Old Stamps

collecting of postage stamps and related objects, such as covers (envelopes or packages with stamps on them). It is one of the world’s most popular hobbies, with estimates of the number of collectors ranging up to 20 million in the United States alone.


Carcassonne stamp 2000

A French stamp issued in a panoramic format.

Collecting is not the same as philately, which is the study of stamps. A philatelist often does, but need not, collect the objects of study, nor is it necessary to closely study what one collects. Many casual collectors enjoy accumulating stamps without worrying about the tiny details, but the creation of a large or comprehensive collection generally requires some philatelic knowledge.

Stamp collectors are an important source of revenue for some small countries who create limited runs of elaborate stamps designed mainly to be bought by stamp collectors. The stamps produced by these countries far exceed the postal needs of the countries.

Some collectors, observing the generally rising prices of rare stamps, have taken to philatelic investment. Rare stamps are among the most portable of tangible investments, and are easy to store.



The first postage stamp, the Penny Black, was issued by Britain in 1840. It pictured a young Queen Victoria, was produced without perforations (imperforate), and consequently had to be cut from the sheet with scissors in order to be used. While unused examples of the “Penny Black” are quite scarce, used examples are common, and may be purchased for $25 to $150, depending upon its condition.

Children and teenagers were early collectors of stamps in the 1860s and 1870s. Many adults dismissed it as a childish pursuit.

150px-Stamp Falkland Islands 1891 0.5p

Queen Victoria’s profile was a staple on 19th century stamps of the British Empire; here on a half-penny of the Falkland Islands, 1891.

During the late 1800s many of those collectors, as adults, began to systematically study the available postage stamps and published research works on their production, plate flaws, etc.

Some stamps such as the triangular issues of the Cape of Good Hope became legendary. (See Stamps of the Cape of Good Hope).

It was not until the 1920s that publicity about valuable stamps encouraged a large increase in the number of stamp collectors. This rapid increase in postage stamp values was largely because very few of the older stamps were being saved in good condition. Especially difficult to find were pairs, triples, and large blocks of older stamps.

Because many U.S. stamp issues of the 1920s rose rapidly in value, during the 1930s many American collectors stockpiled mint U.S. stamps with the hopes of selling them for a sizeable profit in a few years’ time. This never materialized. Even today, more than 60 years later, one can find many 1930s U.S. issues in mint condition for close to face value, and many stamp dealers and collectors still use stamps issued as far back as the 1930s for postage when mailing letters.

Most U.S. postage stamps issued since the 1930s are easy to obtain and have minimal value. Some high face value stamps, such as the $2.60 United States Graf Zeppelin issued in 1930, are worth substantial amounts of money. Other stamps issued since 1930 that are usually worth something are souvenir sheets from popular countries, hard to find plate number coils, and errors in printing.



It has become commonplace to declare that the future of stamp collecting is bleak, because of the increasing popularity of e-mail, other electronic forms of communication, and custom-made stamps. However, both the telegraph and telephone were revolutionary alternatives to physical mail when introduced in the 19th century, yet did not spell the end of stamps on mail. Also, collectors tend to be just as interested in old stamps as new ones, and they would not stop collecting just because no new stamps were being introduced; on the contrary, in forums such as the letters page of Linn’s Stamp News, many collectors complain that there are too many new types of stamps to keep up with each year, and that the flood seems to be increasing rather than decreasing.


Stamp collecting equipment

No equipment is needed in order to be able to collect stamps. However, the great majority of collectors choose to invest in a few essential items for the better display, preservation and inspection of their stamps. Below are some of the more commonly used pieces of stamp collecting equipment.

The easiest and cheapest method to store stamps is placing them in glassine envelopes and storing them in a box free from humidity, light, and heat. This obviously will be of no help when trying to go through the stamps for display or other purpose. Placing stamps in stamp albums helps in easy display of the stamp collection. Stamps can be displayed as per the wish of the collector, by country, topic, or even size, such that the ultimate display is pleasing to the eyes.

76px-Magnifying glass

Archival stockbook with clear plastic pockets for the stamps: one of the safest means of stamp storage

103px-Stamp hinges

Clockwise: hinge-mounted stamp, stamp about to be hinge-mounted, stamp damaged by a hinge, stamp hinges

Stamp tongs with rounded tips, to prevent damage from skin oils and rough handling

120px-Stamp album sleeve

The tools and items of collecting all fit neatly on a desk blotter.


Acquiring stamps

The starting point for many new collectors is to ask family and friends to save stamps from their incoming mail. Although the stamps received by major businesses, and those kept by elderly relatives, may be of international and historical interest, the stamps received from family members are often of the definitive sort. Definitives seem mundane but, considering their variety of colours, watermarks, paper differences, perforations and printing errors, they can fill many pages in a collection. Introducing either variety or specific focus to a collection can require the purchasing of stamps, either from a dealer or online. Large numbers of relatively recent stamps, often still attached to fragments or envelopes, may be obtained cheaply and easily. Rare and old stamps can also be easily obtained via similar channels, with costs extending far beyond the means of all but a tiny minority of collectors.

Duplicate stamps are the stamps that a collector already has, and are therefore not required to fill a gap in a collection. Duplicate stamps can be sold or traded, so they are an important medium of exchange among collectors.

Many stamp dealers sell their merchandise over the Internet. Others have neighborhood stamp shops, one of the best resources for beginning and intermediate collectors. Some dealers also jointly set up week-end stamp markets called “Bourses” that move around a region from week to week. They also meet collectors at regional exhibitions and stamp shows.


Collecting specialties

A complete worldwide collection would be enormous, running to thousands of volumes, and incredibly expensive to acquire; many consider that Count Ferrary‘s collection at the beginning of the 20th century was the most complete ever formed. So many collectors limit their scope, such as to particular countries, time periods, depicted subjects (called “topicals”) or types of stamps.

Some of the more popular collecting areas include:

  • Postage stamps– particular countries and/or time periods
    • Definitive stamps – the most common type of stamps
    • Commemorative stamps – stamps to commemorate events, anniversaries etc., on sale for a limited time. Commemorative stamps are available at a stamp dealer.
    • Pictorials – stamps printed with images of a country’s scenery or lifestyle.
    • Revenue stamps – stamps issued to pay tax in small amounts. Some early stamps had Postage and Revenue printed on them, to indicate that they were acceptable for both uses.
  • Postal stationery – includes government-issued post cards, aerograms, air letter sheets, etc.; interestingly, the earliest postal stationery predates the earliest stamps- the Kingdom of Sardinia issued the first postal letter sheets in 1819.
  • Revenue stamps
  • Sheets
    • Sheetlets – this is a format that is now issued regularly by postal administrations. Instead of issuing stamps in large sheets of 40 or more stamps, smaller sheetlets with 16 or 20 stamps are issued with a large selvage area which may incorporate part of the stamp design or theme.
    • Miniature sheet – is very similar to Souvenir sheet, it will be in a form of a sheetlet with a single or a number of stamps embedded in it.
    • Souvenir sheets – the many postal services sometimes release stamps in a format that look like a sheet with a big picture. Various parts of the picture can be torn out and used as postage stamps. See example with 10 stamps in one picture. (Souvenir sheets should be distinguished from souvenir cards, which are souvenirs of a philatelic meeting or exhibition but are not valid for postage.)
    • Corner blocks – composes a block of stamps from one of the four corners of the stamp sheet. Collectors usually opt for a block of four stamps, complete with the selvage area which will sometimes have the printing details on it.
  • Postage due stamps/labels
  • Federal Duck stamps (stamps for duck hunting licenses, mainly U.S. with some other countries such as Canada and New Zealand)
  • First day covers – (FDCs) – envelopes with stamps attached and canceled on the first day that the stamp was issued. Most modern FDCs bear designs, called “cachets” related to the theme of the stamp issued.
  • PHQ Cards, these cards are pictorial postcards, issued by the British Post Office {Royal Mail}, each card shows an enlarged colour reproduction of a commemorative stamp.
  • First Day Ceremony Programs – these are folders or brochures given out to attendees of the First Day Ceremonies of postage stamps, with historical information on the stamp, a list of speakers, and an attached stamp, canceled on the First Day of Issue. Collectors of “FDCPs” generally prefer their programs autographed by those who spoke at the ceremony.
  • souvenir pages – with first day cancelled stamps on a page describing all design, printing and issuing details. This is similar to first day covers except that it is done on a printed sheet of paper instead of an envelope, and the specification of the stamp is printed by the official source. See picture of first souvenir page in the US.
  • Topical – many collectors choose to organize their philatelic collection on the theme of the stamps, covers, or postmarks. Popular topical themes are [[animals, dogs, cats, butterflies, birds, flowers, art, sports, Olympics, maps, Disney, scouting, space, ships, Americana (topics relating to the US), stamps on stamps, famous people, chess, Chinese new year, and many others.
  • Philatelic literature
  • Cinderellas – stamp-like labels that are not valid for postage
  • Government issued material associated with postage stamps (e.g., envelopes)
  • stamp-like labels
  • non-stamp items picturing actual postage stamps
  • non-stamp items picturing stamp-like labels
  • counterfeit/forged postage stamps (Before purchasing a rare and valuable stamp for which there is any doubt as to authenticity, it is always advisable to obtain an expert’s certificate stating that the stamp is authentic. The most prominent stamp expertising organizations in the U.S. are the Philatelic Foundation and the American Philatelic Society.) There are several types of collectible faked postage stamps:
    • postal counterfeits are produced by criminals for fraudulent use as postage stamps; frequently, these are scarcer than the stamps which they were intended to represent in part because counterfeits are subject to government seizure and selling them may be illegal
    • forgeries of rare stamps
    • reprints are produced by government printing offices or private organizations using the plates used to produce the original stamps; stamp catalogues often contain information on how to distinguish reprints from the originals
    • faked stamps are common stamps which have been altered to resemble rare stamps; examples of such “fakery” include forged overprints, forged cancellations, chemical alterations of a stamp’s color, added perforations.
  • postmarks or postal markingsin general
    • stampless covers – not all postal markings are associated with postage stamps. Prior to the issuance of postage stamps, postmarks were applied to letters at the location where they entered the mails. The markings were either in manuscript or, at larger post offices, were made with handstamps. Many of these handstamps resemble those in use today (a circle containing the location and date of posting). Typically, the amount of postage was written in the upper right hand corner of the letter or package and the word “Paid” added to the amount if the postage was prepaid. However, a majority of letters and packages were sent without prepayment and the recipient was expected to pay the amount written on the letter or package.



A booth at the show THAIPEX 2005 in Thailand.

A booth at the show THAIPEX 2005 in Thailand.

There are thousands of organizations for collectors, ranging from local stamp clubs, to special-interest groups, to national organizations. Most nations of the world have a national collectors’ organization of some sort; the American Philatelic Society in the United States is an example. The Internet has greatly expanded the availability of stamp collecting information and has also made it easier for starting and intermediate stamp collectors to obtain stamps, covers and other philatelic material.

Stamp clubs and philatelic societies can add a social aspect to the experience of stamp collecting, and provide a forum where novices may associate with more experienced collectors. Despite such organizations often being advertised in stamp magazines and online, the relatively small number of collectors in society at large – especially outside of urban areas – means that a stamp club may be difficult to set up and sustain. The Internet has provided a partial solution to this problem, as the association of collectors online is not limited by geographical distance. For this reason, many highly-specific stamp clubs have been established on the web, with international membership.[1] It is debatable whether the social, real-time contact of a stamp club is comparable with the textual and photographic communication of online organizations, or whether the development of the latter constitutes ‘progress‘. Organizations such as the Cinderella Stamp Club (UK) retain hundreds of members interested in a specific aspect of collecting. Social organizations, such as the Lion’s Club and Rotary International, have also formed stamp collecting groups specific to those stamps that are issued from 100’s of countries worldwide that bear their organization’s logo.An example of one American stamp show that has been operating for almost 60-years is the Rocky Mountain Stamp Show in Denver. This is a further example of a type of stamp show called World Series of Philately whereby the winners of top honors in one show can compete at other shows around the country and the grand winner then moves on to compete internationally.


Rare stamps

Rare stamps can be found in nearly all of the postage systems in the world, and are often over a century old. Two of the best known rare American stamps are the “Inverted Jenny” (which is actually a printing error) and the “1-cent Z grill” stamp.

Just two 1-cent Z grill stamps exist, and only one is available to stamp collectors. The other is in the collection of the New York Public Library. Both of them are now on public exhibition at the Smithsonian’s National Postal Museum in Washington, D.C. (through October 1, 2007).

Other rare and famous stamps include the Treskilling Yellow, Penny Black, Mauritius “Post Office” stamps, British Guiana 1c magenta, and many others.



Stamp catalogues are the primary tool used by serious collectors to organize their collections, and for the identification and valuation of stamps. Most stamp shops have stamp catalogues available for purchase. There are hundreds of different catalogues, most specialized to particular countries or periods. Several major catalogues have worldwide coverage:

Other catalogues focus on individual countries or regions, or specialized types of stamps:

  • ACS Colour Catalogue – this 2007 30th edition catalogue is published by Auckland City Stamps, Auckland, NZ, covers New Zealand stamps issued from 1855 to 2007. It is also available in an online edition. [1]
  • Australasian Stamp Catalogue – a single volume basic catalogue for Australia and its territories published by Seven Seas Stamps
  • Australian Commonwealth Specialists’ Catalogue – a nine volume specialist catalogue published by Brusden White
  • Campbell Paterson’s Catalogue of New Zealand Stamps
  • Darnell Stamps of Canada Catalogue
  • Phila India Guide Book – this 2005 13th edition full colour catalogue published by Phila India, Kolkata, India, covers Indian stamps issued from 1800 to 2004. It does not cover the Princely states. [2][3]
  • Unitrade Specialized Catalogue of Canadian Stamps
  • State Revenue Stamps Catalog, published by the State Revenue Society, and edited by Scott Troutman

Additionally, certain organizations, namely Lion’s Club and Rotary International (Rotary-on Stamps), have had such pervasive influence and exposure in many countries that countries have issued stamps bearing the logos of the respective organizations. For instance, Rotary International’s Rotary-on-Stamps can be found issued from hundreds of countries with key collectibles from countries such as Austria, Korea and Cuba, dating as far back as the 1930’s.


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