US Stamps

The origin of stamp collecting in America, Part 1: How stamp collecting came to the United States

May 3, 2021, 7 AM

By Ken Lawrence


European Prelude

The world’s oldest stamp collection belongs to the Royal Irish Academy in Dublin. It’s an album of revenue stamps and handstamped chargemarks compiled in 1774 by John Bourke, Receiver General of the Stamp Duties. I wrote about it in the December 2009 issue of Scott Stamp Monthly and illustrated some of the embossed revenue stamps.

Postage stamp collecting began with the 1840 issues of Great Britain, the world’s first. Penny Blacks were placed on sale May 1, 1840, although they were not valid as postage until May 6. The most prominent claimant as the first postage stamp collector was John Edward Gray, keeper of zoology at the British Museum, who recalled that he had purchased several stamps for the purpose of collecting them when they first went on sale, and also purchased stamps of other countries as soon as they appeared.

Two others who wrote that they had collected postage stamps as soon as they became available were Victor Wetzel of Lille, France, who allegedly reconstructed a sheet of Penny Blacks in 1841, and John Tomlynson of Great Britain. More typical collections of that time reflected the Victorian-era hobby of pasting colorful paper items in scrapbooks, not interest in stamps as such.

That aspect of kitsch collecting achieved prominence in Honore de Balzac’s 1847 novel Le Cousin Pons, in this passage which one stamp editor took to be a philatelic reference:

Following the first outlines of this biographical sketch [of Pons], everyone will cry out, “You see, despite his ugliness, this man is the happiest in the world!” Indeed, no worry, no rancor, can resist the soothing influence a hobby bestows upon the soul. You who can no longer drink from the cup of pleasure, as it has been called throughout the ages, try to collect something, anything (some collect handbills!), and you will recover ingots of happiness as small change. A hobby, a craze, is pleasure in the shape of an idea!

The French word for stamps is timbres; Balzac’s word was affiches, which probably meant advertising prints or leaflets.

Although Balzac did not specify postage stamps and covers as objects of Pons’ passion, they certainly fell within the broader related field of paper ephemera. My Spotlight column in the Oct. 18, 2010, Linn’s analyzed Balzac’s place in our hobby’s history.

Recognizable as an early philatelic collection that still survives today was an album of British autographs, franks, and adhesive stamps gathered in 1840 and earlier by C. Barrington, a young woman in Dublin. It had once been owned by Frederick E. Dixon, whose description placed it in the context of that original 18th-century revenue stamp collection:

Most philatelists collect only postage stamps, and think of 1840 as the date of the first stamps — the penny black and the twopenny blue. The oldest surviving collection in this sense is also in Dublin, an album in which a lady stuck examples of those first stamps, together with the printed envelope put on sale at the same time, designed by Irishman William Mulready. What makes the album special is that there is nothing later in it, suggesting that it was started at the time, but, like many beginners’ collections ever since, it was not continued.

Victor Short bought the Barrington collection and Dixon’s “Philately in Ireland” manuscript at the April 5, 1990, Christie’s Robson Lowe sale of Dixon’s estate. He published the article and interesting background facts in the October 1990-January 1991 and April-July 1991 issues of Philatelic Paraphernalia, the now-defunct journal of the Philatelic History Society.

In a 1973 booklet titled The First Philatelist?, Canadian stamp dealer Kasimir Bileski nominated Samuel Lord Jr. of Leeds, England, whose album began in 1838 with facsimile autographs of such prominent figures as King Henry VIII, Anne Boleyn, William Shakespeare and William Penn, but graduated in 1840 to entire envelopes bearing canceled Penny Blacks written to the 17-year-old Lord by prominent poets of the day, including lines from their poetry in their own handwriting. Lord’s collection continued to include the 1841 imperforate Penny Red issue.

In the May 1997 London Philatelist, John E. Homersham reported a Dec. 14, 1841, British letter about stamp collecting, which suggests that the hobby was not simply a solitary quirk, but was recognized and respected as a social activity in some circles.

A member of the British royal family, Angela Lascelles, owned an impressive album of stamps from many countries, including the second postal issue of the United States, assembled in the 1850s. Her estate sold at a Christie’s South Kensington sale on Oct. 28, 2007, and the rare philatelic items were later resold by Corinphila in 2008 and 2009, promoted as the “Fort Belvedere collection,” another subject of my December 2009 Scott Stamp Monthly column.

From time to time, other European collections purportedly begun in the 1850s have laid claim to being among the earliest. In the Swedish Postal Museum’s 1999 annual Postryttaren, Bjorn Sylwan described and illustrated an 1850s collection kept by the artist Olof Arboreus. A page from the Arboreus album is shown on page 50. Wolfgang Maassen, editor of the German journal Philatelie, owns a collection begun in about 1854 by a Swiss girl named Anna Elisabeth Tobler. He told her story in his April 2009 issue.

All these surviving remnants of original European stamp collections predated persuasive evidence of philatelic activity in North America. Of course, older collections might be lurking elsewhere and awaiting discovery.

Henry Shaw, the father of Henry Wheeler Shaw (better known as Josh Billings, the humorist), may have been the first American stamp collector, liberally construed. He is said to have purchased the two newly issued U.S. postage stamps on Aug. 6, 1847, and kept the 5¢ Benjamin Franklin as a curiosity. But I doubt that anyone could locate that stamp today.

Origins of the Stamp Trade

Buying and selling stamps as a profession also began in Europe. One of the earliest stamp hobby pioneers was Jean-Baptiste Moens, a bookseller in Brussels, Belgium. He had begun collecting stamps in 1848, and about 1852 he became a dealer in postage stamps as well as books.

Moens was the first dealer to import stamps from foreign countries as soon as he learned of their existence. Today’s collectors owe him a special debt of gratitude for discovering and preserving some of the legendary treasures of philately.

Perhaps as a reflection of Moens’ influence, the earliest recorded public display of stamps was a single-page worldwide exhibit at a Brussels map museum mounted by the Flemish cartographer Philippe Vandermaelen in 1852. Or maybe Vandermaelen’s exhibit came first, and inspired Moens to add stamps as a sideline to his book business.

In Great Britain, William S. Lincoln, a schoolboy collector in London, began buying and selling stamps in 1853. Edward Stanley Gibbons opened his stamp business at Plymouth in 1856, in a corner of his father’s pharmacy, when he was just 16 years old.

The Earliest PhilatelicLiterature and Stamp Albums

In publishing too, Europeans led the way. The earliest literature about collecting stamps as such, rather than simply accumulating them for a decorative purpose, might be this item that appeared in the British publication Notes and Queries of June 23, 1860:

POSTAGE STAMPS: A boy in my form one day showed me a collection of from 300 to 400 different postage stamps, English and foreign, and at the same time stated that Sir Rowland Hill told him that at that time there might be about 500 varieties on the whole. This seems a cheap, instructive, and portable museum for young people to arrange, and yet I have seen no notices of catalogues, or specimens for sale, such as there are of coins, prints, plants, &c., and no articles in periodicals. A cheap fac-simile catalogue, with nothing but names of respective states, periods of use, value, &c., would meet with attention. If there be a London shop where stamps or lists of them could be procured, its address would be acceptable to me and a score of young friends.



Oscar Berger-Levrault of Strasbourg, France, published the world’s first stamp catalog, Timbres-Poste (Postage Stamps), in September 1861. The first illustrated stamp catalog, Catalogue des Timbres-Poste crees dans divers Etats du Globe, was published by another Frenchman, Alfred Potiquet, two months later. Belgian dealer Moens published his first catalog in December 1861 or January 1862.

Three British stamp catalogs appeared in quick succession in 1862: the first by Frederick Booty in April; the second by Mount Brown in May; and the third by Gray, the zoologist, in December. Gray’s A Hand Catalogue of Postage Stamps for the Use of Collectors was actually a compilation of a series of articles titled “The Postage Stamps of the World,” which he had published in the June through September 1862 issues of Young England magazine.

Justin Lallier, a French archaeologist, published the world’s first postage stamp album in February or March 1862, with spaces for about 1,200 stamps. It had no illustrations, and unfortunately the spaces were too small for many of the stamps. A tragic result is that many early collectors trimmed off the perforations in order to fit the stamps into the spaces, ruining them for later generations.

Despite its faults, Lallier’s album met a pent-up yearning among collectors for an easy scheme to organize and mount their stamps. In five years’ time, he produced seven editions to meet the demand.

G. Wuttig of Leipzig, Germany, published an album in the latter part of 1862, and sold his business to Gustav Bauschke in 1864. That line of albums has continued ever since under the Schaubek label, an anagram of Bauschke’s surname.

Our hobby took its place in the broad realm of British popular culture when Charles Dickens published the short story “My Nephew’s Collection” in the July 19, 1862, issue of his magazine All the Year Round, another literary reference that I quoted at length and analyzed, along with the citation to Balzac’s book, in my Oct. 18, 2010, Linn’s column.

The first nonfiction English-language periodical that dedicated attention to stamp collecting was The Monthly Intelligencer of Birmingham, England, which began in September 1862. In December 1862, The Monthly Advertiser became the first purely philatelic English journal, followed by The Stamp Collector’s Magazine in February 1863, the same month that Moens started a journal called Le Timbre Poste in Brussels, edited by his brother-in-law, Louis Hanciau.

Bridging the Continentsfor Philately

In the November 2011 issue of the Chronicle of the U.S. Classic Postal Issues, I offered my candidate for the earliest American philatelic souvenir: an unused first issue 3¢ George Washington stamped envelope of 1853 with a Nesbitt seal on the flap, pictured here.

(The unused imperforate 3¢ Washington adhesive stamp of 1851 is a replacement; I mounted it where the lost original had rested, to restore its appearance, to the left of the original owner’s “Postage Stamp” inscription.)

The die-cut Boyd’s City Express Post 2¢ Eagle local stamp is original. The owner wrote beneath it, “Boyds Express, a kind of opposition Post office — delivery oftener than the mail.” The central inscription — “The New American Postage Envelope!” — is good evidence that a foreign visitor, probably from Great Britain or Ireland, assembled the souvenir combination as a keepsake.

The most probable creator would have been someone who came to this country to attend the Exhibition of the Industry of All Nations, held at the New York Crystal Palace, advertised on the illustrated advertising cover pictured here.

The Crystal Palace was located on Sixth Avenue between 40th and 42nd Streets, the current location of William Cullen Bryant Park adjacent to the New York Public Library. It was an architectural masterpiece built of glass and steel. It burned to the ground in 1858 and was never rebuilt. For a comprehensive report on postal artifacts of the Crystal Palace, see my article in the October 2008 Scott Stamp Monthly.

The exhibition opened July 14, 1853, about two weeks after stamped envelopes had made their debut. All three items — postage stamps, stamped envelopes and Boyd’s local stamps — were available to showgoers. The exhibition map included the locations of the exhibition post office and a Boyd’s collection box.

This notice had appeared on page 6 of the July 12 New York Herald:

CRYSTAL PALACE LETTER DELIVERY – OFFICE. Boyd’s City Express Post No. 46. William St. The undersigned made arrangements with the committee of the Crystal Palace, for the delivery of letters to and from the palace. Two large boxes are placed there for the reception of such letters, and there will be four deliveries of city letters and five deliveries of mailable letters for the United States Post Office. A special messenger with a locked bag will leave the palace at 8, 11, 1 and 3 o’clock. Letters left at this office will be sent direct to the palace by the cars at 9, 12, 2 and 4 o’clock. After the 4 o’clock delivery at the palace, all mailable letters in the boxes will be sent to the United States Post Office. This arrangement will go into effect on the 13th inst. JOHN T. BOYD, Proprietor.

Boyd’s was the only local post with an official presence at the exhibition.

Two exhibitors’ stands also promoted interest in postal communication. According to the Official Catalogue of the New York Exhibition of the Industry of All Nations, stand 25 in Division D, Court 10 exhibited “Wood type, wood stamps for post-offices, model of cheap proof press, E.S. Zevely, Pleasant Grove, Maryland.” Cheryl R. Ganz gave details of Zevely’s display in the February 2009 Chronicle.

Zevely’s booth was in the Class 17, “Paper and Stationery, Types, Printing and Bookbinding,” area of the fair. A few positions away from him, “Specimens of letterpress printing — George F. Nesbitt & Co., prop Corner of Wall and Water streets, New York City,” occupied stand 42.

Nesbitt’s firm was the largest stationer in the country, and held the government contract to print stamped envelopes, which had been issued just two weeks before the fair opened. Until he was ordered to stop on July 7, Nesbitt had printed his own advertisement on the flaps. The Nesbitt crest on the flap of the souvenir pictured with this article, on page 51, supports my belief that this originated about July 1853.

I ended my Chronicle article with the question, “Does anyone own an earlier American philatelic souvenir?” To date, no one has come forward with an alternative. Mine provides evidence that a stamp collector had finally set foot on our shore. (I have read references to new U.S. stamps in July 1851 letters, but no suggestions that they ought to be saved.)

The Earliest AmericanStamp Collection?

I believe a collection of canceled 3¢ U.S. stamps of 1851 to 1856 in my possession, saved and mounted inside a textbook by a schoolboy in Pennsylvania named David T. Latimer, is the oldest extant American collection.

It consists of 35 imperforate 3¢ Washington stamps of 1851, pasted onto the inside front cover of a German language textbook in about February 1856. My wife Ellen Peachey and I have been researching the life of this remarkable collector for the past five years, traveling to his birthplace and other places where he lived and died, exploring genealogical records, reading old newspapers, studying court documents, and corresponding with descendants.

Here are highlights of our discoveries:

David Teaford (spelling of his surname in genealogical records at his birthplace) was born in Darke County, Ohio, in about 1843. He was orphaned as an infant, and adopted by a prosperous couple named Henry and Sarah Latimer, who moved to Plainfield, N.J., in 1847.

From 1853 to 1857, David Teford Latimer (spelling in his school’s history) had been a pupil at Nazareth Hall, a boarding school for boys affiliated with the Moravian Church, at Nazareth, Pa. He acquired the German book in October 1855. He was probably 12 or 13 years old when he assembled the stamp collection that he kept in the book.

At the outset of the Civil War, the young man enlisted as a private in the 5th New York Volunteer Infantry of the Union Army under the name David Tieforth, as it appeared in his enlistment papers and in some Civil War veterans’ memoirs, possibly a phonetic version of his birth parents’ surname.

His unit was better known as Duryea’s Zouaves, called “red-legged devils” for their colorful red bloused trousers. The 5th New York fought at the Battle of Big Bethel in southeast Virginia, the first land battle of the Civil War, where David was killed June 10, 1861.

Charles Brandegee, his cousin who also had enlisted in Duryea’s Zouaves, later described David’s martyrdom:

On the march the company to which David belonged was deployed as skirmishers, and while thus engaged with the enemy he received a rifle bullet in the shoulder. He fell; but bleeding and in agony, his brave heart buoyed him up, and he rose to his knees as if to be his own avenger. An officer told him to lie down, and even as he spoke another bullet crashed through his brain, and he fell dead. A brave man and an honest soldier; his friends, while they deeply mourn his early death, can but feel a swelling pride to think how glorious was his fall.

Seven years later, Nazareth Hall erected a monument to its fallen war heroes, including David T. Latimer, “the first of the alumni who fell in defense of the union.”

On June 11, 1868, the school dedicated the 35-foot high obelisk, with his name among those on the north face above this inscription: “The Academy is the nursing-mother of patriots, rearing her children in the ways of truth and freedom.”

This trail blazer had gone to his reward before philatelic catalogs, albums, publications, or organizations had been born. The survival of his collection today is all the more remarkable considering the young man’s untimely death in service to his country.

If his life had not been cut short at age 18, and if his interest in stamps had persisted and grown, as heir to his adopted family’s fortune he might have built one of the world’s great collections.

I first reported and pictured David Latimer’s collection in an August 2009 Scott Stamp Monthly front cover story. My article reported that Wilson Hulme (1946-2007), the first curator of philately at the Smithsonian National Postal Museum in Washington, D.C., and an expert on the 3¢ Washington stamps of 1851, studied it and agreed with me that no earlier American collection was known. In the five years since that report, no one has suggested an earlier one.

Earliest American LetterAbout Stamp Collecting

Steven R. Belasco collected postal history and ephemera of stamp collecting and dealing in the United States. The 1859 letter shown here was a highlight of his exhibit, which I purchased at the Robert A. Siegel Auction Galleries sale of Belasco’s philatelic estate in 2012.

The envelope is addressed to “Prof. Torrey for Mrs. A. Gray,” while the enclosed letter is addressed to “dear Jeannie” and signed “Sue.” The pertinent passage reads:

If you think of it when you see Charles Brace, will you ask him if he has any foreign letters from any place but England, & if he would let Pat have the postage stamps if it is not too much trouble to take them off. I thought he probably has correspondents in Sweden, Norway and Germany, & Pat’s book is really very pretty, & he wants to have it as complete as possible.

Collectors of every generation would recognize Pat as our kin, truly the universal stamp hobbyist, and would appreciate the intellectual links implied by the letter.

Belasco identified each of the characters in that splendid document. Sue was Susan Loring Jackson. Charles Brace was Sue’s cousin, a clergyman and advocate for the welfare of children who corresponded with colleagues and followers in many countries. Jeannie was Jane Loring Gray, Sue’s sister and husband of the renowned scientific botanist Asa Gray. Pat, the collector, was Sue’s husband Patrick Tracy Jackson II, whose father had been a Massachusetts textile industry founder. Prof. Torrey was John Torrey, Gray’s colleague and a professor of botany at Columbia University.

The Origin of American Airmail

Although contemporaneous collectors may have been oblivious to the connection, lighter-than-air balloon ascensions were a popular form of public entertainment at county fairs, July 4 celebrations, and other special events in the 1850s. The most prominent and accomplished aeronaut of that decade was John Wise of Pennsylvania. On Aug. 17, 1859, he carried the first officially sanctioned airmail — 123 letters and 23 circulars — on a flight of his gas balloon Jupiter from Lafayette to Crawfordsville, Indiana.

Although Wise’s goal of completing a transcontinental flight to New York failed when his airship lost its buoyancy at Crawfordsville, the sole surviving cover from that ascension is a National Postal Museum treasure.

My article on the Jupiter flight and its famous cover appeared in the April 2003 Scott Stamp Monthly.

American Stamp Dealers,Stamp Catalogs, Albums,and Periodicals

Not long after David Latimer assembled his collection, about the time that Sue Jackson was asking her sister to help obtain some foreign stamps and aeronaut John Wise was carrying airmail letters aboard Jupiter, the hobby began to grow and mature in North America.

The first U.S. stamp dealer was A.C. Kline of Philadelphia (the pseudonym of John William Kline). Like Moens in Belgium, he was a bookseller, but he was also a legendary coin dealer of the 1850s. Kline published the first American stamp catalog in April 1862.

William P. Brown, who had begun collecting in the 1850s, founded America’s first exclusively stamp business in 1860, selling stamps displayed to passersby on boards in New York’s City Hall Park.

Just a few months after the Notes and Queries had published Cresswell’s letter about the educational virtues of stamp collecting for young boys in England, the Sept. 13, 1860, issue of the Boston Daily Advertiser included an article titled “A New Scene in the Stamp Act” that characterized the hobby as a young ladies’ “mania.”

The next day’s paper published a letter from a reader who signed only as “C,” which advised, “If you will direct your friends, who may wish to make collections, to the store of Mr. George Kaan, No. 130 Washington street, corner of Water street, they will find 21 varieties of German, Danish, Swedish and Norwegian stamps, which are bright and new just as they came from the government offices.”

Finally, a product arrived as an American original, not as an import. An enterprising Boston publisher, John M. Whittemore, began promoting the world’s first philatelic album on June 17, 1861, for collectors of Civil War patriotic covers. In the December 2009 Scott Stamp Monthly, James E. Kloetzel pictured his Whittemore album on the front cover and told its story.

D. Appleton & Co. issued the first American edition of a postage stamp album in December 1862, a knock-off of Lallier’s French original. Only two copies of that Appleton first edition are known to have survived.

The first stamp periodical in North America was Stamp-Collector’s Record, published in February 1864 by Samuel Allan Taylor of Montreal and Boston. Other stamp magazines followed soon afterward, but most were short-lived.

John Walter Scott, the best known pioneer stamp dealer in America, had begun selling stamps in London around 1860, and continued in the stamp business when he immigrated to New York in 1863.

Stamp Collecting in American Popular Culture

A Southern paper published under federal occupation, the New Orleans Picayune, irreverently portrayed Civil War patriotic envelope collecting as midwife to the collection of postage stamps. The July 12, 1863, article titled “The Postage Stamp Mania” began its analysis, “Manias for collecting certain supposed or actual curiosities are epidemical.” After exploring several of them, including autographs, coins, bugs, butterflies, and carte de visite photographs, the author wrote:

As an accompaniment, of course, is the album mania. Next in chronological order came the furor for fancy envelopes. A multitude of these sprang into existence with the civil war. There were “Union,” “Secession,” “Military,” “Naval,” and all sorts — and in the course of a very short time as many as one thousand different specimens were extant …

The last and now current mania is for defaced postage stamps. … The children began it, and it finally seized children of a larger growth: so that there are not only shops and stands in London and Paris for the sale of these bits of colored paper, but there are thousands of persons who are giving almost their entire attention to this business.

One consequence of that convergence was the practice of collecting, preserving and exhibiting entire covers 150 years ago in the United States, before “postal history” became a philatelic pursuit elsewhere.

In 1864, as the Civil War approached its climax and as voters prepared to re-elect President Abraham Lincoln, stamp collecting became a subject of popular song. The front page of the sheet music folio titled The Stamp Galop pictures 43 stamps in color from many countries, including British Guiana, Cape of Good Hope, Ceylon, Hawaii, Hong Kong, and German States in addition to the United States.

Like so much else I have surveyed here, the song was imported from Britain. An advertisement in the Feb. 1, 1863, Stamp Collector’s Magazine offered for sale an earlier edition with a different selection of stamps on its cover page as “The most Successful Galop of the Season, and nightly encored. The Title-page is beautifully embellished in Colours, with the Postage Stamps of Foreign Nations.”

In Part 2 of this report I shall carry this narrative forward. Next to appear will be such important features as stamp auctions and philatelic organizations.