The world on paper

Stamp collecting (also known as philately) remains one of the most popular hobbies in the world, and still largely affordable if one chooses to stay away from the truly scarce material.

One of the reasons perhaps is the overall availability of stamps. They come on envelopes in the mail. New releases can be picked up at the local post office. Social networking sites on the internet, such as Facebook, provide ample opportunities to trade stamps with foreign collectors.

At first, a new collector can be readily overwhelmed by the sheer numbers of stamps that have been released by various countries, starting with Great Britain who released the world’s first stamp in 1840, with the United States following suit in 1847.

Tools of the trade

The basic necessity for collecting stamps is an album. Without a means to properly organize and mount one’s stamps, it wouldn’t be a collection, but just a mess of stamps in a box.

There are albums available for almost any country, world albums, specialty albums, albums for covers (envelopes with stamps on them), or albums or binders for blank pages. A collector can even make his or her own album by simply buying a binder and hole-punching pages for it.

Albums can range in price for basic, beginner world albums for around $10, to advanced collector albums costing hundreds of dollars a set. If one is just beginning to collect stamps, start simple and start cheap.

Stamps are generally mounted using a gummed “hinge,” for used stamps. or a special mount for stamps that have never been used, to protect the gum. A pack of 1,000 hinges can generally be had for around $8 or less. Mounts are used to affix the stamp to the album page. Never glue a stamp to a page nor lick the gum to attach it as these will ruin the value of any stamp.

Several other inexpensive “tools” will also come in handy: tweezers, a magnifying glass, and envelopes to sort and store stamps in. With these, a new collector is good to go.

As the collector soon advances, other “tools” needed might include a perforation gauge (a means to count the numbers of perforations along the edges of the stamps where they are torn or cut apart from a sheet) and watermark fluid and tray (many countries use secret marks – or watermarks – to avert counterfeiting which can only been seen by using a watermark detector).

Sources of information are also a must in order to know what stamps a country issued and in what order they were released, as well as a means to attribute difficult to identify stamps. Generally, collectors use Scots Standard Catalog for all of the above purposes. They can be expensive. Also helpful for the beginner are any of the various basic guides to stamp collecting. Buy used copies or see if the local library has them.

Start simple - go ‘Topical’

There must be hundreds of thousands of different stamps in existence, with more being produced by one country or another almost every day. Accept that a complete collection of world stamps probably has never been achieved by anyone, mainly because there are several examples of which only one is known to exist.

Rather than become overwhelmed and frustrated from the get-go, many collectors start off by building a collection that may be more reasonably achievable, and the variants are endless. Themed collections are generally referred to as topical collections, because they are built around a specific topic.

Here are some examples: stamps bearing a given theme (cats, trains, ethnic heroes and heroines, sports, American Civil War-themed, stamps, Christmas, World Fairs-themed, etcetera); stamps produced during a given period (U.S. stamps of the 1930s, World War II era stamps, etcetera); and stamps demonstrating a certain type of production (embossed stamps that have been actually printed on an envelope, coil stamps developed for use in vending machines, imperforated stamps, straight edged stamps produced without the perforations along the sides, triangular stamps).

Also consider condition. Stamps that have never been used more often than not are gummed, and called mint in condition. They require special mounts, which are generally not expensive, to protect the gum. Stamps that have been cancelled are called used. Some collectors only collect used stamps because they have performed the task they were printed to do. Others collect only mint stamps because they are showier and tend to have more value in general.

Thrown in the mire are stamps called “cancelled to order,” or CTOs. These are stamps that are immediately cancelled as soon as a post office receives an order for them, and they are mainly produced only for collectors by countries who rely on hobby stamp sales to actually contribute money to their national budgets.

CTOs are usually cheap and can make for a truly showy collection, although some “purists” frown on them because many were never really printed with actual postal use in mind.

Whatever the new collector decides, it is his or her collection and he or she is in control. Set achievable goals and keep in mind this is supposed to be fun, not bank account busting.

Other resources

Rather than remain an island adrift in a sea of stamps, there are opportunities for most collectors to associate with others and learn more about the hobby, or to find other collectors to trade with.

In Gettysburg, there is the Blue and Gray Stamp Club, consisting of a mixed age group. The club meets on the third Monday of every month at 7:30 p.m. at Saint James Lutheran Church, 109 York St., Gettysburg (see “Blue and Gray Club still going strong,” right).

Schools sometimes have stamp clubs, and if none exist, start one.

For the internet savvy, social networking sites provide a chance to meet other collectors around the world ranging from beginners to advanced collectors themselves. Other groups have web sites, blogs or discussion boards. A search on the internet for “stamp clubs” or “stamp collectors” should provide an ample array of associations where a collector might consider becoming a member or frequent visitor.

Many collectors begin by subscribing to an approval service offered by stamp dealers. This service involves dealers mailing stamps in packets to a collector, who then select which ones he or she would like to keep, returning the unwanted ones with payment for those kept.

However, with the prices of stamps generally tumbling courtesy of the internet (as is the case with most collectibles), better prices are likely to be found on the web at on-line auction or store sites (such as Albums and supplies can also be found in the same manner.

As far as online auctions, refrain from becoming frustrated at being outbid. Persistence can pay off and there will always be another lot posted like the one sought. This reporter kept dogging listings seeking to buy an 1860, 10 cent U.S. stamp depicting George Washington. After losing bid after bid, one night the writer nailed one for $3. Assessed value: $275.

No matter how new or advanced a collector is, two basic principles remain the same, control and focus. Always look for the best deal no matter how long it may seem to take, and stick to one’s collection objectives.

And have fun!