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Intriguing World of Stamp Collecting

Updated on June 26, 2011

The "Penny Black"

Today, stamp collecting is one of the world's most popular indoor hobbies. Great Britain issued the first adhesive postage stamp, commonly referred to as the "Penny Black," on May 6, 1840. It pictured a young Queen Victoria and was produced without perforations. Therefore, it had to be cut from a sheet with scissors.

The idea of prepaid mail delivery was the brainchild of Sir Rowland Hill. The idea was so successful, by 1860 over 70 countries had adopted their use.

Stamp collecting began shortly after the first stamps were issued and by 1860 thousands of collectors were getting involved in the new craze. And it was considered a craze. The practice was originally called "timbromania," meaning "stamp madness.” One French woman supposedly wallpapered her bedroom with sheets of an early issue French stamp.

Stamp collecting swept through Europe and soon after, the world. And as more people began collecting stamps, businesses began specializing in the pastime. The first stamp albums were printed in the early 1880's. Copies of these albums can still be found.

Swedish Three-Skilling Yellow

Sold for $2,300,000 in 1996
Sold for $2,300,000 in 1996

The study of stamps is called philately. Many collectors find enjoyment and relaxation in pursuit of this intriguing hobby. Rarely are collections a hodge-podge of various stamps thrown together in an album. Most collectors specialize.

Some collect only stamps from one country, others will focus on a particular type such as commemorative stamps. Commemorative stamps are usually very colorful and depict historic or monumental events in history. They are a sort of pictorial documentary. Stamps can be displayed in a variety of ways. Some exhibit their stamps by country, topic, or even by size. There are no rules.

There are many categories to consider ranging from rare stamps to specific subjects such as airplanes, automobiles, birds and famous personages. Categories of these types can easily be collected by anyone. The creation of a comprehensive collection, however, may require some philatelic knowledge.

In either case it is advisable to learn as much as possible to identify those eagerly sought after. Some stamps such as the triangular issues of the Cape of Good Hope have become legendary as well as valuable.

Many dealers sell stamps through the Internet however, neighborhood shops are usually the best for novice and intermediate collectors. Some dealers set up week-end stamp markets called "bourses" that travel around and meet collectors at regional exhibitions and stamp shows.

Blue Mauritas

Sold for $1,148,850 in 1993
Sold for $1,148,850 in 1993

Very little is needed to start a stamp collection. Stamp tongs or rounded tweezers are a necessity. Handling stamps by hand can leave residual skin oils which can damage them. A magnifying glass is another needed piece of equipment. Even those with good eyesight will have difficulty viewing minute detailing colors, watermarks, paper differences, perforations and sometimes printing errors. Removing stamps from envelopes can also be very tricky and must be done properly so as not to tear them. Most experienced collectors will steam them off or soak them in water before trying to remove them.

Many stamps are almost identical to each other with only finely defined differences. Some of these miniscule definitions can mean the difference between a common stamp most collectors already have and one of significantly higher value.

Of course, collectors need a convenient way to store their stamps. Most use albums specifically designed for that purpose. There are several types available. Some simply have pages where stamps are mounted with stamp hinges. Although some prefer hingeless mounts for more valuable stamps. Another type of album is a “stock book” where stamps slide into clear pockets without the need for a mount. Regardless, stamps should be stored away from light, heat and moisture to avoid damage.

Many collectors find the value between a postmarked stamp and an unused one can be vast. Depending on the location and date of a postmark, it could easily be worth considerably more than one that isn’t. For this reason, when a new issue stamp becomes available some collectors will buy two of each at the post office. One postmarked and the other not.

Many beginners start by asking family and friends to save stamps for them. Sometimes a treasure trove of old letters may be found in grandma’s old attic. If duplicate stamps are found they can be sold or traded.

There are literally thousands of organizations for collectors. Local stamp clubs and special-interest groups are good sources of information. The Internet has also greatly increased information on the hobby and made it easier to obtain specific stamps and other philatelic materials. Catalogues detailing current stamp market values and pertinent information about particular stamps are the primary tool used by serious collectors and can be found in most reputable book stores.

The most complete stamp collection ever formed is said to be that of French/Austrian aristocrat Philipp von Ferrary (1850–1917) at the beginning of the 20th century. It included all rare stamps that were already issued by 1917. However, the collection was broken up and sold by the French government after the First World War, as war reparations.

Many persons of note have been serious stamp collectors. President Franklin Roosevelt, who designed several American commemorative stamps, was said to be an avid stamp collector. Others have been Freddy Mercury of the rock group “Queen” and John Lennon of the “Beatles.”

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