Stamp Collecting

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In both common sense and the leisure sciences, stamp collecting (philately) is considered a hobby, a systematic, enduring pursuit of a reasonably evolved and specialized free-time activity having no professional counterpart. Hobbies are also regarded as a type of serious leisure, which contrasts with hedonic, or casual leisure. Thus, hobbyist stamp collecting is more than the mere accumulation of stamps. It is the active, selective, and long-term acquisition, possession, and disposition of these collectables. To do this well requires extensive knowledge of stamps and perseverance in finding them.

The Origins of Stamp Collecting

The first government postage stamp appeared in England in 1840, an idea that quickly caught on in other countries. Robert Obojski ("Stamps and Stamp Collecting") observes that "the idea for the adhesive postage stamp was first suggested by the English schoolmaster and civil servant Rowland Hill as one of the many postal reforms in Britain in 1837. Hill's conception, for which he was later knighted, was derived from similar labels that had been issued almost a century earlier in many parts of Europe to collect a tax on newspapers." The first stamp in the United States was printed in 1847. By 1860, most nations were using postage stamps, at first imitating British design by portraying heads of state or symbols or artistic designs of national significance. Today, according to Obojski, nearly all countries issue large colorful pictorials, mainly to gain revenue through sales to collectors.

Steven Gelber writes that, in the United States, stamp collecting and industrial capitalism arose simultaneously, for the minting of stamps began at about this time. He goes on to say: "Stamp collectors transferred to the leisure sphere the discourse that defined the meaning of industrial capitalism and used the language and images of the marketplace to legitimize both work and leisure. By making their leisure like work, they could bring to it all the honor accorded productive activity in a work-oriented society," (p. 743). But in the middle of the nineteenth century, though men dominated the paid labor force, women and children were nonetheless the first to collect stamps, expressing principally an aesthetic rather than an economic interest in them. More than twenty years elapsed before men began to take an interest in philately, stimulated in good part by the fact that stamps were becoming differentiated according to monetary value as an expression of their age and rarity. So, in the late nineteenth century, the number of men in this hobby began to surpass the number of women, creating an imbalance in stamp collecting that, according to a rare survey of collectors, persists to this day. Surveys by Allan Olmsted and the American Stamp Dealers Association suggest that only between 5 and 7 percent of North American stamp collectors are female.

Although the male vision that old and rare stamps offered a good investment tended to obscure their appreciation of them as beautiful, many men nevertheless claimed to see educational benefits springing from philately. Moreover, besides being educational, such collecting was believed to enrich social life and promote positive personal values. These special practical benefits from leisure were held to enhance the work ethic and make the hobbyist more successful on the job. Gelber cites a handful of studies that support the claim of educational benefit.

Stamp Collecting in 2004

Once in full swing, the hobby of stamp collecting generated a familiar set of specialties. Modern collectors strive to fill albums on whose pages are found printed representations of each stamp issued over the years by national postal services (though some are worldwide collectors, most stick to one or a few countries). Other collectors, however, prefer to acquire first-day covers (envelops franked with newly issued stamps and postmarked on day of issue at city of issue) or specialize in commemorative stamps. The latter has led to topical collecting—amassing stamps that feature certain themes or subjects (such as art, sports, birds, flowers, aviation, famous people). Missing stamps in a collection may be sought by trading with other collectors or by purchasing them directly from dealers or indirectly through catalogues. In all this, "scientific" collectors have always looked for authenticity and absence of repair and artificial enhancement.

Although the hobby is an individualistic undertaking, many collectors are also organized. The American Topical Association (established in 1949) exists for collectors interested in commemorative stamps; its 6,000 members receive a bimonthly periodical and enjoy access to specialized handbooks. The more sweeping American Philatelic Society (established in 1886) is, with over 50,000 members from 110 countries, one of the largest hobbiest groups in the world. It, too, publishes a monthly journal, The American Philatelist. Individual trading of stamps is normally a local practice, however, which is facilitated by easily accessible school and community collectors clubs. Linn's Stamp News, a weekly periodical, provides a wide range of practical information, including lists of local stamp clubs, glossaries of philatelic terms, guides to foreign exchange, tables of stamp grades, and lists of stamp-issuing entities. The Internet offers extensive electronic contact with the various stamp-collecting organizations as well as with sites offering information on getting started in the hobby, dealing with certain collectors' problems, and finding reading material on stamp collecting.

Scientifically, far more is known about the history of philately than about its status in 2003. Contemporary sociology and psychology—the two disciplines most likely to take an interest in it—have all but neglected this hobby. Allan Olmsted's study of readers of the catalogue mailed out by the Saskatoon Stamp Centre and a somewhat earlier interview study conducted by the American Stamp Dealers Association (discussed by Olmsted) account for most of the research in this area. Olmsted said the findings of both studies were very similar. His study revealed that philatelists tend to be city dwellers, predominantly male, and significantly older and more highly educated than the general population. Over 30 percent of his sample had postgraduate education. In harmony with these findings was the observation that collectors, unless retired, are disproportionately employed in professional, managerial, and technical occupations.

Olmsted found that 75 percent of his respondents spent more than three hours per week with their collections, and in 1986 (the year of his survey), nearly twothirds spent more than $500 per year pursuing their hobby. Moreover, 78 percent of the sample had started collecting stamps by age fifteen, supporting, thereby, the proposition that people can find a substantial nonwork career in serious leisure.

According to Olmsted's study, people collect because they enjoy the beauty of stamps and value the education they gain from them. Respondents said collecting stamps is like traveling to another country, where they learned about its heroes, cities, and geography, and got to glimpse its culture. Moreover, to collect stamps was to feel the challenge and excitement of hunting for missing items, obtaining them at a good price or fair exchange, and building something personal: one's very own collection. Indeed, a nagging fear was completing the collection, thus leaving the poor collector with nothing further to do. A beloved hobby brought to fruition. But most of all, the respondents said they collected stamps because it was relaxing. As for the investment motive, this sample by and large scorned the idea.

The Future

As of 2003, the future of stamp collecting, at that time one of the world's best-known hobbies, was unclear. Widespread use of commercial couriers, franking machines, electronic mail, and facsimile transmissions had reduced the need for stamps and, consequently, the revenue that national postal systems gained from selling them. The use of stamps was more and more the exclusive province of individuals and households, where such commercial and electronic devices were still uncommon (although this was least true for electronic mail). In their private lives, many people still sent letters, parcels, postcards, greeting cards, photographs, and the like by ordinary mail, using stamps to accomplish this.

Thus, at the consumer end, the need for the postage stamp seems likely to continue for some time. It also seems likely to continue for some time at the producer end, as a service to consumers and as a mechanism whereby events, people, and environmental features of national importance can be publicly commemorated in cheap and visible fashion. Obviously, there will be fewer stamps in circulation as the need for them continues to decline, even if the number of different stamps printed each year will probably remain the same, though with smaller runs of each issue. Unless the number of collectors declines—which might happen if stamps become less visible in contemporary life than in the past—the hunt for stamps may become more intense, given that there will likely be fewer stamps per collector to acquire. Which, in turn, could increase overall satisfaction in the hobby, however, for the hunt has always been a significant part of the fun of collecting.

See also: Coin Collecting, Collecting, Hobbies and Crafts


Gelber, Steven L. "Free Market Metaphor: The Historical Dynamics of Stamp Collecting. Comparative Studies in Society and History 34 (1992): 742–767.

Obojski, Robert. "Stamps and Stamp Collecting." Microsoft Encarta Encyclopedia Standard 2001.

Olmsted, Allan D. "Stamp Collectors and Stamp Collecting." Paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the Popular Culture Association, Montreal, March 1987.

Robert A. Stebbins