Philately, or the study of stamps, is a hobby shared by millions around the world. The study of stamps often includes stamp collecting, however, many people study stamps without collecting them. Philatélie was the name given to this practice in 1864 by Georges Herpin. Derived from the original Greek root phil, which means an affinity for, and ateleia, meaning free of taxes or duties, philately became the preferred word for the study of stamps in the 1860s. The free of taxes or duties reference came about because before postage stamps were invented, the recipient of a piece of mail had to pay for it. Mail was often refused because of this arrangement. It is generally thought that England’s Sir Rowland Hill came up with the idea of prepaid postage stamps. First used in England in 1840, followed by the United States in 1847, the prepaid postage stamp system meant that only the sender paid to mail a letter. The recipient was no longer forced to pay for mail. Queen Victoria graced the first stamp in Great Britain and Benjamin Franklin was pictured on the first stamp in the United States.
Origins of Philately
Interest in stamp collecting and stamps themselves began almost as soon as stamps were first issued. The first documented account of an interest in collecting stamps was in 1841 when an ad was placed in the London Times by a young woman who asked that readers send her their canceled stamps. She had already collected 16,000 but needed more to wallpaper her dressing room. Interest in collecting stamps continued to increase as different types of stamps were issued. France turned stamp collecting into a more scholarly pursuit. The French were the first to classify stamps, placing emphasis on the variations in paper, shade, watermarks, and perforations. Facts about each stamp were recorded and published, a procedure that is still done today. As interest in stamps grew and spread to America, hobbyists began forming clubs. The American Philatelic Society (APS) was founded in 1886. The APS was the first national association of stamp collectors with international membership.
Types of Philately
Within philately, there are many specialized studies that may be pursued. The traditional or generalist form is where the following aspects of a stamp are studied:
- Stamp Design and Art Work – styles and form.
- Paper – types, watermarks, and other attributes.
- Printing – method of printing.
- Gum – the type of adhesive used on the back of the stamp.
- Perforation – how the stamp separates from other stamps.
- Overprints – additional text, graphics, or numbers on the face of the stamp.
- Markings – security markings, underprints, perforated initials, or other markings.
- Fakes and Forgeries – determining stamp authenticity.
Aerophilately is the study of all aspects of airmail – its history, uses, and related subjects. Thematic philately is the study of what is printed on the stamp, such as sports figures, animals, birds, presidents, and other themes. Postal stationery is the study of postcards, preprinted envelopes, and any other type of mail that has an imprinted postal stamp. Postal history studies postal stamps, services, means of transport, rates, and regulations throughout history. Cinderella philately concentrates on items that look like stamps, but are not, such as Easter Seals. Philatelic literature is the documentation of the study of stamps. It includes stamp catalogs, journals, newsletters, books, and other types of documents. Revenue philately is the study of the use of stamps for collecting taxes, fees, certain types of licenses, and other revenue-related uses. Maximaphily is the study of Maximum Cards. Maximum cards consist of three elements of the same or similar theme: a picture postcard, a stamp, and a postmark.
The Tools of Philately
Not everyone will require the same tools. Depending on the subject of interest, as few as two tools may be needed or as many as ten. The philately toolkit will always include a pair of tongs or tweezers. Tongs allow the user to safely manipulate stamps. A magnifying glass is useful when viewing intricate artwork and printing. As a philately student gains experience and requires more information, an authoritative stamp catalog may be necessary. Measuring tools, such as a perforation gauge, are needed for measuring perforations and stamp dimensions. For those who document stamps, a watermark detection kit may be required. In addition, color guides, similar to color chip guides for house paint, are available to aid color identification. Stamp hinges are sometimes used to affix stamps to catalogs or displays. Stamp albums are both useful and enjoyable accessories that enhance a philately student’s enjoyment.
Notable Postage Stamps
- Treskilling Yellow: The world record holder of postage stamp auction sale prices, the Treskilling Yellow was issued in Sweden in 1855. For unknown reasons, the stamp was printed in the wrong color. Only one was printed, but it made its way into circulation. In 1996, it sold for over $2 million.
- Penny Black: The Penny Black was the name given to Great Britain’s first stamp. With a cameo-like appearance, these first stamps were cut with scissors, rather than perforated. While the Penny Black is not rare, it is important historically.
- Inverted Jenny: The Inverted Jenny was issued in the United States in 1918. The Jenny was an airplane that was depicted on the stamp. The plane was inadvertently printed upside down and only one pane of 100 of these stamps has ever been found.
- Inverted Swan: Issued in 1855 in Western Australia, 388 stamps were printed with incorrect printing frames, causing part of the stamp to be printed upside down and another part tilted. Several museums display the Inverted Swan. It is thought that there are fewer than 16 in existence.
- Basel Dove: The only stamp ever issued by the Swiss Canton of Basel. Produced in 1845, the Basel Dove was designed by an architect named Melchior Belli. It was the world’s first tri-colored stamp, printed in blue, crimson, and black. These stamps are extremely rare and it is unknown how many, if any, are in existence.
- British Guiana 1c Magenta: Issued in 1856 by British Guiana (now British Guyana), this stamp is often called the most famous stamp in the world. Intended as an emergency issue, only three stamps were ever printed. There is only one in existence today.
- Edward VII 2d Tyrian Plum: Produced in Great Britain in 1910, this stamp was intended as a replacement for an existing stamp. 24 million stamps were printed, but when Edward VII died before the stamp was issued, the stock, with a very few exceptions, was destroyed. It is unknown exactly how many are in existence today, however, they are extremely rare.
- Benjamin Franklin Z Grill: A 1 cent United States postage stamp that was issued in 1868. While the design was commonplace, the Z Grill stamp was different because of the Z-shaped grill pressed into it. Done to prevent reuse of stamps, grills were soon discontinued. The Benjamin Franklin Z Grill is the rarest of United States postage stamps.
- Ceres: The Ceres was the first stamp of France. First issued in 1849, it pictured Ceres, the goddess of growing plants. The artist was Jacques-Jean Barre.
- Hawaiian Missionaries: The Hawaiian Missionary stamps were the first stamps of the Kingdom of Hawaii. They were first issued in 1851. Very few of these stamps survive today.
- Learn About Stamps: Facts and information about stamps.
- The Philatelic Foundation: Research, publications, and tips for the philatelic community.
- American Philatelic Society: The official website of the APS, the largest society of stamp experts and collectors in the world.
- AskPhil: Ask Phil, (short for philately), is a reference database and resource list to assist philatelic studies.
- Worldwide Stamp Identifier: An A-Z reference guide for identifying stamps from different countries.
- Books and Authors: Authors and literary works that have appeared on postage stamps.