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Stamp Collecting: The History and Evolution of the World's Greatest Hobby

Peter has collected stamps since he was six years old and is still at it. These days, he is also a part-time stamp trader online.

How Did Stamps Come About?


Those little pieces of paper you put on letters to show that you've prepaid the fee for getting a piece of mail from the sender to the recipient also happen to be the world's most popular collectible!

So how did the idea of stamps come about, in the first place?

The very first postage stamp was issued by Great Britain in 1840. Until then, the idea of a standardized "label" to represent pre-paid postage had been out of the question. After all, carrying a letter—especially over long distances, or between countries-- had been a long and involved accounting matter, requiring careful record keeping of the individual payments to everyone who handled the letter along its route. Mail rates were based on distance and the amount of payment demanded by each person handling the letter or parcel.

Uniform Penny Post was the brainchild of British postal reformer Sir Rowland Hill. Hill's studies of the mail handling system in the 1830s showed that distance had little to do with the effective cost of getting letters to their destination—the cost was in the many different hand-offs and inefficient non-standard payment amounts. Uniform Penny Postage was based on the weight of what was being mailed, and under this revolutionary new system, a letter could be sent anywhere in Britain for the same one penny rate. As a result, the volume of letters sent exploded!

The "Penny Black," world's first postage stamp

The "Penny Black," world's first postage stamp

The Earliest Days of Postage Stamps

The world's first adhesive postage stamp was the "Penny Black" (pictured at right) issued in England, featuring a portrait of the (then) young Queen Victoria. These early stamps had to be separated with scissors-- the idea of "perforations" to help people separate stamps did not come about till some years later.

It was not long before other countries adopted similar "uniform postage" systems of their own. By the 1870s, most nations were issuing stamps. The first United States stamps were issued on July 1st, 1847, in denominations of 5 and 10 cents. For a while-- 1860-64-- the US actually had two stamp-issuing bodies, as the "Confederate States" introduced their own postal system.

Most early stamps followed the British example with individual stamps needing to be cut from the printed sheets with scissors. As the volume of mail skyrocketed, this quickly proved cumbersome and time-consuming, so the printed sheets were "perforated" between each stamp so they could more easily and accurately be separated from each other.

The initial uniform postage systems addressed only the issue of standardizing rates for letters inside a country's borders. However, when the Universal Postal Union (or UPU, for short) was created in 1874, the process for international postage was also simplified greatly—as a result of which the volume of international mail increased greatly.

Who Owns the World's First Stamp?

For some stamp collectors, owning a copy of the famous "Penny Black" is a bit like the Holy Grail. They simply must have one, even if they don't collect British stamps.

On the other hand, this iconic stamp is also owned by thousands of people who don't collect stamps, simply as a curiosity, or owing to the broad appeal of owning "the world's first" of something.

An interesting feature of the Penny Black is the letters in the bottom corners, originally placed there for security purposes, to prevent counterfeiting. They indicate the row and column placement in the printed sheet of stamps. Collectors and non-collectors alike sometimes strive to find a copy of this stamp with letters to match their initials-- quite a challenge!

The Penny Black is neither the world's rarest nor the most expensive stamp. Millions were printed, and even at 175 years old, thousands survive. Examples in reasonably nice used condition can often be found on eBay for US $200.00 or less. However, those who must have an unused (or "mint") example can expect to spend thousands of dollars.

An early US 3c stamp

An early US 3c stamp

The Origins of Stamp Collecting

It seems to be part of human nature to want to "collect things."

And so, it was not long after stamps were introduced before the first stamp collectors came along. Stamp collecting is also known as "Philately;" stamp collectors as "Philatelists."

So, how did that word come about? It is generally attributed to the French stamp collector Georges Herpin, and is allegedly derived from Greek: Phil- meaning "loving; to love;" -telos meaning "tax" joined by the Greek preposition "a-," meaning "without." Hence, "Phil-a-telos" or Philately in English. Even if it sounds like a bit of a stretch, the name has stuck around for over 150 years and remains a tip of the hat to the original function of stamps, namely to pre-pay the "tax" for carrying a piece of mail.

Already by 1860, there were thousands of collectors, and "stamp dealers" began catering to their interests. British zoologist John Edward Gray is often cited as being the world's first stamp collector-- anecdotes suggest that he purchased a number of the "Penny Black" stamps on the day they came out, with the intent to "save them."

As the number of stamp collectors continued to grow, the first organizations for stamp collectors were also started. The Royal Philatelic Society of London, founded in 1869, is widely recognized as the oldest collector organization in the world.

Most countries have not only a national level organization for stamp collectors-- in the United States, it's the American Philatelic Society, or APS—but also numerous specialist federations along with stamp clubs down to the local or school level.

Stamps offer small glimpses into the cultural history of other nations.

Stamps offer small glimpses into the cultural history of other nations.

The Broad-Based Appeal of Stamp Collecting

Over the years, stamp collecting has earned many "titles."

Some have called it "The Hobby of Kings," based on the great number of rulers who have been stamp collectors. Sometimes it has been called "The World's Greatest Hobby," based not only on the huge number of collectors but also on the fact that stamp collecting is "accessible" to everyone from the poor to the wealthy-- after all, stamps have always been FREE when they come in the mail.

But what exactly is it that makes stamp collecting so appealing to so many?

Aside from the fact that it's easy and inexpensive to start, stamps are both beautiful and educational. Many-- especially some newer issues-- are miniature works of art. At the same time, different countries tend to design stamps that reflect their local culture and history, so they offer us tiny glimpses into the ways and traditions of different nations around the world.

My father got me into stamp collecting when I was six. He worked at a company that handled a lot of international trade, and thought that the colorful stamps from around the world would be an interesting "hands-on" way for me to learn about world history and geography. As of this writing, I have collected stamps for 46 years!

Stamps are also lightweight and very small, meaning you can "take the hobby with you," no matter where you go. And because new stamps are issued all the time, you never run out of things to collect.

Of course, stamps also appeal to some collectors because they can occasionally be quite valuable. Although the number of stamp collectors who "get rich" from their stamp collections are few and far between, the possibility always exists that you might find a "rarity" in an old inherited stamp album, or a box of stamps purchased at a flea market.

A US stamp from 1957, as stamp collecting was moving towards its peak of popularity

A US stamp from 1957, as stamp collecting was moving towards its peak of popularity

The Decline of the Stamp

During the 1950s, 1960s, and the first half of the 1970s, stamp collecting flourished and even boomed. The US Postal Service estimated that there were—at one time—at least 20 million stamp collectors in the United States alone-- almost 10% of the population of those days. But then a series of events conspired to send the hobby into a period of decline:

As more and more people got interested in collecting stamps, many older issues became increasingly difficult to obtain. After all, only so many examples of stamps no longer available from the post office existed-- and collectors were willing to pay ever-increasing sums for the stamps they needed for their collections. As prices rose, a new group of people-- who could be more appropriately described as "investors" than true "collectors"-- began buying stamps. This only served to fuel the steep rise in prices-- and between 1977 and 1980, the values of many stamps doubled (or more!) every year.

This amazing growth in prices and interest had another side effect: A number of small (and typically "cash poor") nations-- that previously had never issued more than a handful of new stamps per year-- started issuing hundreds of new stamps specifically "made for collectors." Whereas these stamps were fully "legal for postage," very few were ever used to carry a piece of mail-- to some long-time collectors, they were little more than labels, and soon earned the not-so-flattering nickname "wallpaper."

As often is the case, the meteoric growth was "too good to be true," and the speculative bubble burst when many of the people who had bought stamps "to make money" decided that it was time to sell and take their profits. Alas, there were simply not enough buyers, so prices tumbled. Although billions of dollars changed hands, most people ended up with a financial loss, and many publicly labeled stamp collecting as "a rip-off," even though it was their own greed that caused the problems, in the first place.

Stamp collecting suffered a serious setback because not only did the "investors" leave, but many "old time" stamp collectors had already left the hobby in disgust because stamps had become "too commercialized" and they could no longer afford to collect.

The stamp market "crash" occurred just before something radically new happened to the way we communicate: Email. At a time when it had already lost considerable popularity, stamp collecting faced a new crisis as talk increased that "mail" and "using stamps" would soon end, as a result of which stamp collecting would become a "dead" hobby. Perhaps these fears were excessive, but they cast a long dark shadow over the general appeal and popularity of the hobby.

The march of technology had another impact, as well. Stamp collecting mostly depended on it's "new blood" to come from childhood and youth collectors. With the advent of computer games and the online environment, stamp collecting held appeal to fewer and fewer young people; stamp clubs at schools were soon replaced by computer clubs. Sadly, stamp collecting started developing a bit of an "image problem," as being something only for uncool nerds and grumpy old men.

An older stamp from Switzerland, showing the "low tech" way changes in postal rates were sometimes handled

An older stamp from Switzerland, showing the "low tech" way changes in postal rates were sometimes handled

Welcome to the 21st Century: Stamp Collecting Reborn

Even though contemporary world culture keeps getting more and more technology based, and email and text messages have replaced most correspondence, there has been a significant "re-birth" of interest in stamp collecting since about 2005.

There are a number of possible explanations for this upward trend.

Just like technology was once "super interesting," the idea of "non-technology" is enjoying increasing popularity, even among younger people. Part of this has to do with the generations currently growing up and coming of age perceiving old things as "retro" or "nostalgic" (cool) rather than simply "old-fashioned" or "outdated" (uncool). In addition, a substantial number of former childhood collectors from the "Baby Boomer" generation-- many of whom relegated their stamp collections to "a box in the attic" during the late 60's, 70's and early 80's-- have now become "empty nesters" and are digging out their stamp collections with renewed interest in getting back into the hobby.

And even as technology continues to grow, there has also been a bit of a rebirth in the popularity of actual letter writing-- by hand. Oddly enough, the Internet has helped-- rather than hindered-- this trend, as "pen pal" web sites have sprung up in considerable numbers, and postcard exchange sites like Post Crossing have made it possible for people to connect and send each other millions of pieces of hand written mail-- something those who feared email would kill stamp collecting never foresaw.

Technology has also helped bring the world closer together. As new markets in developing parts of Africa and Asia have become more open and accessible, there has been explosive growth in the popularity of stamp collecting in places like India and the Republic of China. The demand for stamps and stamp collecting supplies from these "new economies" is also helping to fuel a growing interest in collecting, in other parts of the world.

These newer butterfly stamps from Sweden are typical of the new approach of "thematic" or "topical" stamp collecting

These newer butterfly stamps from Sweden are typical of the new approach of "thematic" or "topical" stamp collecting

How to Begin Stamp Collecting in the Age of Technology

Modern stamp collecting looks a little different from "old time" stamp collecting, but still follows the same basic principles. Of course, modern stamps also look a little different from their classic era counterparts.

There are still those who collect stamps the "old fashioned" way: They pick a country, and try to collect one of each stamp issued. There are still "serious specialists" who pore over hundreds of examples of 19th century stamps, looking for tiny variations.

However, the majority of new stamp collectors are a reflection of the stamps being issued around the world-- right now. Modern printing techniques allow for a huge variety of designs, many of them quite colorful, like the butterfly stamps from Sweden, pictured at right. Gone are the days when "new stamps" meant yet another version of a portrait of the current monarch or statesman.

Perhaps the most popular approach in the 21st century is what's known as "thematic" or "topical" collecting. Instead of choosing "a country," you choose a "theme" or "topic" for your collection, like "butterflies on stamps" or "space exploration on stamps." Since most stamps with such designs have been issued since 1950, forming such collections can be relatively inexpensive, while still offering thousands of possible stamps.

Access to stamps is easier than ever, in large part thanks to the Internet. Certainly, many collections are still started simply by collecting stamps from correspondence and office mail-- but thanks to web sites like eBay, collectors can now buy and sell stamps with the click of a mouse-- acquiring new items from every corner of the globe. On any given day, the three largest online auction sites that sell stamps-- eBay, BidStart and Belgium-based Delcampe-- have more than twenty million collectible stamps available to buy, with prices ranging from a few cents to tens of thousands of dollars!

Stamp Collecting Is a Hobby for Everyone

Stamp collecting today is truly a hobby for everyone.

Once fairly male-dominated, the "new" stamp collector of 2012 and beyond is almost as likely to be female as male. Although the US lags a bit behind other parts of the world in this respect, many younger collectors are discovering philately-- along with "new ways" to collect. Modern technology is helping create stamps the like of which we'd never imagined, in days gone by: Swiss stamps that smell like chocolate; stamps with holograms; even "fold out" stamps like miniature pop-up books.

In many ways, the hobby has returned to its "roots:" The investors are largely gone, and have been replaced by people who are simply collecting stamps "for the fun of it." If you've ever considered collecting stamps-- or used to, and abandoned your collection-- there has never been a better time to get involved!

Talk Back! Are you a stamp collector? Did you used to be one, perhaps as a child? Have you considered starting (or re-starting) a collection? Leave a comment!

Ronnie Weeks on March 30, 2020:

I used to be a stamp collector as a child and I'm still considering about restarting a collection.

William L Barclay on December 01, 2019:

Great article. Thanks

Blackspaniel1 on March 21, 2015:

This could be a great hobby, but I am in a humid climate. I would be afraid thing would stick together. So, as long as I am in humidity I shall stick to coins. Nice hub,

BenM56 on February 05, 2014:

If you didn't buy good quality or mint stamps 1976, then the prices are still down. Got a current catalog from a major stamp seller and just about crapped my pants when I saw the prices had gotten that low for most. Cheaper to buy some now then 20-30 years ago.

Aurelio Locsin from Orange County, CA on December 23, 2012:

I was actually a stamp collector for a time during my early years. I kept all my stamps, which would make some of them over 40 years old. Maybe I need to check and see if there are any rarities among them. Voting this Up and Interesting.

Peter Messerschmidt (author) from Port Townsend on November 06, 2012:

@Eva: Thanks for commenting! How very cool that you have a whole stamp collecting family-- there were quite a few collectors in mine, as well.

@George Pepall: Thanks for the suggestion-- I will add something to that effect, to my next revision.

George Pepall on November 06, 2012:

Nicely done! You write very well, with an easy style that anyone will find comfortable. Suggestion: you might consider making more of a distinction between stamp collecting and philately, which is the exhibition and formal study of stamps and postal history, beyond the saving and accumulating.

Eva on November 05, 2012:

This is a great page! My daughter (age 10) is putting together a similar page on Squidoo but she has only just begun. We are avid philatelists ourselves ... my kiddos have exhibited in numerous shows. My main interest is in Norwegian stamps. My son is most interested in the Danish company, Maersk. My daughter is into owls and Harry Potter. :)