A Beginners Guide to Stamp Collecting
Starting a stamp collection is a lot of fun, learning all about the stamps which have been issued by the countries of the world over the years. Postage stamps are miniature works of art – colourful, well-designed and superbly printed. Some of them commemorate famous people and events, others show animals and birds, flowers, railways, ships and aeroplanes, buildings and bridges, coats-of-arms and flags, space and sport.
Stamps are educational and provide some of the nicest – and most practical – ways of learning geography and history, politics and religion, and the everyday way of life in different parts of the world. Through stamps you can also learn about the postal services and a country’s postal history and transport systems, the interest and significance of postmarks, and the modern craze for ‘covers‘ (postmarked envelopes), especially ‘first day covers‘.
YOUR FIRST STAMPS
The best advice to the novice is to buy the largest packet of whole-world stamps you can afford, together with a medium-priced album and some gummed stamp hinges to mount the stamps. This simple start will be your ‘apprenticeship’, and you will have the pleasure of sorting the stamps by country and arranging them in the album. You will be able to identify most of the stamps without hesitation: put aside any which you are doubtful about until you can trace them in the catalogue. To keep your interest alive, you will be seeking more and more stamps, and there are numerous sources of supply.
Your family and business friends may receive letters from abroad and may be persuaded to save the stamps for you. Even Guernsey, Jersey and the Isle of Man have their own distinctive pictorial stamps, which are well worth collecting.
You can buy additional packets of stamps to augment your collection, and if you buy one of the stamp magazines you will find in newsagents, you will see among the advertisements that some dealers offer to send stamps ‘on approval’. You can examine the stamps at leisure in your own home, keep those you wish to purchase and pay for them when you return the remainder.
TAKING YOUR FIRST STEPS
At this stage some of your stamps will be unused, others postally used, and it is usual to collect one or the other, not both. Mixed unused and used stamps look rather a hotchpotch in the album, while a page of unused stamps, neatly arranged, can be very attractive. However, your preference may be for ‘fine used’ (ie. lightly postmarked) stamps, which you can obtain from letters, from packets of ‘kiloware’ or purchase from dealers.
Unused stamps usually cost more as one has to pay the face value of the stamps plus the dealer’s usual commission or profit. On the other hand, some stamps – especially those from the more remote territories – are often difficult to find in postally used condition and cost more than unused ones.
You may be fortunate enough to inherit an existing stamp collection which provides a ready-made start and a foundation on which to build an even larger collection. Alternatively, a section of it – which has the most appeal – can be kept and the remainder sold off to a stamp dealer or at auction. Condition is vitally important. Nothing detracts more from the value of a stamp than a crease, a tear, a stain or a heavy postmark. Damaged stamps are usually worthless and should be discarded or replaced as soon as possible.
Unused stamps should have their original gum as issued in ‘mint’ condition by the post office, though traces of the use of a gummed hinge are generally acceptable. The ideal postmark is light (not faint) and clear, a circular town datestamp being preferable to part of a slogan cancellation. Heavy black cancellations which obliterate the stamp’s design are entirely unacceptable. Some postmarks are often more valuable than the stamps, especially if kept intact on the original cover.
Over 200 countries in the world currently issue postage stamps – ‘definitive’ or ‘ordinary’ stamps for everyday use and commemoratives or ‘special event’ stamps for anniversaries, national and local celebrities or occasions. The great dominions of Australia, Canada, India and South Africa were formed of provinces and states, each of which issued their own stamps years ago. New stamps are issued at the rate of about 9,000 a year so that the total number of stamps issued all over the world to date is truly vast.
Thus it is impossible for the collector to form a complete whole-world collection; difficult enough to complete even a representative one. But you should still persevere with your whole-world collection, getting to know as many different stamps as you can, until such times as you feel that you are ready to ‘branch out’, which, oddly enough, means concentrating upon the stamps of a certain country, group of countries or theme.
At an early stage one should know about the different kinds of stamps in general use, some for special purposes connected with postal operations, others having no postal validity at all. Definitives are often inscribed ‘Postage and Revenue‘ which means that they can also be used for fiscal or public revenue purposes, on balls and documents, licenses, receipts and telegrams. Such stamps sometimes find their way into mixed packets and, if you can identify them by the pen-marks or rubber stamps used to cancel them, should be ‘weeded out’. Other fiscal stamps are inscribed ‘revenue only’ and some people collect these in addition to, or instead of, postage stamps.
Charity or ‘semi-postal’ stamps are usually commemorations bearing an additional premium or surcharge which is accumulated by the post office and handed over to the charity – perhaps the International Red Cross or one of the campaign funds for the treatment of cancer, leprosy, tuberculosis and other diseases – to be used in medical research and the maintenance of hospitals etc. Some stamps, definitive and commemorative, are additionally inscribed ‘AIR’ or ‘AIRMAIL’ and usually bear the appropriate face value for the specific airmail fee.
Official stamps are used by Government departments and may be inscribed or overprinted ‘Official’ or, as in India and Pakistan, ‘Service’. Foreign versions are ‘Officiel’ or ‘Oficial’, ‘Dienstmarke’ (Germany), ‘Offenthg sak’ or ‘Off sak’ or simply ‘O.S’ (Norway), while Belgium’s railway officials bear the ornamental letter ‘B’. At one time British stamps were overprinted ‘Army Official’, ‘Board of Education’ or ‘I.R Official’ (Inland Revenue). The current officials and postage dues are not sold over the post office counter, but can generally be obtained, unused, through a country’s philatelic bureau.
Some countries have issued Express and Special Delivery stamps to cover the extra fees for these services. These may be inscribed ‘Urgente’, ‘Extra Rapido’ or ‘Entrega Inmediata’ in Spain and some Latin American countries or ‘Espresso’ in Italy. Among the ‘special-purpose’ stamps, which are seldom seen today are those for newspapers, parcels and registration (for registered letters), also telegraph stamps used for the prepayment of telegrams. These and some other revenue types were sometimes used postally and are then known as ‘postal-fiscals’.
‘Provisional’ stamps include those overprinted with a new country name (such as ‘Sabah’ on North Borneo) or surcharged with new values to make good temporary shortages of certain denominations. Stamps inscribed or overprinted ‘War’ or ‘War Tax’ were issued by some Commonwealth countries during World War I to raise funds to finance their military commitments. ‘Obligatory Tax’ stamps are issued to collect funds for national or charitable purposes – they have no postal validity, but their use is usually compulsory in addition to the ordinary postage stamps.
THE STAMP COLLECTOR’S BIBLE
The stamp catalogue, basically a dealer’s price-list, is a most essential work of reference for the stamp collector. It provides complete, detailed lists of all the postage stamps issued by every country in the world from the earliest days, with information about dates of issue, commemorative events, face values, colours and designs, and – if it is a fairly new catalogue – the current prices of the stamps, unused and postally used.
For the beginner and general collector the most useful catalogue is the Stanley Gibbons Simplified Catalogue – Stamps of the World. It contains all the details the average collector needs for every country. If current stamp values are not of importance, many cheap catalogues are available. Alternatively, most public libraries have a range of Gibbons catalogues which can be referred to or borrowed.
Thematic catalogues are also published covering stamps featuring Aircraft, Birds, Butterflies and Insects, Chess, Football, Mammals, Railways and Ships. For the GB collector who wishes to economise and yet keep in touch with the latest market values of his stamps, Stanley Gibbons publish three key works – GB Concise Catalogue, Collect British Stamps and Collect Channel Islands and Isle of Man Stamps. These show all the new issues and latest prices since previous editions.
THE COLLECTOR’S TOOLBOX
Your first essential item of equipment should be a pair of stamp tweezers – these are made of light plated metal with slender, flattened tips or ‘spade’ ends enabling stamps to be picked up and sorted quickly and surely.
The magnifying glass is the one tool which everyone associates with stamp collecting. Through the magnifying glass, stamp designs appear in detailed close-up and are seen to be miniature works of art. You can see the lines or cuts which make up a portrait or scene on an engraved stamp, or study the quality and peculiarities of the other printing processes – the graduated ‘dots’ of photogravure or the smooth honeycomb background of lithographed stamps. You will also enjoy looking for errors and varieties, many of which are visible only through a glass.
Perforations and watermarks will eventually concern you – differences to the normal perforation or watermark of a stamp can enhance its value, and it is necessary to be able to measure the perforation or identify the watermark if only to establish that you have the normal stamp. The perforation gauge measures the number of perforations within the measure of 2 centimetres. Perforations are a stamp’s ‘teeth’ and their measurements vary according to the type of perforating machine used.
The main instrument for detecting stamp watermarks is the human eye. The watermark is simply a thinning of the paper in the form of letters or an emblem such as a crown, and it can usually be seen when the stamp is held with the light shining through it or if the stamp is placed face down on a dark – preferably black – surface, remembering that the watermark is ‘right way round’ when viewed through the front, and in reverse when viewed through the back.
If colours or colour-names are a problem, then the novel Stanley Gibbons Colour Key will assist you. It contains 200 colour tabs, including many of the shades most likely to be encountered.
CHOOSING YOUR STAMP ALBUM
Before you purchase your first stamp album you should have some plan in your mind, even just a few thoughts and inclinations, on the likely progress and eventual scope of your collection. Most beginners buy or are given a monster packet of stamps and a printed album with a page for every country. Sooner or later you will run out of space and the surplus stamps of some countries will be scattered untidily on other pages. In these circumstances, enthusiasm may flag as the only solution is a larger album with all the work of rearranging your stamps!
Your choice of a suitable album is important. It shouldn’t be too small – for obvious reasons – and not too large because unless you have a very large collection and anticipate buying many more stamps, your existing stamps will be greatly extended and give your collection a sparse appearance. Printed albums – those with printed country headings at the top of each pages – can be obtained fastbound (like a book) or with loose-leaf ring-fitting binders. The great advantage of the loose-leaf system is that the leaves can be rearranged – and extra leaves added – as you wish. The ‘one-country‘ printed albums usually have a space for each stamp, possibly illustrated with periodic supplements.
Obviously, the affixing of the mounts by hand is a time-consuming process and hence such albums are more expensive than those which require you to affix the mounts yourself. For many collectors the convenience is well worth the extra outlay. For the ‘do-it-yourself’ collector who prefers to arrange and ‘write-up’ the collection on blank leaves there are many splendid albums in the Gibbons range to choose from. They are priced according to quality, size and capacity, and the binders are springback (which open wide to release the leaves), ring-fitting or peg-fitting.
Multi-ring albums have the advantage of lying flat when the album is opened, while it is usually necessary to take out spring-back and peg-fitted leaves when working on them. You can prepare your own country headings for blank leaves, or you can buy the special booklets of gummed country-name labels. Blank albums are of course especially suitable for thematic collecting – the pursuit of a certain subject or theme (such as birds, flowers or transport) – where the arrangement of the stamps entirely depends on the theme and its sub-divisions.
‘Stamp Starter Packs‘ are an inexpensive way of starting a stamp collection. They include an album, stamps, magnifier, tweezers and hinges.
ARRANGING YOUR STAMPS
The essence of a good stamp arrangement is neatness – stamps placed squarely in the spaces provided for them or in level, tidy rows on a blank leaf. It sounds simple – and indeed it is – but it does require care and thought. Some printed albums have stamp ‘squares’ in rows across the album page. Usually these are big enough to accommodate the majority of stamps which are invariably rectangular – horizontal or vertical – in shape. Larger stamps will extend beyond the confines of the square and in such cases the printed background should be ignored, with two stamps taking up the space of three squares. Personal preference and ingenuity should be employed!
For the average collection, gummed stamp hinges are the most convenient to use. These are small slips of gummed paper, which attach the stamp to the album page – just fold down about a quarter of the hinge, gummed-side outwards, and lightly moisten the narrow folded portion with the tip of your little finger. Attach this portion to the back of the stamp at the top, just below the perforations and then moisten the lower part of the ‘flap’ and place the stamp in its appropriate place and press down. The best hinges are ‘peelable’, but only after they have completely dried out, so if the stamp is crooked or in the wrong place, leave it a day before attempting to remove it, otherwise you may damage the back of the stamp or part of the album page.
The alternative to using hinges is the system of transparent mounts – gummed ‘pockets’ or strips – which employ the ‘slip-in’ principle with transparent fronts and black or clear backing, tailored to fit your stamp and sold in condiment singles or strips. The advantage of these is that you can keep your unused stamps in pristine mint condition, which most collectors (and dealers) now consider to be essential. The monotony of page after page of uniform rows of stamps can be avoided by paying attention to balance and symmetry. Bizarre and fanciful layouts should be avoided – invariably they waste space and lack symmetrical cohesion. Some sets of stamps contain irregular shapes and in such cases the usual order of face value (lowest to highest) can be varied row by row – horizontal designs in one row, verticals on another, or a blanked mixed row.
Country names or other page headings should be uniform throughout the album and sufficient space should be left above and below the rows of stamps for sub-headings and captions if it is your intention to write-up the collection. It is generally preferable to complete the written work before you mount the stamps (even if you haven’t got all of them).
If you wish to develop your stamp collection on more specific lines than simply accumulating stamps, there are various ways in which you can pursue a serious philatelic study. The specialist is a mature student of stamps, their design and printing, their history and postal significance, devoting his attention to one particular country, or even to one period of a country’s issues, its postal history and postmarks. It follows that a good knowledge of the four principal methods of printing stamps – recess or line-engraving, typography or ‘letterpress’, lithography and photogravure (a form of recess printing) is one of the necessary qualifications to becoming a philatelist.
But that can be for the future.