Getting Started in Stamp Collecting

Stamp Collector

There’s a charming little book by Howard G. Treacher and Walter F. Gray entitled, All About Stamp Collecting: Complete Guide to Philately that, given its size, could never hope to be “complete” but that is fun to page through and that still contains a great deal of useful information. The book was first published in 1978 by Don Hirschhorn, Inc., and then there was a second edition put out in 1993 by H.E. Harris & Co., the premier American stamp dealer of that era.

It’s this second edition that I have before me as I write. As noted, the softcover book is small; while the text (with index) runs to 185 pages, the book only measures four inches wide by about five and a half inches tall. Unusually, the front cover and back cover are identical.

Chapter 1 is called, “Getting Started.” Most of it is written in the old “Hobby of Kings and King of Hobbies” vein which one rarely hears any longer, but what I found particularly interesting was this excerpt from the last paragraph of the chapter:

“Philately is a life-long and endlessly fascinating activity. It is appealing in and for itself as well as for its side benefits – relaxing recreation or lively companionship, cultural exposure and learning, orderliness, family unity, and financial gain. Whatever the purpose, the collector will enjoy the esthetic beauty of his carefully arranged stamp collection.”

Since people occasionally ask me if people still collect stamps (they do), the idea has presented itself on more than one occasion that behind this question lies another, which is, “Why do people still collect stamps?” To answer this second query, we can use the framework provided above by the assertions of Messrs. Treacher and Gray to see if they are outdated or still valid and, if so, how.

We’ll pass by the “endlessly fascinating” claim, as that’s entirely subjective – different people are fascinated by vastly different things – and start with the idea that stamp collecting is a life-long activity. In my personal experience, it can be. People become stamp collectors at any age, and those who start when they are young sometimes move on from the hobby, only to come back years (sometimes decades) later.

Relaxing recreation? Most would agree that this is true. Stamp collecting is a quiet hobby. In a 2009 article in Britain’s The Guardian, we were informed that then-French President Nicolas Sarkozy had, “taken up stamp collecting in order to cultivate a calmer image as French president.” His wife, Carla, “confided to friends that she is glad he no longer spends his evenings karaoke singing, as he used to in his bachelor days.” So yes, philately is apparently both relaxing and calming, and better than (at least) karaoke singing.

Cultural exposure and learning? Most would agree that this is also true. Alex Trebek, host of the television show Jeopardy, has on more than one occasion remarked that collectors in general do well on the show. From stamps, one learns about different countries, different historical eras, even different currencies. One sees on the postage stamps of a country representations of historical and cultural images of importance to that nation.

Orderliness is an interesting issue when it comes to stamp collecting. I’ve heard it said that one becomes a stamp collector when, failing in his or her attempt to impose orderliness on the world around himself or herself, one settles for imposing it upon at least something, that something being one’s collection of postage stamps. In my own case, I will admit that my home office presently looks as though it recently survived a small tornado, but should offer the admittedly weak argument that one never knows how much worse I would be, were it not for my interest in philately.

Family unity might now be an outdated idea although, as noted above, philately did seem to have a positive impact on the home life of the Sarkozys. The idea regarding the relationship between family unity and stamp collecting that was more in the mind of the authors of All About Stamp Collecting was portrayed in an illustration in the book of a pipe-smoking, business suit-clad Dad working on his stamp album from his easy chair while his two children, a boy and a girl, worked together on the floor on their junior album. Mom, in a cocktail dress, was perched on the arm of Dad’s chair, gazing at his activities admiringly. Woman gazingPerhaps I was born too late, or perhaps it’s just me, but neither my wife nor any other woman has ever gazed admiringly at me while I work with my stamps.

Financial gain? I’m both unable and unwilling to offer financial or investment advice in the small space allotted here. Some people have benefited financially from collecting stamps, and some people have not. It’s a complex subject which we will leave for another time, adding only that I still maintain the opinion I expressed in an article on hobbies years ago: “A hobby must be pursued, first and foremost, for pleasure, never gain.”

There is no doubt about the aesthetic beauty of a carefully arranged stamp collection, and this is not something to be taken at all lightly. Many stamps and souvenir sheets are beautiful in their own right, and a neatly-arranged stamp collection is something of which one can and should be justifiably proud. Combine that with all the other positives outlined above, and one might very well wonder why some people make the unfortunate choice of not collecting stamps.