US Stamps

The origin of stamp collecting in America, Part 2: How stamp collecting matured and spread

May 1, 2021, 4 PM


By Ken Lawrence

By the end of the Civil War in 1865, the stamp hobby had arrived and taken root in North America. Alongside collections of colorful patriotic envelopes, both unused and mailed, collectors had developed a culture grounded in the pursuit of as many different stamps from as many countries as possible, mounted and arranged in albums. Enterprising dealers in New York, Boston and Philadelphia had responded to their demands.

The stage was set for growth, which required a durable infrastructure, professional style and public presence.

John W. Scott, THE Fatherof American Philately

The leader in all three aspects was John Walter Scott of New York City, who became known as “the father of American philately.” In 1867 and 1868, he published a series of price lists. The “sixteenth edition” of his price list, titled A Descriptive Catalogue of American and Foreign Postage Stamps, Issued from 1840 to Date, published in September 1868, was the original Scott Standard Postage Stamp Catalogue, with today’s editions still numbered in Scott’s sequence. The 2015 set is the 171st edition.

As another 1868 innovation, Scott founded the American Journal of Philately, the most important early stamp-hobby publication, which evolved into Scott’s Monthly Journal, later renamed Scott Stamp Monthly. In October 2010, Scott Stamp Monthly merged with Linn’s Stamp News, bringing this former SSM Spotlight column to Linn’s.

Scott also launched the most successful brand of stamp albums the world had seen.

Scott had opened his stamp shop at 34 Liberty St., next door to the post office, in 1866. By 1868, he had a second store at 75-77 Nassau St., which soon became his only office, with stamp sales on the ground floor and a printing office for albums, catalogs and less savory items (bogus stamps and forgeries) in the basement. New York’s Nassau Street became the most famous address for stamp dealers in America, and remained so for more than 100 years.

Early Philatelic Auction Sales

As with origins of the hobby itself, selling stamps at auction originated in Europe and spread from there to here.

According to the 1956 book The Postage Stamp by sibling co-authors Leon Norman and Maurice Williams, the first recorded sale of stamps at auction occurred at Hotel Drounot in Paris on Dec. 29, 1865, the philatelic stock of a deceased dealer named J.W. Elb.

But once again it was Scott who added the professional touch. The Elb sale had no printed catalog; it was a typical estate sale directed only to buyers who showed up in person and examined the merchandise. The catalog for Scott’s May 28, 1870, public auction in New York City launched a tradition that has become a mainstay of our hobby ever since.

Two years later, Scott opened a branch office of his firm in London. His March 18, 1872, sale introduced European buyers to stamp auction catalogs. A decade later, the catalog for Scott’s 42nd auction in 1882 was the first to include photographic illustrations.

Scott was not the only early dealer who sold stamps at auction and conducted business on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean. In Part 1 of this article (Linn’s, Sept. 15, page 50), I wrote that William P. Brown had founded America’s first exclusively stamp business in 1860. By 1864, Brown advertised in a British stamp magazine, and in 1870 his own organ, De Kuriositi Kabinet, offered not only stamps (including revenues) and some other collectibles, but also announced auction sales.

Brown prepared the catalog for an important early “name sale,” the June 25, 1878, Bangs & Co. New York City auction of the E.B. Sterling collection of United States stamps. Sterling had begun collecting unused stamps in “post office fresh” condition in 1861, which was unusual at that early date; his foresight in keeping stamps in mint condition elevated appreciation of quality among hobbyists.

In the July-August 1995 Collectors Club Philatelist, Stanley M. Bierman listed the most prominent bidders at the Sterling sale: H.B. Seagrave, George B. Mason, Scott, Nicholas Seebeck, Charles H. Coster, Gus B. Calman, George W. Chittenden and James A. Petrie. Philately had taken huge strides since its inception as a schoolboy’s hobby two decades earlier. Sterling became best known for his outstanding U.S. revenue stamp collection.

Stamp Hobby Organizations

The earliest stamp-hobby organization for which we have a record was the Societe Philatelique de Paris. Georges Herpin, who coined the word philatelie (philately) in 1864, was its president.

An article in the July 15, 1865, issue of Le Timbrophile reported that the society had held its first meeting in January of that year at the home of a man named Becourt, and that by June it had 20 members. Evidently it ceased to exist after Herpin sold his collection to the English collector Frederick A. Philbrick in 1866.

But the text of the Timbrophile article brushed off French stamp dealer Pierre Mahe’s claim that an earlier organization of young collectors had been formed in “Montagnes Rocheuses,” which translates as the Rocky Mountains. If Mahe had not been joking, perhaps there is more yet to be discovered about a possible pioneering stamp club formed in the West during the Civil War.

Whatever the case may be, the New York Stamp Society, organized Jan. 19, 1868, is the first we can confirm in America, and second in the world. Scott was its treasurer, and editor of its official publication, the previously mentioned American Journal of Philately. Internal bickering led to the demise of that group less than three years later, but Scott kept the journal.

The Philatelic Society London, organized April 10, 1869, became the Royal Philatelic Society London in 1906. It is still going strong, and is therefore the world’s oldest stamp society. Group activity resumed in America when the National Philatelical Society of New York was founded Oct. 17, 1874. In the decade that followed, stamp clubs sprang up throughout the country.

At a March 22, 1886, meeting of the National Philatelical Society, Theodore Frederick Cuno delivered a speech titled “Co-operation,” which called for the creation of a national organization of stamp collectors.

Circulation of his call sparked a trend. Schuyler B. Bradt of Chicago began an organizing drive in the Midwest to form a national organization of philatelists, as did Charles Mekeel in St. Louis.

An organizing committee comprising those three men plus W.G. Whilden Jr. of Atlanta and George Henderson of Philadelphia convened a meeting in New York City Sept. 13 and 14, 1886, chaired by Cuno, which founded the American Philatelic Association. The association changed its name to the American Philatelic Society in 1908.

My August 2010 Scott Stamp Monthly column tells the story of Cuno’s importance in the APA/APS history.

The first APA president was John K. Tiffany of St. Louis, the greatest American stamp collector and scholar of his era. Among the original services offered to members was stamp authentication by the APA’s “counterfeit detector,” and in 1903 the APA issued its first expert certificate bearing a photograph of the stamp.

The APS grew to become the largest and most important stamp-collector organization in the United States — some would say with conviction, most important in the world — but it was not alone.

A regional organization formed in 1894, the Southern Philatelic Association, changed its name to Society of Philatelic Americans in 1922, and for the next 60 years stood as the rival to APS. The SPA became insolvent and dissolved in 1983.

In 1888, the National Stamp Dealers’ Association marked the first but short-lived attempt to organize the stamp trade.

In 1896, the Collectors Club was founded in New York, to gather together “all the societies, all the auctions, and all the philatelic interests of the city.” Among the founders were Scott, John N. Luff, Mekeel and Hiram Deats.

Often called the dean of American philately, Luff assembled the most important reference collection of stamps ever formed, which is deposited today at the Philatelic Foundation in New York.

Another charter member, Frederick W. Ayer, was a Maine resident, not a New Yorker, but he owned what was probably the most valuable American collection at the time. Forced to choose between his hobby and his inheritance, Ayer sold most of his collection by 1898 and exited stampdom.

Early Philatelic Exhibitions

A precursor to philatelic exhibits was a large display of about 150 Civil War patriotic envelopes at the New York City post office in May 1861, one of the topics I included in my March 21, 2011, Linn’s column. Although not a stamp exhibit, it did associate postal artifacts with collecting and exhibiting in published reports.

The first philatelic exhibition, held in 1870 at Dresden, Germany, to honor and entertain wounded veterans of the Franco-Prussian War, presented major portions of Alfred Moschkau’s 6,000-stamp collection. At the time, Moschkau lacked only seven stamps for completion; his collection was regarded as the world’s foremost.

The 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia hosted several philatelic exhibits, the first ones ever presented to the American public. It inaugurated collaboration between postal authorities and stamp hobbyists that has continued ever since.

In the Government Building, the Post Office Department displayed examples of every adhesive stamp, stamped envelope, and postal card design issued by the United States up to that time. Many of them were manufactured for the occasion, which became the source of catalog-listed reprints, reissues and special printings that collectors prize today.

Ferdinand M. Trifet, a Boston dealer who published American Stamp Mercury, was curator of the USPOD exhibit; Leonidas W. Durbin, a Philadelphia dealer who published The Philatelic Monthly, was its chief publicist.

It was also the occasion for the first U.S. postal commemorative issue, 3¢ Centennial Exhibition stamped envelopes in green and red varieties (Scott U218-U221), and the first commemorative cancellations.

Also in the Government Building, the Treasury Department exhibited an impressive collection of revenue stamp designs shown in brilliantly colored proofs of documentary, tobacco, beer, and match and medicine stamps, including some private-die proprietary designs that previously had not been seen by collectors. National Bank Note Co. displayed postal card specimen prints.

Hawaii not only exhibited its stamps at the fair, but sold them to collectors. Japan presented a complete set of its postal and fiscal stamps in full sheets. British American Bank Note Co. exhibited proofs of Canadian and Prince Edward Island postage stamps, and Canadian fiscal stamps. Complete current and obsolete postage and revenue stamps of Tasmania were displayed, as were some stamps of Victoria.

J.W. Scott & Co. had a 125-square-foot exhibit of U.S. and foreign postage and revenue stamps, including rarities from Austria, Bolivia, Canada, Ceylon, Colombia, Confederate States, France, Mexico, Newfoundland, New Caledonia, New South Wales, Peru, and the Sandwich Islands (Hawaii).

My column in the March 2005 Scott Stamp Monthly gives a full report on philatelic participation at the 1876 Centennial Exposition.

In June 1878, the Congres International des Timbrophiles (International Congress of Stamp Collectors) at Paris featured scholarly presentations that highlighted the intellectual side of the hobby. Americans who presented papers included Tiffany, Brown and Charles Coster, who was president of the congress.

Today it seems odd that such large-scale public presentations of philatelic treasures could have occurred in the absence of national societies to sponsor and promote them, but it also attests to the creativity and enthusiasm of our philatelic forebears.

Stamps and Postal Historyin the News

One consequence of widespread public awareness was increased attention to matters related to stamps and mail.

When the huge ancient Egyptian obelisk colloquially (but inaccurately) known as Cleopatra’s Needle was erected in New York City’s Central Park, a time capsule of postal artifacts was buried beneath the cornerstone of the massive pedestal. The Sept. 19, 1880, New York Times reported:

The documents and mementoes are sealed in a copper box, which is inclosed in a handsome mahogany case. The box contains: The report of the Postmaster-General for 1879, Post Office laws and regulations, 1879; the Official Postal Guide for January and September 1880; post-route maps of New-York and the New-England States, five styles of mail locks and keys in use in 1880, postage stamps and stamped envelopes in use in 1880; the Daily Postal Bulletin, Sept. 1-13, 1880; a photograph of the Post Office Department Building in Washington; portraits of Postmaster-General Horace Maynard, and D.M. Key and J.N. Thayer, his immediate predecessors; plans of mail wagons and cars; the distribution scheme of Pennsylvania; postmarking, dating, and canceling stamps, and a complete set of the blanks used in the Post Office Department.

One can only guess what reverent meaning might be imputed to that postal crypt when archaeologists of the future eventually dig it up, but today’s collectors and exhibitors would marvel at the trove.

By the 1880s, America had caught up and taken the lead in philatelic affairs, but Europeans continued their progress along similar avenues.

A November 1881 exhibition in Vienna was Austria’s first, a production of dealer Sigmund Friedl. Stamps of all countries were available for viewing at the headquarters of the Vindobona stamp club, which hosted more than 8,000 visitors who paid admission to view the displays. In London, the 1890 Jubilee of Uniform Penny Postage celebration featured philatelic exhibits prepared by leading collectors.

Hobby-Initiated Public Pageantry

Beginning with its second convention at Chicago in 1887, American Philatelic Association annual meetings featured stamp exhibits, but those were for members only. The first public exhibition staged by stamp collectors and dealers in North America, held at the Eden Musee in New York, was another project of Scott’s vision. He wrote the catalog and provided a large share of the material shown there.

The March 13, 1889, New York Times article titled “Philatelical Display” described the result, which would be equally impressive to collectors today but might be less effective in reaching beyond hobby circles:


What is probably the only complete collection of postage stamps of all nations ever exhibited in this country was shown at the Eden Musee Monday evening. To the thousands interested in philately, as the collecting of postage stamps is called, the exhibition is one unique and novel, for there are stamps of extreme rarity that even the owners of collections, numbering well up in the thousands, have never set eyes on. As something like 50,000 people within a radius of 50 miles of the New-York City Hall are engaged in this fascinating fad the Musee will naturally become a favorite resort for them for the month to come, during which time they will be shown.

Were the collection the property of one man he might estimate it without exceeding its value at about $200,000, for there are more than 10,000 specimens of stamps that are or have been used as billets which would ensure the transportation of a letter or package from one point to another. The collection has been gotten together by the labors of representatives of the National Philatelical Society, the Brooklyn Philatelic Club, and the Staten Island Philatelic Society.

Selections from the collections of some 50 gentlemen have been secured in order to perfect a list in which every stamp shown is known to be a genuine issue. These include the issues of all civilized nations and colonies, some revenue issues — though no attempt at a complete collection of these stamps, of stamped envelopes, or of postal cards has been attempted — and of recognized local issues. These latter, particularly those used in this country before a regular series of Government stamps were issued and those used by Southern cities before the Confederacy issued its stamps, are particularly interesting. The latter collection also includes envelopes once used and turned, these expedients being resorted to because of the scarcity of paper in the South. There is novelty, too, in the issues of local stamps by Postmasters at New-Haven, Conn., Baltimore, Brattleborough, Vt., and other cities, whose value is entirely controlled by the desire of a rich collector to possess them. Another valuable lot is a complete set of Russian locals used for transmission of letters between points not reached by the imperial mails.

Topping these impressive initiatives, at the 1893 World Columbian Exposition in Chicago, the APA presented a grand exhibit of stamps. That coincided with the USPOD’s most ambitious and expensive issue of commemorative stamps as encore to the commemorative postal stationery issued at the 1876 world’s fair in Philadelphia.

The audience that viewed the APA’s philatelic exhibit might have been the largest gathering of spectators our hobby ever attracted. Today, 1893 Columbian commemorative stamps are coveted by collectors of every level, from beginner to advanced, around the world.

Still a Hobby for Young People

Scott’s imaginative public events had presented stamp collecting as a cultured gentleman’s leisure activity, but he had not neglected the hobby’s roots. In 1897, he produced a widely distributed weekly for young collectors and novices, John W. Scott’s Junior Weekly Letter, later called John W. Scott’s Weekly Bulletin, shown on the facing page.

Almost every planet and star in the philatelic firmament had now secured its place, but Scott had not quite completed his journey. He became a founding member of the American Stamp Dealers Association in 1914. He retired from the trade in 1917, the year he was elected president of the APS. He died in office in 1919.

The First International Stamp Exhibitionin America

During the twilight of Scott’s 60-plus years in philately, an ambitious new generation of hobby leaders had gradually emerged and risen to prominence. From Oct. 27 to Nov. 1, 1913, that group hosted the International Philatelic Exhibition at New York City, which the stamp writer Fred J. Melville called “America’s maiden effort in exhibitions of this class,” and declared “a great success.”

Julius C. Morgenthau, the country’s leading stamp auctioneer, opened the show with a tribute to the country’s greatest collector of that age, George H. Worthington of Ohio. In his president’s address, Worthington summarized the virtues of the hobby as he saw it:

Philately is at the threshold of the open door leading to historical research. It summons the past from the early decades of governments that have passed away and others that have survived; and it connects the past with the present, link by link. It cultivates the finer sensibilities of perception and of differentiation, and in a degree, perhaps not peculiar to any other science, its interest expands with every event of human history. The story of civilization is told in stamps.

Those words may seem like pious platitudes to many readers, but they resonate within me 101 years later as rewards of stamp collecting.

Other legendary American collectors who exhibited their treasures at that show included Charles Lathrop Pack and Ernest R. Ackerman, together with prominent guests from Europe. Jurors hailed from the United States and Great Britain. Joseph E. Ralph, director of the Bureau of Engraving and Printing, lectured on the production of United States stamps — 44 million per day — and announced that the BEP would soon begin employing a revolutionary rotary intaglio press that would advance printing technology to unprecedented levels of productivity.

The second international exhibition in this country was held in 1926, also in New York, and since then the United States has hosted one every decade: Tipex, Cipex and Fipex at New York in 1936, 1947 and 1956, respectively; Sipex at Washington, D.C., in 1966; Interphil at Philadelphia in 1976; Ameripex at Chicago in 1986; Pacific 97 at San Francisco in 1997; and, most recently, Washington 2006. The next one will be World Stamp Show-NY 2016 in New York.

In the aftermath of World War I, the greatest stamp collection ever formed, the philatelic estate of Philipp von Ferrary, was sold at auction in 14 sales at Paris between 1921 and 1926, at the very same Hotel Drounot where the Elb sale had been held in 1865. Headlines around the world reported record prices paid for rare stamps, with an aggregate realization of 30 million francs, equal to about $1.6 million at the time and nearly $22 million if inflation-adjusted to the present value of money. The publicity value for the hobby was priceless.

Since then, increases in relative values of rare stamps have outpaced inflation. Ferrary’s complete collection in today’s market would be worth hundreds of millions of dollars.

Meanwhile, on a less imposing level, the 20th century added airmail, topical, and first-day cover collecting to the menu of philatelic choices.

This magazine’s founder, George W. Linn, created the first commercial cachet on first-day covers of the 1923 2¢ black Warren G. Harding Memorial stamp (Scott 610). Cachets have been important collectible features of FDCs ever since.

The Golden Age of Philately in America

It may seem paradoxical that the years of the Great Depression are fondly remembered as the stamp hobby’s Golden Age, but with President Franklin D. Roosevelt as the nation’s collector-in-chief and the best known member of the APS, philately became associated with relief and escape from anxiety and stress. Much the same was true in British media portrayals of King George V as a collector.

Besides, one could collect stamps without spending any money at all, yet evidence of the hobby was ubiquitous. Department stores had stamp departments. Scouts earned stamp-collecting merit badges. Dime stores sold packets of inexpensive stamps, and approval dealers advertised in popular magazines and comic books. Daily newspapers had stamp columns. Proctor & Gamble sponsored the Captain Tim’s thrice-weekly Ivory Stamp Club of the Air on the NBC radio network, which claimed a million members (listeners who had sent in 10¢ and two Ivory soap wrappers to join and receive stamp packets). If true, it holds the record for membership of a philatelic organization.

Women in Philately

If this story seems to be dominated by men, that’s an accurate perception. Although men may have hogged the limelight, some of the great philatelic pioneers were women.

Foremost among them, to whom we all owe a debt of thanks, was Catherine L. Manning, curator of the National Philatelic Collection at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington for more than 30 years, longer than anyone else.

Manning served as a vice president of the APS from 1935 to 1937, the first woman to hold elective office in the society. Her exhibits were titled “Women in Philately” and “Little Women.” She was a charter member of the American Philatelic Congress and served on its governing council. She was a trustee of the National Philatelic Museum in Philadelphia. In 1949, the museum awarded Manning a silver trophy for achievement in philately, which is now on display in the National Stamp Salon of the William H. Gross Gallery at the National Postal Museum in Washington.

Connecticut collector and philanthropist Katharine Matthies, heir to an industrial and banking fortune, assembled and exhibited the finest collection of Civil War patriotic postal history covers that has ever been shown. Her exhibit earned gold medals at international exhibitions in New York, 1947; Toronto, 1951; and New York, 1956. At the 1954 Women in Philately Exhibition, held at the National Philatelic Museum in Philadelphia, she won the grand award, a gold medal, the APS research award and a special research trophy. Matthies is a subject of my May 23, 2011, Linn’s column.

Barbara R. Mueller (pronounced Miller), my mentor as a philatelic writer, was among the first to pay proper tribute to Matthies’ achievements and her stature among the hobby’s elite. Mueller’s 1956 book Common Sense Philately taught me that stamp collecting consisted of far more than filling spaces in my album, the beginning of my higher philatelic education.

“I have drawn on 20 years’ experience in the hobby in an effort to present a sensible approach to a grossly misrepresented pastime, so that you may find fulfillment in it as I have,” she wrote when I was 14 years old. Her book helped me appreciate the treasures from King Farouk’s stamp collection that Marshall Field’s stamp department had on display at that time.

Today I am in my 70s, her book is still worth reading despite some old-fashioned attitudes about women and men that her own career refuted, and Mueller is still dispensing philatelic wisdom. Her record of service includes editorship of the Essay Proof Journal, United States Specialist, American Philatelic Congress Book, and Philatelic Communicator. She recruited me to take over that last one in 1988.

Mueller has been honored with almost every award the hobby bestows: McCoy Award, Luff Award, Liechtenstein Medal, Smithsonian Philatelic Achievement Award, United States Stamp Society Hall of Fame, APS Writers Unit Hall of Fame, and Roll of Distinguished Philatelists. In her honor, the APS presents its Barbara R. Mueller Award for the best article published each year in the American Philatelist.

Closer to my home, I inherited the stamps that my grandmother had saved, a purely private collection kept by Lucy Hyde Ewing, whose brush with fame owed to her public participation in the radical women’s suffrage movement. I tell the story of her stamps in the December 1994 issue of Scott Stamp Monthly.

In Conclusion

By the close of the 19th century, stamp collecting had adapted or invented the essential tools of the hobby, from which every collector now benefits. The 20th century brought philately to the masses, with stamps and collecting gear on sale at nearly every department store and five-and-ten.

Today philately spans the globe, but oddly, considering its roots, its appeal in this country is greatest among mature adults, while most young people’s interests have strayed to other pursuits.