The World of Stamps & Stamp Collecting - Chapter Three

3. The History of Stamp Collecting

What’s In A Name

Stamp collecting began almost coincidentally with the issuance of stamps. An advertisement in The Times of London in 1841 spoke of a lady desiring to paper the walls of her dressing room with Penny Blacks. She asked that people send her any stamps they might have received in the mail to enable her to complete the task. It has been suggested by on philatelic wag that she could not have been much of a beauty to want so much black in her dressing room. A second figured she had a morbid disposition. And a third complimented her on her foresight: to paper a 6-foot by 8-foot dressing room would take stamps worth today about $5 million. And she didn’t pay a penny!

By 1842, stamp collecting was England’s newest fad. But it was a drawing room habit, not a serious hobby. With only a few stamps issued, it could hardly have been otherwise. Women collected in far greater proportion than men (this is still true if we are to believe the United States Postal Service surveys, though until recently men have tended to spend more money on stamps than have women). Alluding to the popularity of women collecting the Penny Black and Penny Red, both with young Queen Victoria’s picture on them, Punch quipped: “The ladies of England betray more anxiety to treasure of Queen’s heads than Henry VIII did to get rid of them.” And later, Punch again parodied people’s desire for “every spit-upon postage stamp.”

But these were stamp-savers, not collectors— hoarders to whom each new issue meant as much as the last. The distinction of a “collector” is his or her ability to discriminate and a disposition to search for favorites, preferring one stamp to another for purely personal reasons. We owe the birth of philately to the French who, in the early 1850s in Paris, were the first to really examine their stamps. (France did not issue its first stamp until nearly ten years after Great Britain; accordingly, the supply of stamps in France until 1850 was limited.) These Parisians examined the designs and looked for plate flaws, little cracks, or irregularities that appeared subsequent to the plate’s production. Later, they began to search for watermark and perforation varieties.

Stamp collectors were said to be afflicted by “Timbremania” which translates (from the French) roughly as stamp craziness. (A half-hour film on the history and techniques of stamp collecting made under the auspices of the American Philatelic Society bears this name.) But the term “Timbremania” applied to stamp lovers seemed too derogatory to the first French collectors. So, in 1864, in a Paris stamp magazine, George Herpin suggested a new name for the hobby— philately. He wanted a Greek name, he said, so that stamp collecting could be referred to in the same way all over the world. The word “philately” translates as philos (love of) and atelia (tax-free). Herpin was groping for a way to say “postage stamp” in the Greek language, where it was unknown; he chose atelia, meaning “tax-free,” because letters forwarded with stamps did not need to be paid for on delivery, so in a sense they were tax-free. Though perhaps Herpin could have chosen a better term, the hobby was ripe for a translingual name.

The Hobby Takes Hold

Major car companies in Detroit have long had an adage that their sales are only as good as their dealerships. The theory is that many people choose their car based on the quality of the dealer that they go to— his displays, prices, service, and willingness to accommodate. Philately was well served by its early dealers, especially three: Jean-Baptiste Moens in Belgium; Edward Stanley Gibbons in England, whose firm still operates today as one of the world’s largest stamp companies; and J. Walter Scott in the United States, whose firm, after being sold and resold numerous times, still survives and publishes the Scott Standard Postage Stamp Catalogue.

Moens began selling stamps actively from his bookshop in Brussels in 1848. At this time and until about 1870, nearly all of the collectors in the world collected used (cancelled) stamps. But Moens had correspondents throughout the world through whom he obtained new stamps as they were issued in mint (uncancelled) condition. Mint stamps were not the fashion in collecting, and Moens in the 1850s and 1860s virtually forced them on his better clients. Those who trusted him did very well, for within thirty years the collecting of mint stamps became popular. Many collectors who had resented Moens’s pushiness realized profits 200 to 300 times their original cost. Moens was also a prolific publisher, turning out books, pamphlets, and catalogues with speedy regularity. This interest ranged from Afghanistan to western Australia, and it can truly be said that although he profited from stamps, he loved them equally as much as he did his profits.

Not exactly the same can be said of J. Walter Scott. Though unflagging in his energy, he often thought more of the profit to be made than he did of the means to achieve it. Born in England, by 1865 he was in California during a Gold Rush. Scott’s favorite philatelic trick was to buy up the old printing plates of local United States issues. Before 1861, private companies were permitted to compete with the United States Post Office, similar to the way the United Parcel Service competes with it today, except for the fact that the pre-1861 companies were allowed to carry first-class mail as well as packages. The local carrying companies were legislated out of business in 1861, though some lingered on while in litigation. Scott would offer these defunct companies money for their old printing plates, which was certainly found money as far as the companies were concerned, since they weren’t going to print the stamps anymore. Scott would reprint the stamps and sell them, not offering them as originals, but as often as not, omitting to tell the buyer of their true status. Because they were printed on the same plates, experts rely on color (it was impossible for Scott to match the shade of the ink exactly) and paper to determine originals.

In Scott’s defense, what he was doing was common practice among many early stamp dealers. Ethical standards in philately in general were quite low, so much so that the president of one of the largest collector’s societies bragged in a signed article about how he drove around the country buying old letters from unknowing farmers at a fraction of their true value. Most of the stamp forgeries were produced during the period from 1860 to 1910, a time when the ethics of American business in general left much to be desired. Fortunately, for collectors, most forgeries are not at all convincing and can be detected by an expert knowledgeable in the field. But in this early time, fakes were rampant and were often sold as such. Most collectors then did not look at their hobby as an investment and did not hold the pure standard for philately that we do today. A collector was perfectly willing to spend 5 cents to buy a reproduction of an original that would cost $10, a price he was not able to afford. He was not fooled; neither are we. The Scott company began to be managed by an unblemished string of owners about 1900, and that tradition continues today.

In Great Britain, Stanley Gibbons had the good fortune to be born the same year that the first postage stamp was issued. He was not born on the first day, May 6, but that seems to have bothered him only a little. He loved his stamps— and other people’s too. He was a collector by fourteen, a dealer by sixteen (so he said), and by 1874 he had moved his shop to London where it still remains today. Legend has it that Gibbons was involved in one of the great stamp “finds” of all time (a “find” being a huge hoard of valuable stamps obtained cheaply). Some sailors wandered into his shop with a large sack. They had been in South Africa near the Cape of Good Hope and had come across, by whatever means the imagination might evoke, a huge sack o the old triangular issues of Cape of Good Hope proper. There were pounds of them, and with about 1,500 Cape triangulars to the ounce, there was a sufficient quantity for even Gibbons’s brisk walk-in trade. No one knows what he paid for them, though many care; some say that the firm today still sells from the famous hoard.

In the 1870s and 1880s, countless magazines appeared for philatelists. Collectors’ societies were formed. In Paris, Baron Von Ferrary, a man to whom money was no object, became interested in stamps. Ferrary collected an example of every stamp, and by the time he stopped collecting, there were not many stamps that he did not own. By modern standards, his collection would be worth perhaps $100 million, if so many rarities could be sold at full price at any one time. Ferrary bought fantasies or phony made-up stamps that were presented to him as genuine. He was no fool. Though he knew he had been deceived in some of his purchases, is drive for completion was so fierce that he chose to buy the fantasy rather than possibly pass up a variety that might later prove to be genuine.

In England, Mr. T.K. Tapling of the London Philatelic Society (later the Royal Philatelic Society) gave a collection, not much inferior to Baron Von Ferrary’s, to the British Museum where it can still be seen. In the United States, John Tiffany and John Luff were examining postal records and creating a reference collection so that collectors could know for sure just how rare an item was and whether or not it was genuine. By 1900, the causal stamp-collecting hobby of boys and girls, and the frivolous affectation of the idle, had changed to philately, the hobby of intellectual pursuit-- a hobby that held in its sway alike businessmen, doctors, lawyers, and kings.

Philately Today

When most people begin to collect stamps, they are general collectors, that is, they collect the entire world and try to get one of each particular philatelic variety. In the late nineteenth century all collectors were generalists. By the year 1900, there were only a few thousand varieties that could be collected, most of which could be purchased for less than a penny. Beginning about 1893, with the Columbian Exposition stamp issued by the United States, postal authorities discovered that stamp collectors could be a valuable source of revenue.

The stamps issued for the Columbian Exposition came in denominations of 1 cent, 2 cents, 3 cents, 4 cents, 5 cents, 6 cents, 7 cents, 8 cents, 10 cents, 15 cents, 30 cents, 50 cents, $1, $2, $3, $4, and $5. The total face value (postal value) of the set is $16.34, a princely sum in 1893 and certainly far more than the average weekly take-home pay of that time. But collectors, though they complained loudly both in the United States and abroad, needed the stamps for their collections. And the post office discovered an increasingly important fact of post office economics— that any stamp purchased by a collector will never be redeemed for postage, representing nearly pure profit for the post office (“nearly” because there are printing and distribution costs included).

This lesson was not lost on other nations’ post offices, which, like the American Post Office, have long struggled to balance revenues and outlays. Between 1894 and 1904, North Borneo— a minuscule country on the Malay Archipelago with a literate population estimated at the time to be only several hundred— issued over sixty stamps, far more than were needed for postal purposes. This trend has accelerated worldwide. Today, nations customarily issue many more new stamps than strict postal need would dictate. Some countries’ postal past is so replete with schemes to the disadvantage of collectors that even today philatelists refuse to buy their stamps. An American, Nicholas F. Seebeck, in the 1890s, received contracts to produce stamps for Salvador, Nicaragua, and Honduras. He was not paid for producing stamps; rather, he received the stamp plates and unlimited rights to produce as many stamps as he wanted for collectors, and to sell them for any price that he desired. He sold his stamps at different prices at different times, bilking collectors. To this day Salvadoran and Nicaraguan philately lies under the cloud of Seebeck.

In 1900, the London Philatelist, a prominent journal, predicted that the number of stamps that would be issued by the year 2000 would exceed 100,000. In fact, philatelic inflation proceeded far faster than that prediction, and 100,000 varieties were known to be in existence by 1930. Today stamps are printed at a pace that is estimated to exceed 8,000 different stamps per year. Many nations’ stamps are never on sale at local post offices; instead, they are brokered to collectors through philatelic agencies in New York, London, and Paris. All of this has changed philately. No one, save Croesus, can afford to even keep up with the flood of worldwide new issues, let alone expand his or her collection backward to include older issues. The situation has produced philatelists who are specialists, which means collectors who restrict themselves to the stamps of one country or one area.


Specialization is probably the major trend of modern philately. In 1950, a highly representative collection of United States stamps from 1847-1947, the first 100 years, missing only stamps that are known in quantities of less than 1,000 would have cost the collector about $5,000— a decent piece of change, but even in 1950 not beyond the scope of the average serious collector. The same collection in 1980 cost well over 100,000. When a collector can’t afford to collect the stamps of an entire nation, the logical alternative is to restrict the subject even more. Today, we see collections of United States commemoratives, which are stamps issued to commemorate events (the first commemorative issue was the 1893 Columbian); or United States Bank Notes, a collection of United States stamps issued from 1870-1889, called Bank Notes because they were printed by various private bank note-printing firms; or any number of fine divisions. One of the great pleasures of specialty stamp collecting is the hunt: specialization restricts what you collect so that the hunt remains fun while at the same time proving affordable.

Specialization has become so narrow that collections of various specific interests have been created. One prominent philatelist collects stamped envelopes addressed by famous composers and authors. Another collects only stamps cancelled on his birthday, though wisely he requires only that the cancellation be correct for the month and day, not the year; otherwise, obtaining a new item for his collection would be a major event. Many people collect stamps relating to a favorite vacation spot or to countries of their natural origin. The degree of specialization that one wishes is entirely up to the collector. Philately has no rules and, at leas tin the Western world, collectors may collect whatever they want.


Stamp collectors refer to any envelope or folded letter sheet that has seen postal duty as a cover. In the pre-stamp period, covers bear postal markings and some form of rate marking to indicate the amount of postage due or paid. In the modern era, collectors have begun an active interest in first-day covers. Such covers bear a newly issued stamp and are cancelled on the first day that the stamp was valid for postage. Before 1920, first-day covers were generally not made intentionally and are very rare, commanding huge prices. Today, first-day cover collecting is an active part of philately, and such covers usually have ornately designed cachets on them. Cachets are printed designs related to the theme of the stamp.

Thematic Collecting

Over the last twenty-five years, thematic or topical collecting has grown greatly in popularity. A topicalist collects by theme, not by country. Boats, cats, dogs, even infectious diseases (such as stamps commemorating the effort to eradicate malaria), are popular themes. But the list is really as long as the imagination is fertile. Athletes very often collect stamps relating to sports, especially as their days of hustle begin to fade. The demand for equal rights for women has made the worldwide suffrage commemorative stamps issued decades ago very popular. For years, topicals were looked down upon by serious philatelists, yet most now maintain a topical collection of their own. But remember, there are no rules for philately at all. The entire world of collecting is open to you.