The postage stamp was the invention of Rowland Hill who devised a system based on prepayment to replace the complicated, confusing, and fraud-ridden system inherited from Britain's pre-industrial age. The first "penny black" was issued in 1840, and since then, the technology has been adopted worldwide. As early as 1860, collecting postage stamps had become a popular hobby in Europe and America as well as in Britain. Someone who starts a stamp collection today is joining a huge number of people all round the world with access to all the accumulated knowledge that has been assembled by and for this community.
For the beginner, as with swimming, the best thing is to jump right in but only stick to the shallow end to start with. Those interested in stamp collection should be aware about basic equipment to buy, how to go about organizing a collection, and the kind of things to look out for when thinking about stamps as items of financial value.
Starting a Collection
For many people, stamp collecting is a pastime that begins in childhood. Sometimes the attraction can be as simple as the colourful pictures seen on special issues or a curiosity about the events commemorated by such a stamp. For other people it may have been a way of following the overseas travels of a relative, such as a serviceman or a seaman. Another common starting point is inheriting someone else's collection and continuing their interests. Whichever it is to be, some basic equipment is necessary.
Stamp Collecting Equipment
The first thing that is needed, after stamps, is a stamp album to keep the collection in order. There are generic ones, country-specific ones, and occasionally, vintage ones. Sometimes, sellers include stamps with the album being sold, and that can be a nice bonus. To place stamps on album pages, the usual method is to use gummed hinges.
To start shaping the collection, a good way of getting a sense of the breadth of the subject, and also what makes some stamps more valuable than others, a book such as the Stanley Gibbons Stamp Catalogue is worth getting hold of. It does not matter if it is not the latest edition, within reason. For one thing, stamps seldom sell for the "catalogue value", and for another, the orderly arrangement of material is as useful as any specific price information, especially for beginners. Finally, a couple of tools that can come in useful are a pair of tweezers and a magnifying glass.
Collecting Stamps for Recreation
Beginners can enjoy a rewarding hobby without worrying too much about questions of value. As with many collecting pursuits, a stamp collection is likely to reflect the personal interests of the collector. For young people developing their sense of the world, an additional attraction is that it is a relatively cheap activity to get started with. Two popular approaches are to focus on a single country or a specific historical period. A third way is to develop a more personal theme.
Like banknotes, stamps are an expression of the state, so every stamp issued is associated with a specific country. Since the major nations have been issuing stamps since the mid-nineteenth century, any one of them has issued a substantial number. It is difficult to be precise, but one estimate suggests that over half a million have been issued worldwide. In the case of British stamps, one way of focusing a collection is to concentrate on individual monarchs' reigns. Sellers often catalogue their wares this way.
By Historical Period
Alternatively, there are plenty of well-defined historical periods that can act as the focal point of a collection. Britain is unusual in using an image of the monarch on every issue. Periodicity in other countries is defined in different ways, and sometimes these are not obvious. The attraction of collecting by historical period though is that one need not pay so much attention to national boundaries. Some well-known events, typically wars, can form an interesting context for the assembling of a collection.
There is a crossover between countries, periods, and themes, but the idea of building a collection around a theme is that it gives much broader scope in terms of time and place. Some common genres in pictorial stamp issues include celebrities of one kind or another, plants and animals, notable buildings, inventions and machinery, craft objects like musical instruments, and athletic pursuits
As Postal Memorabilia
Rather than focusing solely on stamps, another related collecting strategy is to pay attention to a larger picture. This approach engages with the culture of postal communication, and often involves stamped, handwritten envelopes. These might connect family members, or they might be in the hand of famous individuals.
One further category that attracts some collectors is the so-called "Cinderella" stamp. This refers to stamp-like tokens that have been issued in various places and various times for reasons as varied as political activism and charitable fundraising. The key thing is that they are not issued by state postal authorities, and therefore have at most a local value as stamps.
Collecting Stamps for Value
For the beginner, collecting for value is an aspiration rather than a realistic near-term goal. Nevertheless, it makes good sense to acquire some knowledge of the kinds of things that serious collectors are looking for.
Some Issues Affecting Stamp Value
There are a number of factors that affect the value of a stamp. Some of them are simple and straightforward, while others are rather more abstruse, and definitely the province of experts.
As with most collectors' items, a stamp's condition is one of the most important considerations, especially with unfranked ones. Briefly, stamps are either franked or unfranked, meaning, essentially, used or unused. Unfranked stamps are more highly prized, but they need to be in good condition both front and back. The original adhesive should be theoretically usable though some early stamps had none.
Although franking reduces the value of a stamp in most cases, partly because implicitly the stamp is now attached to an envelope, there are exceptions. Some franking marks are intrinsically interesting for historical or geographical reasons. Also, franking can be a collecting topic in its own right. Finally, first day covers, a complete set of a special issue posted on the day of issue, depend on franking for their authenticity.
Phosphor, applied in a thin coat to the surface of a stamp, is visible under ultraviolet light, and is used to aid the task of mechanical sorting. British stamps first appeared with phosphor bands in 1959, and the technique is now used worldwide. Occasionally, a printing of stamps has been issued with the phosphor missing, and these are valuable owing to their rarity. A word of caution though, soaking stamps can remove the phosphor and so mislead an unwary collector.
Watermarking is a technique used to aid the authentication of value-added paper, such as banknotes and stamps. A commonly used symbol in British issues is a crown. Sometimes, the same stamp is printed in separate runs on paper with two or more different watermarks, and collectors regard these as separate issues. Detecting watermarks is easy in principle, but it requires a watermark detector, Unusual or erroneous watermarks are one of the most sought-after collectors' items.
Some stamps are valuable simply because they are rare. Age is not an especially reliable indicator, since stamps have always been a mass commodity. However, most of the world's most valuable stamps were issued in the nineteenth century. Usually, their rarity owes to a production error that was not detected until some of the stamps reached circulation.
Buying Stamps and Collectors' Materials on eBay
For the true beginner, a good way to start is by using the search window on eBay's home page and entering "stamp album". You might have the reflex to put "albums" because you want to see a selection, but the search engine treats "album" and "albums" separately, and that might affect your results. Sometimes sellers list small collections as albums; as previously mentioned, you can get a leg up by buying an album complete with a selection of stamps to get you going.
For more experienced collectors, the search engine can take you wherever you want to go within reason. Pay attention to the filtering options that appear on the results page because these can often take you quickly to what you are looking for. For example, British stamps are usually categorised by reign, so you can quickly home in on, say, Victorian stamps. Usually, these filters are populated by volume. If there is not one for the item you are searching for, there may be none available, or else you require a different search term. Play around with search keywords and filters to help you find the stamps and materials you need.
From the beginning of postal history, it has been an objective of stamp-issuers to make the cost of making a stamp, and therefore its intrinsic value, as small an element in the overall price of delivery as possible. It is rather wonderful, therefore, that these objects have found an afterlife in which they can become highly prized both in monetary terms and as cultural or historical memorabilia.
There is a great deal to learn in order to get the best out of stamp collecting, but the process is rewarding in terms of personal satisfaction and can grow to be financially rewarding too. The important thing is to work to a plan and be realistic and practical. Seek expert advice, but try to avoid relying on single authorities. Get the right equipment, and learn how to use it. That way, a modest start can develop into a large scale, long-term, and continually satisfying stamp collection.