Stamp collecting is the collecting of postage stamps and related objects, such as envelopes (cover)s. It is one of the world's most popular hobbies, with estimates of the number of collectors ranging up to 20 million.
Collecting is not the same as philately, which is the study of stamps. A philatelist often does, but need not, collect the objects of study, nor is it necessary to closely study what one collects. Many casual collectors enjoy accumulating stamps without worrying about the tiny details, but the creation of a large or comprehensive collection generally requires some philatelic knowledge.
Stamp collectors are an important source of revenue for some small countries who create limited runs of elaborate stamps designed mainly to be bought by stamp collectors. The stamps produced by these countries far exceed the postal needs of the countries.
Some collectors, observing the generally rising prices of rare stamps, have taken to Philatelic Investment. Rare stamps are among the most portable of tangible investments, and are easy to store. They offer an attractive alternative to art, other collectible investments, and precious metals.
Many collectors specialize their collecting interest to narrow the number of possible stamps to collect. This happens mainly because the total number of postage stamps issued numbers in the hundreds of thousands.
Some of the more popular collecting areas include:
- Postage stamps - particular countries and/or time periods
- Postal stationery - includes government-issued post cards, aerograms, air letter sheets, etc.; interestingly, the earliest postal stationery predates the earliest stamps- the Kingdom of Sardinia issued the first postal letter sheets in 1819.
- Revenue stamps
- Postage Due stamps
- Federal Duck stamps (stamps for duck hunting licenses, mainly U.S. with some other countries such as Canada); the first Duck stamp was designed by noted conservationist Ding Darling, and was issued in 1934. Each year, a contest is held, in which thousands of wildlife artists compete to design the new duck stamp. The winner of the contest becomes instantly famous. Duck stamp collecting is very popular with hunters, and U.S. Duck stamps are sold by the Department of the Interior, as well as by individual states. The revenues generated by the sale of Duck stamps are used to purchase wetlands, so that they remain unspoiled.
- souvenir sheets - the many postal services sometimes release stamps in a format that look like a sheet with a big picture. Various parts of the picture can be torn out and used as postage stamps. See example (http://new.usps.com/cgi-bin/uspsbvhttp://tfw.cachefly.net/snm/scripts/printfriendly.jsp?D=16480) with 10 stamps in one picture. (Souvenir sheets should be distinguished from souvenir cards, which are souvenirs of a philatelic meeting or exhibition but are not valid for postage.)
- first day covers - (FDCs) - envelopes with stamps attached and canceled on the first day that the stamp was issued. Most modern FDCs bear designs, called "cachets," related to the theme of the stamp issued, although the earliest do not. The first cacheted FDC was produced by prominent philatelist and cachetmaker George W. Linn in 1923, for the Harding Memorial stamp issue. Cachetmaking is considered an art form, and cachets may be produced by using any number of methods, including drawing or painting directly onto the envelope, serigraphy, block printing, lithography, engraving, laser printing, attachment of photographs or other paper memorabilia, etc.. The largest and best-known cachetmaking companies, which typically produce thousands or tens of thousands of printed cachets for U.S. stamp issues, are Artcraft, Fleetwood, House of Farnam, and Colorano.
- First Day Ceremony Programs - these are folders or brochures given out to attendees of the First Day Ceremonies of postage stamps, with historical information on the stamp, a list of speakers, and an attached stamp, canceled on the First Day of Issue. Collectors of "FDCPs" generally prefer their programs autographed by those who spoke at the ceremony.
- souvenir pages - with first day cancelled stamps on a page describing all design, printing and issuing details. This is similar to first day covers except that it is done on a printed sheet of paper instead of an envelope, and the specification of the stamp is printed by the official source. See picture of first souvenir page in the US (http://www.stampprof.com/sp/sp72-00a.gif).
- Topical - many collectors choose to organize their philatelic collection on the theme of the stamps, covers, or postmarks. Popular topical themes are animals, dogs, cats, butterflies, birds, flowers, art, sports, olympics, maps, Disney, scouting, space, ships, Americana (topics relating to the US), stamps on stamps, famous people, chess, and many others. For more information see American Topical Association (http://www.americantopicalassn.org/) and Philately.
- Philatelic literature
- Government issued material associated with postage stamps (e.g., envelopes)
- stamp-like labels
- non-stamp items picturing actual postage stamps
- non-stamp items picturing stamp-like labels
- counterfeit/forged postage stamps (Before purchasing a rare and valuable stamp for which there is any doubt as to authenticity, it is always advisable to obtain an expert's certificate stating that the stamp is authentic. The most prominent stamp expertising organizations in the U.S. are the Philatelic Foundation and the American Philatelic Society.) There are several types of collectible faked postage stamps:
- postal counterfeits are produced by criminals for fraudulent use as postage stamps; frequently, these are scarcer than the stamps which they were intended to represent
- forgeries of rare stamps
- reprints are produced by government printing offices or private organizations using the plates used to produce the original stamps; stamp catalogues often contain information on how to distinguish reprints from the originals
- faked stamps are common stamps which have been altered to resemble rare stamps; examples of such "fakery" include forged overprints, forged cancellations, chemical alterations of a stamp's color, added perforations.
- postmarks or postal markings in general
The first postage stamp, the One Penny Black, was issued by Britain in 1840. It pictured a young Queen Victoria, was produced without perforations (imperforate), and consequently had to be cut from the sheet with scissors in order to be used. While unused examples of the "Penny Black" are quite scarce, used examples are common, and may be purchased for $25 to $150, depending upon condition.
Children and teenagers were early collectors of stamps in the 1860s and 1870s. Many adults dismissed it as a childish pursuit.
During the late 1800s many of those collectors, now adults, began to systematically study the available postage stamps and published research works on their production, plate flaws, etc.
It was not until the 1920s that publicity about valuable stamps encouraged a large increase in the number of stamp collectors. This rapid increase in postage stamp values was largely due to very few of the older stamps being saved in good condition. Especially difficult to find were pairs, triples, and large blocks of older stamps.
Because many U.S. stamp issues of the 1920s rose rapidly in value, during the 1930s many American collectors stockpiled mint U.S. stamps with the hopes of selling them for a sizeable profit in a few years' time. This never materialized. Even today, more than 60 years later, one can find many 1930s U.S. issues in mint condition for close to face value, and many stamp dealers and collectors still use stamps issued as far back as the 1930s for postage when mailing letters.
Most U.S. postage stamps issued since the 1930s are easy to obtain and have minimal value. Some high face value stamps, such as the $2.60 United States Graf Zeppelin issued in 1930, are worth substantial amounts of money. Other stamps issued since 1930 that are usually worth something are souvenir sheets from popular countries, hard to find plate number coils, and errors in printing.
Future of stamp collecting
It has become commonplace to declare that the future of stamp collecting is bleak, due to the increasing popularity of e-mail and other electronic forms of communication. However, both the telegraph and telephone were revolutionary alternatives to physical mail when introduced in the 19th century, yet did not spell the end of stamps on mail. Also, collectors tend to be just as interested in old stamps as new ones, and they would not stop collecting just because no new stamps were being introduced; on the contrary, in forums such as the letters page of Linn's Stamp News, many collectors complain that are too many new types of stamps to keep up with each year, and that the flood seems to be increasing rather than decreasing.
There are thousands of organizations for collectors, ranging from local stamp clubs, to special-interest groups, to national organizations. Most nations of the world have a national collectors' organization of some sort; the American Philatelic Society in the United States is an example.
Stamp catalogs are the primary tool used by serious collectors to organize their collection. There are hundreds of different catalogs, most specialized to particular countries or periods. Several major catalogs have worldwide coverage: