Introduction to Stamp Collecting

Major Stamp Categories

By Jim Watson

There are several broad approaches which collectors follow. A good way to start is to be a general collector interested in all stamps. This approach gives people a chance to enjoy many stamps while they are developing their individual approaches.

Typically, collectors seek to acquire and to learn about all the relevant items needed to meet their established objective. The objective can be expressed as simply as, "My collection is to include all U.S. commemoratives* in fine, used condition." In the case of a worldwide general collection, completion is an impossible task for almost everyone. Therefore, shortly after starting, collectors will restrict their objectives. For example, they might limit their goals to one country or group of countries, such as Chile or the British Colonies. Even these limits provide a challenge to most people's time and resources. This leads to specialization in the stamps of just one country or just one country for the reign of one monarch. There are also many single issues or single stamps that can provide the basis for an absorbing study and worthwhile collection. Thus, specialization is the likely end result of general collecting.

Another approach is to collect all the stamps that have similar subjects. This form of collecting is called topical or thematic collecting. It is very popular, and most collectors have a collection of some sort that is topically based. Collectors choose subjects which interest them, such as their pets, their work, or their hobbies. Almost any topic can be chosen which will link items together. One of the most rewarding aspects of this form of collection is that collectors get to tell a story using the stamps in their collection. For example, a collector might choose to assemble a collection of Nobel Prize winners who have appeared on stamps. In this case, the stamps would likely be mounted alongside text describing the winners' achievements. Topical collectors have many interesting pages that are worth studying.

Postal history is another absorbing field for stamp collectors. It emphasizes the history of the postal system. Postal markings and complete covers (envelopes with stamps and postal markings) are sought to tell a story of how the mail was delivered or processed at some place and time. Postal history collectors may search for the different machine cancels, routing marks, town cancels from a particular state, and markings that indicate how the mail was handled. Collectors often pursue covers with letters of historic interest or covers cancelled at the time and place where an historical event occurred.

First Day Covers (FDC) provide an interesting avenue of collecting. These are envelopes that have a stamp and cancellation indicating the First Day of Issue. FDC collecting is more widespread in the U.S. than in other countries. For several decades, such covers have been imprinted with an appropriate illustration on the left portion of the envelope. The illustration is called a cachet.

U.S. first day covers have been found for issues as early as 1851. The early covers were the result of a lucky find of a cancel that just happened to be on the first day the stamp was issued. Active pursuit of first day covers broadened in the 1920s. FDC collecting got a boost when the U.S. Post Office began the practice of designating a particular city for the official First Day of Issue. The first stamp for which this was done was the 2 Pilgrim Tercentenary of 1920.

Early first day covers had no particular markings and, most often, no cachet. Often they were the result of someone mailing a request to the postmaster of a designated city, requesting that an enclosed cover be stamped, canceled, and forwarded. As time went on, first day ceremonies became bigger and bigger, and the covers became more and more professional. There are many different cachet publishers whose wares appeal to collectors. Collectors pursue matched sets of the cachets produced by their favorite publisher.

EFOs are another stamp collecting interest. EFO stands for Error, Freak and Oddity stamps. As the words connote, these are stamps that are the result of some printing or perforation error.

Other categories of stamps are also collectible. In addition to postage stamps, both regular and airmail, special purpose stamps such as special delivery, postage due, parcel post, official, and revenues are also valued by collectors. In addition to these stamps issued by the government, there are local stamps issued by private mail carriers. The U.S. Specialized Catalogue also lists the Christmas seals issued by the Red Cross. Cinderella stamps are also of interest to some collectors. Cinderella's are adhesive labels in the form of small posters which cannot be used to prepay postal service. Charity labels are probably the largest category of such items.

* Words in red are defined in the Glossary section - see link under Outline at right.



A Brief History
Why People Collect Stamps
Major Stamp Categories
Factors Influencing Value
Tips for Finding and Buying
Tips for Listing and Selling
Displaying or Storing
Stamp Collecting Tools
Caring for Stamps
Insuring Your Collection
Books and Other Sources
Building a Collection
Describing Stamp Condition
I Have This Stamp Collection...
Appendix I: Tips for Finding
   and Buying Stamps on eBay

Appendix II: Tips for Listing
   and Selling Stamps on eBay

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