings are often seen around my home in Ohio. You might have different birds with blue feathers in your local area.

Stamps showing raptors can be the basis of a fine, feathered, fearsome collection.

Raptors include hawks, falcons, eagles, ospreys and many others. If birds of prey are your meat, for your collection sink your talons into some stamps showing raptors.

Hummingbird stamps make a brilliant display. Your stamps will be pretty to look at as well as central to a hobby interest.

Consider the topic math on stamps — you know, philatomathy, as I call it. One way to individualize that broad topic is to narrow it down to the geometry of nonrectangular stamps, then organize them by shape: triangles, trapezoids, parallelograms, other polygons, circles, ellipses and nondescript shapes.

A Lithuanian triangle-shaped 5-centas King Mindaugas at the Battle of Siauliai airmail stamp is shown in Figure 3 (Scott C55).

Even triangle-shaped stamps could be further subdivided into equilateral, isosceles, scalene, right, acute and obtuse triangles. When it comes to collecting stamps by shape, the only limit is how well you paid attention in geometry class.

What shape is the Tanzanian 2-shilling Plateosaurus stamp shown in Figure 4 (Scott 382)?

You could substantially enlarge a math topical collection by including stamps with geometrical shapes as part of the design.

Stamps showing portraits of mathematicians are another possibility. Portraits of heavy users of math, such as engineers, inventors, navigators and scientists of all kinds, will substantially add to the scope of a math topical collection.

Mathematician and scientist Abu Abdullah Muhammad bin Musa al-Khwarizmi is pictured on the Russian

4-kopek stamp shown in Figure 5 (Scott 5176).

Al-Khwarizmi lived circa 780 to 840 A.D. He was born in what is today Uzbekistan, spoke an Iranian dialect and wrote his mathematical and scientific works in Arabic, leading to his being claimed by the Uzbeks, Iranians and Arabs as one of their own.

Al-Khwarizmi is credited as being the father of algebra, which takes its name from the title of one of his works. Also, the English word "algorithm" comes from the Latin version of his name. He introduced the use of the zero.

A famous scientist who used math to change the way we view reality is Albert Einstein, shown on the U.S. 8¢ stamp in the Prominent Americans series, shown in Figure 6 (Scott 1285).

How about recent mathematical discoveries? Forget it. Calculus is more than 300 years old, but aside from Einstein's theory of relativity, scarcely anything beyond calculus appears on stamps.

More mathematics has been created since 1950 than in all of history before 1950, but you would never know about it from the stamps that have been issued.

Is it becoming clear that the content of any given topical stamp collection is highly subject to individual preference? Your knowledge of the world is unique to you.

Everyone knows more about some subjects than most other people know about them. You can use that knowledge to build a collection that reflects what you know and the way you look at things. Conversely, collecting a topic might teach you something that you never knew about it.

Try the music-on-stamps topic. Like the Good Ole Boys at Bob's Country Bunker in the film Blues Brothers, you might like both kinds of music: country and western. Or you might broaden your collection to include performers of rock 'n' roll, Afro-pop, folk, jazz, opera, classical, Indian, blues, swing, pops, stage musicals, klezmer or any type of music that appeals to you.

The Gambia 3-dalasy Roy Orbison stamp pictured in Figure 7 (Scott 1607a) would fit handily into this topical collection.

You could broaden the topic again to include musical instruments, opera houses, musical scores, singers and composers. Take your choice or add to the list.

At one time or another, just about everyone has pounded on a drum. Have you ever wondered how many stamps show drums of one kind or other? A Botswanan 4¢ Drum stamp (Scott 147) is shown in Figure 8. And there must be dozens of stamps showing flutes of various types. Buy yourself a tin whistle and tootle a little tune for your stamp club when you show the members the stamps in your music topical stamp collection.

Sports is another popular topical collecting area. You can narrow down that wide-open topic to include only stamps that show the summer Olympic Games with individual sports, team sports, games played with a ball, swimming or track and field events.

A Greek 1-drachma gray-black Foot Race stamp (Scott 194) commemorating the 1906 Olympic Games held in Athens is shown in Figure 9. The 1906 Games were later purged from the Olympic records when it was decided that the event would be held only every four years. The 1906 Games are gone from the record books, but the stamps remain as proof that they existed.

You can broaden the topic to include the Winter Olympic Games or winter sports in general, children's games, baseball, football, soccer, rugby, sports equipment or playing fields.

Cricket stamps would make a nice topical collection. An Ascension Island 15¢ Cricket Batsman stamp (Scott 707) is shown in Figure 10.

What sports do you know about?

Fungus can be a good thing to have on your table but a very bad thing to have on your feet. You definitely don't want fungus on your stamps, unless it happens to be a fungus topical stamp. Mycology is the study of fungi, and it might surprise you to know how many stamps have been produced in this topic.

By far, the great majority of fungus topical stamps show mushrooms. Mushrooms are popular stamp topics because they can be both beautiful and tasty food items.

Some wit said "All mushrooms are edible at least once," but it would be better to stick to ingesting the types that you can eat more than once. If you had the Macedonian 2-denar Cantharellus Cibarius stamp shown in Figure 11 (Scott 101), you would have the beginnings of a mushroom topical collection.

Put your individual knowledge to work for you in topical collecting. Make the rules — don't follow someone else's. Remember: the only person you have to please with your collection is you.

Topical collectors will want to join the American Topical Association. The association publishes its journal Topical Times six times a year.

Annual membership is $20 for delivery of the journal to U.S. addresses or $30 for international delivery.

Write to ATA, Box 57, Arlington, TX 76004-0057 or download an application from the web site at

The association also has scores of study units, one of which might involve your topic or topics of interest.