Philately is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as "the collection and study of postage stamps". The Chambers Dictionary goes a little further and defines it as "the study and collection of postage and revenue stamps, related labels, etc". While the term encompasses the popular hobby of stamp collecting, an in-depth study of the items per se is the key aspect of philately. The word has a French origin as philatélie, coined in 1864 after stamp collecting became popular. It is derived from the Greek philo- (love of) and ateleia (exemption from payment). In context, it refers to the use of a franking mark or postage stamp as a means of exempting the recipient of a letter or package from payment, the sender having paid for the service in advance by buying the mark or stamp. Until the introduction of postage stamps in 1840, postage was always paid by the recipient.
Stamp collecting began almost as soon as postage stamps were introduced in Great Britain by the General Post Office (GPO) on 1 May 1840. It remains a popular and relatively inexpensive hobby, even though e-mail has drastically reduced the number of letters sent via postal services. Collectors often see the stamps as tiny works of art but it is said that there are as many reasons for collecting as there are stamps. The tools needed are fairly simple and the main need is for a stamp album. To assist identification of each stamp, various stamp catalogues are available, most notably those published by the Stanley Gibbons company of London.
Apart from purely technical considerations such as watermarking and perforation, the study of postage stamps is essentially concerned with their issuing authorities. A postal historian needs an extensive knowledge of the boundaries and allegiances within which an authority has operated. While the standard issuing authority is a national organisation like the GPO or the United States Postal Service (USPS), many have owed their existence to factors such as political change or military intervention. The postal authorities encourage interest in their country's postal and social history through frequent commemorative issues in addition to the routine definitive issues.
Development of postal services
Since the beginning of writing, communication between people has been around. The evidence indicates that China had postal services since 4000 BC. Egypt and Assyria followed a millennium later. Many of these services were limited to the court even to the point of death if a commoner were to use them. Examples of letters in the form of clay tablets written in cuneiform have survived the ages. In 1925 a stash of such tablets were found in Kultepe, Turkey and were dated as far back as 2000 BC.
The Chinese were the first to use paper as writing material while the Romans of the 2nd century wrote theirs on wax tablets and later used thin sheets of wood. Egyptians as it is well noted preferred papyrus, while Europe favoured parchment until the introduction of paper in the 15th century.
Postal services have been around since the Middle Ages in Europe. Many of these were operated specifically for certain guilds, universities or great religious houses. One particular group whose service lasted for over 420 years was Thurn and Taxis. Their range extended from the Baltic to the Adriatic and from Poland to the Straits of Gibraltar. These services eventually became extinct or were annexed when state services were established.
War campaigns also precipated the advent of the postal services by the simple expedient of the need to keep in touch with one's generals during war-time. Henry VII had such a service in the late 15th century while Henry VIII's war against the Scots set up the basics of the service along the Great North Road. Finances also played a part in its creation as Charles I opened the Royal Mail to general public as a means to raise money without recourse to Parliament, which he had dissolved. This service was revamped after the Restoration of the Monarchy in 1660.
Postal service in America was first developed in November 1639 when Richard Fairbanks became Postmaster to the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Virginia followed in 1657, then New York in 1672, Connecticut in 1674, Philadelphia and New Hampshire in 1683. In 1691 these services were united under Thomas Neale as Deputy Postmaster General (under the Postmaster General in London).
The Romans used light carts which rattled over paved roads to carry mail but during the Dark Ages this system fell into disuse which meant that mail was more often carried either by foot or by horse posts. This continued well into the 19th century and the term 'postmaster' originally meant 'horse-hirer'. The age of steam dawned in the 1830s and rail began to supersede horses and coaches while sailing packets gave way to the first steamships. Despite improvements in timeliness of delivery, the cost of sending mail remained prohibitively high until 1840 when national postal services underwent a revolutionary change.
The postage stamp
In the past it was the receiver and not the sender who paid for mail received. The existing system was a costly and cumbersome process. Depending on the weight of the letter and the distance travelled a letter could cost almost as much as a full day's work for a commoner. Much of the mail would be refused at the receiver's end as the cost was so exorbitant. This in turn cost the post office just as much to collect the amount owed.
Sir Rowland Hill is credited with the reforms that changed postal history forever. He believed that if more people could send letters then it would also encourage them to read and therefore improve their lives. He also felt that the current postal system was fraught with inequities and that the commoner was the one to suffer. He began to work on his system in 1837 with the publishing of his book, "Post Office Reform: its Importance and Practicability". In this book he advocated prepaid postage and a uniform rate of 1 penny per half ounce letter. He had also suggested that the indication of payment would be affixed to the letter and thus the idea for the first adhesive postage stamp came into existence. Due to his efforts The British Treasury was authorized to implement a plan for an affordable postal service as put forth by Sir Rowland Hill. After much time and preparation the Penny Black as it is now known was issued on May 1, 1840 (for use on May 6). The Two Pence Blue was in use from May 7, 1840 onwards.
The Penny Black was designed by William Mulready. He based his design on an earlier work by William Wyon, which portrayed the head of Queen Victoria on a medal. The general populace welcomed the new additions to the postal service and it took some time for supplies to catch up to the demand.
Brazil was the first country to follow Britain's lead with its Bull's Eyes stamp of 1843. In actuality the New York City Dispatch Post had been using 1c stamps portraying George Washington a year earlier. The owner of this private local service, Henry Thomas Windsor, was an Englishman who imported the idea from his country. Some of the Swiss cantons also used stamps as early as 1843 - 1845. In 1845 the US Post office sanctioned the issuance of stamps by postmasters. Two years later the first federal issue consisted of 5c and 10c stamps portraying Benjamin Franklin and George Washington respectively. Mauritius was the first British colony to implement the use of adhesive stamps in 1847. Bavaria, Belgium and France produced their first stamps in 1849 and by 1853 they were in use on all continents.
Artistry of philatelic works
All hobbies have basic requirements. Equipment needed for stamp collecting begin with a magnifying glass and tongs/tweezers with flattened ends. As you progress into the hobby you'll want to be able to differentiate the stamps based on the perforations. A gauge can come in the basic plastic or metal format and can be as sophisticated as an electronic device. One can also purchase a colour key to help in the identification of stamps.
There are different methods of storing and displaying stamps as well. Most collectors use stamp albums to display their collections. There are stock albums, hinges and inserts that are used. Stock albums have transparent strips for stamps on pages. To facilitate the addition of new stamps and rearrangement stamp sheet inserts can be used in conjunction with a three-ringed binder. In the past collectors used stamp hinges for displaying with varying levels of success. Stamps could and have been damaged by the use of hinges and caused devaluation of the stamp. Mounts are another alternative to display stamps individually without the need of hinges.
Another needed item is a stamp catalogue to assist in identifying the stamp. There are a few well known and credited groups such as Scott and Stanley Gibbons who produce catalogues yearly. These catalogues are invaluable in finding out the history behind a stamp and its value. Most entries also include an introduction into the history of the country as well as any currency changes. Specific books will also help with alphabets of various countries as well as different markings that were used.
The more advanced collector may be interested in investing in a UV lamp as well as a watermark detector. There are a variety of tools on the market available to stamp collectors.
The beginner may want to start off with a basic set which includes most of the equipment needed and simply expand as the interest flourishes.
Types of collections
There are a variety of methods to arrange a stamp collection. Sorting stamps by utilizing the numbering methods used by Scott or Stanley Gibbons is one way to display a stamp collection. Other ways of organizing them is according to a variety of topics, countries or even years, just to name a few variations.
Stamps are often sorted into specific categories and according to topics such as Wartime Mail, First Day Covers or even common design types.
Certain collectors have been known to try to collect stamps from their birth year, while others combine all dinosaur, automotive or bird topicals.
Another facet that is a known collectible are date stamps. Many find the intricacies of various date stamps and cancels just as interesting as the stamps themselves.
The most important facet of types of collections is making it specific and meaningful to the collector no matter which sorting method used.
Trading and buying
- Oxford, p. 1076.
- Chambers, p. 1139.
- Chambers: The Chambers Dictionary, 10th Edition (2006). Edinburgh: Chambers Harrap. 978-0-550101-85-3.
- Gibbons: Postage Stamp Catalogues (various; 1865 to present). London: Stanley Gibbons Ltd.
- Mackay, James: The Complete Guide to Stamps & Stamp Collecting (2005). London: Southwater Publishing. 978-1-844768-57-8.
- Oxford University: Oxford English Dictionary, 11th Edition (2004). Oxford: Oxford University Press. 978-0-198608-64-6.
- Rossiter, Stuart; Flower, John: The Stamp Atlas (1986). London: Macdonald. 978-0-356108-62-9.