Admit it. You’re secretly intrigued by the idea of collecting stamps, aren’t you? It’s at least crossed your mind. Otherwise you wouldn’t have just clicked that headline.
It’s OK, relax, I won’t tell anyone. But I can see that something’s holding you back. Maybe it’s our image problem. Maybe you have questions and you don’t know who to ask. Maybe you just haven’t got around to it.
It’s definitely our image problem.
Well, you need to know that stamp collecting (also known as philately) is currently enjoying a boom among returning collectors and newbies. Even – wait for it – young people. So if you need a nudge, now is a great time to jump in. I’m here to reassure you that there are things they didn’t tell you about stamp collecting.
Who are ‘they’? ‘They’ are the people who gave you the impression that you can’t, or wouldn’t want to, be a stamp collector. ‘They’ are the people responsible for the image that just popped into your head when I said ‘stamp collector’.
To help you out, here are the answers to some questions that I’ve either actually been asked, or that I imagine you asking your screen right now.
Can I collect stamps? Am I allowed?
Yes. You don’t need anyone’s permission, and you don’t need to apply for membership. Philately involves people of every culture, religion, age, gender, sexuality and walk of life. It might look daunting from the outside, but we’ll be here to help.
Don’t I have to be rich?
No. The rich guys make headlines, but you can enjoy yourself without spending much money at all.
But I’ll be a nerd!
It’s true that philately calls for some use of the grey matter. But does that make you a nerd? You might have an appreciation for graphic design, a talent for craftwork, or an interest in historical artifacts. You might have a canny eye for a bargain, or maybe you’re a bounty hunter who enjoys the satisfaction of drawing up a hit-list and ticking it off. Tennis champions, chart-topping pop stars: you’d be surprised who we count as one of us. At this time in history, idiots are running the show and expertise is derided. If you have a brain, the most revolutionary thing you can do is use it.
But do I have to go to nerd meetings?
Not necessarily. You can choose to keep totally to yourself. But you have the option to enjoy the hobby in the company of local collectors (some of whom, I’ll admit, may be nerds), or get involved with the burgeoning online philatelic community. In other words, jump on Twitter and Instagram with the other cool kids!
Aren’t stamp collectors all old men?
I’m guilty of making jokes along these very lines, because what we call ‘traditional philately’ tends to skew old and male. But there have always been female collectors among us, and these days, younger people are being drawn to the hobby, especially in its online form. Dealers are reporting that many of those newer, younger collectors are female. We’re not as Old Man as we used to be. (And for the record, the vast majority of the old men are really quite nice.)
Are there rules?
Rule number 1: learn to store your collection correctly so that it does not get damaged.
Rule number 2: there are no further rules.
So do you try to collect every stamp in the world?
Not at all! It wouldn’t be possible. You decide the scope of your collection. Collect whatever you want. You can collect by country, era, topic, shape, color, or have no parameters at all and just choose stamps that you like. You can even forget the stamps and get into postcards, envelopes, historical letters… sorry, you’re still nervous. I got a bit excited there.
I’m not really into all those old queens and presidents.
That’s fine. Stamps have long depicted sport, art, animals, flowers, trains, planes, celebrities and political propaganda. These days you can find rock legends, fashion designers, comics, street art, and movie posters. Find your thing and go nuts.
Should I soak stamps off the mail when they arrive?
You can, but how often do you get letters these days? You’ll need other sources. And before you start soaking, be aware that a growing trend in the hobby is to keep stamps on their envelopes. (We call them covers.) Anyway, modern adhesives can make soaking almost impossible. But don’t let me stop you. Like I said: no further rules.
What are these other sources?
Stamp dealers, online auction sites, friends, workplaces, local stamp shows or stamp clubs (once COVID-19 has passed, of course). Real-world auctions when you’re ready to level up.
What stamps should I buy as an investment?
Ha! If it was that easy, we’d all be rich. Philately has trends; the flavor of the month today might be in the bargain bin tomorrow. Treat with extreme suspicion anyone selling you stamps as a guaranteed investment – especially when you’re new to the game.
Investing in stamps assumes that when you come to sell, there will be buyers prepared to pay more than what you did. Scarce material that’s in excellent condition – ie the stuff that’s already expensive – generally holds its value. Buying direct from the post office is a great way to collect material in perfect condition, but recent history suggests you probably won’t get all your money back. You can try to identify underappreciated material and grab it while it’s cheap, hoping the market catches up to you. Or jump in on a developing country, because demand tends to increase as middle class income improves. But whatever your approach: cool your jets. You wouldn’t make any other investment without taking time to do some research. Investing in stamps is no different.
Oh, and here’s a rule of thumb: when you spot something on Ebay described as “RARE!!!!”, I guarantee you it’s not.
I have an old stamp collection. Am I rich?
Funny you should ask, I wrote a whole piece about it! Short answer: probably not, but it’s a great way to start collecting. Welcome aboard.
You are a very convincing blogger and I’m in! Where do I begin?
Aw shucks, thanks. In practical terms: buy a stamp album and a big bunch of random world stamps (a search for ‘kiloware’ might help), and start sorting them any way you like. This might help you figure out the direction in which you’d like to head.
In educational terms: I won’t do Google’s work for you, but there are lots of sites out there designed as introductions to stamp collecting, including those from the American Philatelic Society, Australia Post, and UK stamp catalogue publisher Stanley Gibbons. Browse through stamp chat boards like Reddit’s Philately page, Stamp Community, Stampboards or any number of Facebook groups. If you want to get involved, take the time to check each site’s rules for members. Don’t be afraid to ask questions, but also, use basic chatboard etiquette and search the site first to check whether your question hasn’t already been asked and answered. Plenty of newcomers will have been in the same boat before you.
To explore more of the world of stamp collecting, there’s a great YouTube channel called Exploring Stamps that might whet your appetite – the regular seasons generally explore a particular issue from around the world, and the Philately 101 playlist offers collecting tips.
Also: READ! Click through this blog, and those I’ve listed for further reading. (They’ll appear on the right or on the bottom, depending on your platform.) And poke through through social media sites like Twitter and Instagram and search for hashtags like #philately and #snailmailrevolution. Mmm, pretty pictures.
Welcome aboard! Now go and tell your hot babe that it’s over. You’re just not going to have the time anymore.
Did I miss anything? Ask your questions in the Comments section!
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© Philatelic product images remain the copyright of issuing postal administrations and successor authorities
Thank you for a really well written post. It is important that we attract more younger people into the hobby. I watched your APS Stamp Chat in YouTube and your enthusiasm for the hobby is infectious. The stigma – if you want to call it that – is definitely of old men poring over a Stanley Gibbons Specialist Catalogue debating some nuance or other.
I am a small dealer in the UK selling through Ebay and my own website. I retail some fairly serious stuff but I have plenty of items and collections starting at 99p. I try to encourage young people who may be on limited income to get started by offering free postage in the UK – even on 99p items.
I love air mail covers and researching them is a real delight to me. I actually did a stamp chat recently on air mail covers flown on Imperial Airways. Appearing on a You Tube channel near you soon!!
Keep up the good work. You write really well.
Thanks for the kind words, Tony, and thanks for your endeavors to welcome new faces. I fear that some dealers forget that not everyone who walks in their door (actual or cyber) knows right away what they’re after. I’m waiting for your talk to pop up on YouTube so I can catch up!
(And to anyone reading this: we’re talking about the series of talks that the American Philatelic Society has been conducting during the coronalockdown. You can find out more (and watch my talk!) at the link below. If you’re new to collecting, I’ll warn you that some of these talks may throw you into the deep end of philatelic minutiae. But maybe your brain will enjoy that.)
Fan or should I say fun tastic.. article!
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As an “old-80” stamp collector I find this really hilarious! Thanks for sharing!
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A very belated thank you for your kind comment, Sharon! I’m sure you would be able to tell some stories!
Not all stamps are postage stamps. Revenue stamps tell the story of taxation. Great history there. Think: the Whiskey Rebellion, McCullough vs. State of Maryland, financing the Union during the Civil War, helping pay for the Spanish-American War, supporting the farmers during the Great Depression, and so on. Great stories and great illustrations. And insight into our history.
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Very true Ronald! Revenues haven’t shown up much on this blog yet, but there’re definitely a big part of the story and well on my radar!
Great fun reading this post!
Stamps and stamp collecting have changed so much from when I started in this hobby (60 years ago). There are so many new varieties, topics, and countries to study, and unfortunately a lot more junk gets printed now. The thrill of this hobby never leaves and I have as more passion about stamps now then I did when I was young.
This hobby has never failed me!
Anyway, this blog was mentioned in this weekend’s Wall Street Journal which is how I discovered you. Keep up the good work!
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Thanks for stopping by, Robert!
Great work Gerard.
At long last I have made it to Nerdship.
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Wait… What’s wrong with being a nerd again?
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Nothing… but ssshhh! No one needs to know our secret! 😀